Early Childhood

Delaying Child’s Starting Age for School a Tough Call for Parents

By Christina A. Samuels — August 29, 2017 6 min read
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To start kindergarten, or not to start kindergarten?

Many parents wrestle with that question if their children are turning 5 years old close to when the new school year starts. And new research suggesting that older kindergartners have an edge over their younger classmates has the potential to add more fuel to an already complex debate.

In most states, children must be 5 years old by late summer or fall in order to enroll in kindergarten. For children whose birthdays fall right around a state’s cutoff date, that means starting school as a newly-minted 5-year-old—or even as a 4-year-old. Children born after the cutoff, on the other hand, would start kindergarten at nearly 6.

Borrowing a term and a practice from college athletics, some parents—about 7 percent of boys and 5 percent of girls in fall 2010, according to previous research—are choosing to “redshirt” their children. The practice is more prevalent among the summer-born boys of college-educated parents; while the same research shows that 12 percent of this group was held back overall, college-educated parents held their boys back at a rate of about 20 percent.

Kindergarten and School Starting Ages

All states offer kindergarten, and 19 of those states require that children turn 5 years old by Sept. 1 to enroll. However, kindergarten attendance is not required in most states. In 42 states, compulsory school attendance starts at age 6 or later.

StateKindergarten entrance age (the date by which a student must be 5 years old in order to attend kindergarten)Compulsory school age (the age at which a child is required to attend school)
AlabamaSept. 1Age 6
AlaskaSept. 1Age 7
ArizonaAug. 31Age 6
ArkansasAug. 1Age 5
CaliforniaSept. 1Age 6
ColoradoOct. 1Age 6 on or before Aug. 1
ConnecticutJan. 1 (of the school year)Age 5
DelawareAug. 31Age 5
District of ColumbiaSept. 30Age 5
FloridaSept. 1Age 6
GeorgiaSept. 1Age 6
HawaiiJuly 31Age 6 by Jan. 1
IdahoSept. 1Age 7 by the first day of school
IllinoisSept. 1Age 6 on or before Sept. 1
IndianaAug. 1Age 7
IowaSept. 15Age 6 by Sept. 15
KansasAug. 31Age 7
KentuckyAug. 1Age 6 by Aug. 1
LouisianaSept. 30Age 7
MaineOct. 15Age 7
MarylandSept. 1Age 5
MassachusettsDistrict decisionAge 6
MichiganOct. 1Age 6 by Dec. 1
MinnesotaSept. 1Age 7
MississippiSept. 1Age 6 by Sept. 1
MissouriJuly 31Age 7
MontanaSept. 10Age 7
NebraskaJuly 31Age 6 by Jan. 1
NevadaSept. 30Age 7
New HampshireDistrict decisionAge 6
New JerseyDistrict decisionAge 6
New MexicoAug. 31Age 5 by Sept. 1
New YorkDistrict decisionAge 6
North CarolinaAug. 31Age 7
North DakotaJuly 31Age 7
OhioDistrict decisionAge 6
OklahomaSept. 1Age 5
OregonSept. 1Age 6
PennsylvaniaDistrict decisionAge 8
Rhode IslandSept. 1Age 6
South CarolinaSept. 1Age 5
South DakotaSept. 1Age 6
TennesseeAug. 15Age 6
TexasSept. 1Age 6
UtahSept. 1Age 6
VermontDistrict decisionAge 6
VirginiaSept. 30Age 5
WashingtonAug. 31Age 8
West VirginiaSept. 1Age 6
WisconsinSept. 1Age 6
WyomingSept. 15Age 7

Source: Education Commission of the States

The new research on kindergartners, published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit organization, found that children who are older when they start kindergarten have a measurable advantage compared to their younger classmates over the long term. They have higher test scores later in their academic careers, are more likely to attend college, and are less likely to spend time in the juvenile justice system.

But there’s a danger in trying to fit an individual child into a statistical analysis, one of the study’s authors cautions.

Krzysztof Karbownik, a postdoctoral research fellow at Northwestern University, said the study, which has yet to go through peer review, should not be taken as a green light to hold a child out of school for a year.

