U.S. Kindergarten Study Sheds Light on Retention, Delayed Entry

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Starting kindergarten late neither helps nor harms a student much in the short run. But students who have to repeat their kindergarten year may well fare worse than their classmates in 1st and 2nd grades.

These conclusions from a study by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics shed new light on two frequently debated questions: Should struggling students be held back a year? And should parents be allowed to put off for a year enrolling their children in kindergarten to give them a competitive edge?

The first question has become a politically hot one as educators and politicians, including President Clinton, have criticized schools for promoting students for "social" rather than for academic reasons. ("Promote or Retain? Pendulum for Students Swings Back Again," June 11, 1997.)

That practice grew out of research showing, for the most part, that students who were overage for their grades tended to drop out at higher rates and have more behavior problems than other students.

Debate over the second issue has come as a few districts have reported seeing growing numbers of families elect to wait a year before enrolling their children in kindergarten.

Parent Interviews

Nationwide, the report released last month shows, 9 percent of 1st and 2nd graders may have started school late. The percentage of students in those grades who repeated kindergarten is about half that.

For More Information

Free single copies of "The Elementary School Performance and Adjustment of Children Who Enter Kindergarten Late or Repeat Kindergarten," are available from the National Library of Education at (800) 424-1616; fax (202) 219-1696.

The study is based on interviews with parents of two groups of 1st and 2nd graders. The first group comprised 3,000 students who were in either 1st or 2nd grade in 1993; the second group of 4,260 children were enrolled in either of those grades in 1995.

Parents were asked how their children's schoolwork compared with that of classmates and whether a teacher or other school staff member had reported that the child was having behavior problems or academic difficulties that school year.

In the 1993 group, children who had delayed entering kindergarten were less likely than their classmates to have gotten negative reports from teachers. In the 1995 group, late-starting students were less likely than other students to have repeated a grade, the report found.

But when the researchers adjusted the numbers to account for social and economic differences among students and to screen out students who had been diagnosed with developmental delays, the delayed-entry students appeared to be doing no better than other 1st and 2nd graders.

Parents often claim their children need extra time to mature socially, but critics contend that some of those parents are acting out of a desire to give their children an academic or athletic edge over their classmates.

Nicholas Zill, the co-author of the new study, said the findings should make educators think twice about allowing that practice to continue. "Many of those children are not greatly disadvantaged, and they set a standard that puts other children at a disadvantage," said Mr. Zill, who is also the director of child and family studies for Westat Inc., a Rockville, Md.-based research company.

But since the findings also show that children are not hurt by their late starts, the study can also be interpreted to lend some support to parents who fear their socially immature children will otherwise fail in overly rigid kindergarten programs.

Failing Kindergarten

The study also found that being male and white, having a birthday late in the year, and having been diagnosed by a doctor as developmentally delayed increased the likelihood that a student would sit out kindergarten. Having college-educated parents--a factor linked in some other studies to delayed kindergarten entry--increased the odds that a student would start kindergarten late in 1993, but not in 1995.

In comparison, the survey findings on the effects of being retained in kindergarten were more ambiguous. In both years, 1st and 2nd graders who had been held back as kindergartners were getting more negative feedback from teachers and having more behavior problems than their classmates.

But after the researchers controlled for socioeconomic and developmental differences, only the children in the 1993 group were still worse off than other children in their grades.

"There is no indication in the findings of either survey that requiring the children to repeat kindergarten or attend a transitional class has had a beneficial effect on their school performance," the report says. But what is difficult to know, Mr. Zill added, is whether those students' problems were more serious from the start.

Lorrie A. Shepard, the interim dean of the school of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the study's findings are fairly consistent with other research on grade retention and starting kindergarten late.

Previous studies linking retention to more-negative outcomes, such as higher dropout rates, have focused on older students. Ms. Shepard's own review of studies focusing on holding students back in kindergarten suggest that the practice has little or no academic effect in the short run. ("Trouble Ahead for Older Students, Study Finds," Oct. 15, 1997.)

"The reason I think it's different is that the reasons kids are retained in kindergarten are different in 1st grade," she said. "Immaturity is the most frequently cited reason in kindergarten, versus academic failure for the other grades."

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