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Cutoff Date for Kindergarten Again Debated

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For early-childhood educators, it's a perennial issue--one that many of them are tired of discussing. Just how old should children be when they enter kindergarten?

This year, the question is being debated in California, where Assemblyman George Runner Jr. wants to give children with late birthdays more time to prepare for school by moving up the date by which new kindergartners must turn 5 years old from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.

But California education officials say that Mr. Runner is missing the point, especially when attendance in the state's half-day kindergarten program is voluntary.

"One question that no one is bringing up is, what are our expectations [of kindergarten]? That policy debate hasn't occurred," said Sherry Griffith, a legislative representative for the state education department. Kindergarten "is not a pass-fail experience. It has been identified as school readiness."

Before Mr. Runner, a Republican, even raised the issue, state education officials had created a task force to examine the readiness issue. Since the introduction of his bill, they've added the role of kindergarten and children's transition from preschool to public school as well. And legislators, who have delayed action on the bill to change the cutoff date until a review of the research is completed, will hold hearings in the fall.

In most states, children must celebrate their 5th birthday by September or October to start school that same fall. Some states, such as California, set the date as late as December or January. Indiana is at the other end of the spectrum, requiring incoming kindergartners to have turned 5 by June 1.

Just as the cutoff dates vary, so do the length and structure of the programs. In just 12 states and the District of Columbia, districts must provide full-day programs.

The rest either require half-day programs or allow districts to decide. In New Hampshire, for example, the state provides $500 per student for kindergarten--and Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen wants to double the amount--but many districts can't afford to come up with extra money of their own to pay the full cost of the programs. Parents in those towns are forced to pay for private kindergarten or keep their children out of school until 1st grade.

Attendance, however, is not always mandatory for 5-year-olds. The compulsory school age is 5 in only seven states and the District of Columbia.

In appearance, most kindergarten programs are not much different from what children experience if they attend preschool. Instead of rows of desks, there are large open areas to encourage movement. The classroom is usually arranged into activity areas, or centers, that include a variety of hands-on materials. Teachers and aides alternate between whole-group and small-group instruction.

Rather than focusing on isolated topics, lessons are usually presented as themes, with language, mathematics, and science woven together. Social skills, such as cooperating with others, are also emphasized.

'A Red Herring'

Many early-childhood experts say that altering the cutoff date for kindergartners' birthdays by a few months has little to do with how "ready" children will be for school.

"From our point of view, it's a red herring" issue, said Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children. "The bottom line is, you don't solve any problems that you think you are going to solve."

Because young children reach developmental milestones at different rates, any kindergarten class, no matter the cutoff, will exhibit a two-year range in ability, said Samuel J. Meisels, an education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"There is not an ideal starting time for school," he said. "But age of entry should not be a barrier to educational opportunity."

Even though James K. Uphoff, an education professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, agrees with those who say kindergarten programs should be improved to accommodate the range of children's developmental stages, he said he still believes setting the cutoff date earlier is wise.

"We can't afford to damage or even take the chance of damaging thousands of children while we leisurely work our way through a normal, orderly process of change," he said.

Mr. Uphoff's research shows that the youngest children in kindergarten are more likely to score low on achievement tests, need special education services, have discipline problems, and repeat a grade.

Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, agrees that younger students typically fall behind their older classmates. But she argues that the disparities are not that great--an average of seven to eight points on an achievement test. Her research also shows that any advantage children may gain by being older when they enter kindergarten fades by the 3rd grade.

New information from researchers at the University of Rochester in New York, however, seems to contradict her findings.

Dr. Michael L. Weitzman and colleagues in the department of pediatrics have found that academic and behavior problems can extend into the 6th grade for children who didn't turn 6 until after Jan. 1 of their 1st grade year.

Based on a nationally representative longitudinal survey of 948 children, the study also suggests that boys who enter school early are more likely than girls to have long-term problems.

Still a Youngest and Oldest

From a practical standpoint, some have advocated a common cutoff date for the whole nation to put an end to the debate for good.

The age issue also comes up often in Connecticut, where kindergartners don't have to turn 5 until Jan. 1.

"People just think that this [cutoff] somehow has some magic," said Kay Halverson, an education consultant for the Connecticut education department. "It makes me crazy when people say they want to change the month and they've got this sound reason for doing it. You're still going to have the youngest and the oldest."

Moving back the cutoff will also not eliminate academic "redshirting," the practice of holding children back in order to give them an edge later on.

"You are always going to have parents who want to keep kids out no matter what month it is," Ms. Halverson said.

In Indiana, early-childhood advocates are concerned that too many children are being denied the education experiences they need because the cutoff is so early. The Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children has been leading efforts to move the date from June 1 to Sept. 1, but has failed to make any progress in the state legislature.

Even though parents can petition their districts for early admittance, state education officials, who also oppose the current law, would like the cutoff moved later and the appeals process abolished.

"I hear from hundreds of parents a year about this," said Mary Beth Morgan, an education consultant with the Indiana education department. "On the surface it looks like a small issue, but it has a lot of ramifications."

One of those issues is child care. "Keeping kids out of kindergarten has an economic impact," Mr. Meisels said.

That impact would likely be felt in California if an earlier cutoff date for kindergarten were adopted. If the California bill became law, the parents of some 118,000 children would need to find an alternative program.

Child advocates contend that there is already a shortage of high-quality child care and early-education programs, particularly for low-income families. An influx of more 4- and 5-year-olds, they say, would only worsen the problem.

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