“On average, it is the case that August-born children are going to do slightly worse than September-born children,” Karbownik said, but that’s not a reason to hold back an otherwise prepared child for a perceived edge. To do so “has real costs to them,” Karbownik said.

Cutoff Dates

The researchers looked at children in Florida, which has a robust data set on its students and a Sept. 1 cutoff date for children to enroll in kindergarten. The researchers compared children who were born in August and therefore are newly turned 5 when school starts, to children who were born in September and start school when they are almost 6. The study focused only on children who were “naturally” old for the grade or young for the grade; children who were held out of school for a year were not a part of the overall analysis.

The difference in test scores between these “young” 5-year-olds and “old” 5-year-olds was about two-tenths of a standard deviation. That’s equivalent to about 40 SAT points on a 1600-point scale, the researchers said, or about the same as the difference in one-year learning gains between having a very strong teacher as opposed to an average one, according to a 2010 study on teacher effectiveness.

This difference held true even when the researchers took a look at siblings who were born in August compared to September, and it was also the same regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status or school quality.

In the National Bureau of Economics Research paper, the researchers also used data in a large, unnamed Florida county to analyze longer-term effects. In contrast to some other studies, this analysis found that the impact of being older-for-grade does not fade out over time. For example, September-born children—those who are old-for-grade—are 2.1 percent more likely to attend college compared to their August-born classmates, 3.3 percent more likely to graduate from college, and 7.2 percent more likely to graduate from a competitive or selective college.

They are also 15.4 percent less likely to be incarcerated for juvenile crime before their 16th birthday. These longer-run outcomes appear to be stronger among white children than black and Hispanic children, the researchers found.

The researchers also compared children in Florida counties where many students are redshirted and in counties in the state where retention in early grades is common.

Redshirting is far more common among higher-income families, and grade retention is more common among children whose parents are low-income.

But the county analysis suggests that children from lower-income families who are redshirted benefit more from the practice, even though it is rare among that group. Children from well-off families benefitted more from being held back than children from poor families.

David Figlio, another study author and the incoming dean of Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, cautioned against drawing strong conclusions from that part of the study. But he said the findings do merit additional research to see if they hold true.

Raising Cautions

But if this information shouldn’t be used to drive a parent to hold their child back one year, what should parents do?

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, wrote an article for the magazine Education Next earlier this year arguing that redshirting should not become a normal practice. The recent paper does not change her view, she said.

“My kindergartner is young for grade, so this is a topic that I’m super into for lots of reasons, and not just for research,” Schanzenbach said.

Parents have to think about their own child’s needs, she said. For example, her daughter thrives on striving to do the same things as her older siblings. Going to school with children who are a few months older will give her peers to look up to. Children with a similar personality might be bored if they are surrounded with younger classmates, she said.

Schanzenbach’s paper also estimated the labor market effects of holding a child back one year, saying that a college-educated male who retires at 67 could lose out on $80,000 in earnings. And her article cited other studies of redshirting that have found the benefits to holding a child back are small and lessen over time.

Schanzenbach said she understands that parents are filled with anxiety over when to have their children start school—she said she has received more responses to that article than to anything else she has written. Still, 4 out of 5 summer-born boys with college-educated parents are starting school on time, Schanzenbach notes.

“They’re going to be OK,” Schanzenbach said. “That’s my mantra. You know your kid best. Do what you think is in his or her best interest regarding redshirting, and it’s going to be OK.”

That’s what Lea Ann Stundins, a Dallas mother, believes.

When her summer-born son Quinn was about to start kindergarten, she hesitated for a moment about whether she should send him to school on time. She had no doubt he could handle the academics. But her son was tiny, and she said that in Dallas, holding back boys born in the summer or fall for a year before kindergarten is common.

But despite those brief misgivings, she sent Quinn to school on time, as she did with her gregarious younger son, Luka, who also has a summer birthday. With Quinn now a 20-year-old college student at Columbia University, and Luka, 11, a rising 6th grader, she said her choices worked out well for her family.

“There’s too much doing what everyone else is doing, and comparing your kid to other kids,” Stundins said. “You really just have to look at your own kid.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Delayed Start to School Tough Call for Parents


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