Published Online: October 15, 1997

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Trouble Ahead for Older Students, Study Finds

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Age matters. That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of a new study about delaying children's entry into school or retaining them in the same grade once they get there.

The study, published last week in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, could lend credence to educators who oppose holding children back. It could also give pause to parents who postpone enrolling their children in school in the hope of giving them an academic edge.

Because down the road, the study says, separating these children from others their own age may set them up for problems.

Researchers at the University of Rochester found that students who are older than their classmates because they started school late tend to have more behavioral problems in adolescence than students who are the average age for their grade.

"Parents want to keep kids out to give them a leg up on tests," said Dr. Robert S. Byrd, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester school of medicine in Rochester, N.Y. "But holding children out of school may not give them any advantage, and may cause problems."

Since the 1970s, the proportion of students who have delayed entering kindergarten has doubled, owing in part to holding children back to give them a competitive academic and social advantage, the report says. This and other trends, including a rise in the number of special education students who are allowed more time to complete high school, as well as immigrant students who may need more time to catch up on coursework, have contributed to an aging school population in the United States.

The percentage of 12th graders in U.S. public schools who are 19, 20, or 21 has nearly doubled in recent years, from 4 percent in 1984 to 7 percent in 1994. ("Older Students Make Presence Felt in Classes," Sept. 18, 1996.)

For the study, Dr. Byrd and his colleagues at Rochester General Hospital analyzed interviews with parents of more than 9,000 children, ages 7 to 17, collected for the federal National Health Interview Survey in 1988.

Of the 26 percent of children in that sample who were old for their grades relative to their peers, about half had been retained a year. The other half had been held back from entering school by their parents, or because a child's birthday fell near a school's cutoff date.

Conduct Unbecoming

The researchers found that students who repeated a year were more likely than their younger classmates to manifest behavioral problems, such as crying excessively, cheating, lying, and losing their tempers. In addition, the study found, students who started school later had more behavioral difficulties than average-age students, especially when they reached adolescence.

At age 17, 7 percent of the average-age students in the study exhibited extreme behavioral problems. In comparison, 16 percent of the students who started kindergarten late displayed similar inappropriate conduct, while 31 percent of the students who had failed a grade for academic reasons showed extreme behaviors, the researchers found.

"Early on, children who have been delayed look like normal age-for-grade kids, whereas when they reach adolescence, they look more like kids who've failed a grade," Dr. Byrd said.

No Social Promotion

In general, older students may exhibit improper behavior because separation from students their own age might make them feel self-conscious and stigmatized, the study says.

But just because students who are older than their peers may have more behavioral problems should not be an argument for promoting children who aren't academically ready to advance to the next grade, some education groups said last week. ("Promote or Retain? Pendulum for Students Swings Back Again," June 11, 1997.)

"To pass kids along when they can't read--to socially promote them--is an outrage," said Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers. The 950,000-member union published a national report last month that decried so-called social-promotion policies, but cautioned against conventional retention as well. ("AFT Report Assails Schools' Promotion, Retention Policies," Sept. 17, 1997.)

While overworked instructors rarely want to shoulder the unfinished work of another teacher, the question shouldn't be social promotion vs. retention, Ms. Rosenberg argued. "The issue is getting these kids the academic help they need in a timely way so they can turn things around," she said.

While education researchers found the study intriguing, they said it should come with some caveats. "This is an important study in that it reiterates the importance of early intervention," said Nancy Karweit, a research scientist at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, located at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

But Ms. Karweit said that because the Rochester study uses a decade-old survey, it may not accurately reflect current trends. More districts have halted the practice of retaining students in recent years, she said.

Ms. Karweit also noted that the study fails to distinguish between children who were held back from starting school by their parents to give them an academic boost and those who were retained by their kindergarten teachers because of learning disabilities, for example.

If this "early retention" were counted, Ms. Karweit said, it might shed more light on how problematic delaying a child's entry into school really is.

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