Held back to get ahead; Some say school success is a question of timing Critics warn delaying kindergarten doesn’t guarantee advantage

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Sarah Nelson, 4 years old and resplendent in a pink Barbie dress, has been asked to name all the animals she can.

“Zebra! Um … lamb! Pigs! And … crocodiles!”

Her eyes scan the room’s plain walls in search of inspiration. She sticks out her tongue, tilts her head and bites her lower lip.

“Dolphins. Whales! Sharks!”

Sarah probably thought she was simply strolling through an imaginary zoo. But she was actually helping to determine whether she’ll be a member of the Class of 2017 or 2018.

Sarah was taking the Gesell Developmental Assessment, a test that many schools use to determine whether a child is ready for kindergarten. And across Texas, more parents seem to think their 5-year-olds aren’t.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of state enrollment data found that a growing number of kindergarten students start the school year at age 6 instead of the standard 5.

Their numbers are still relatively small statewide – only about one in 20. But in some school districts – particularly well-off suburban districts – waiting until 6 is becoming the norm for kids with summer birthdays. In Highland Park ISD, for instance, one in five students starts kindergarten at 6.

“These are kids who are not just going to college – these are kids going to MIT, to Harvard,” said Victoria Pursch, executive director of curriculum and instruction in the Comal schools, based in New Braunfels, Texas. “And their parents want to give them every advantage.”

There are as many reasons for the decisions to delay kindergarten as there are parents who make them. Some say their child is smaller than her peers. Some say their boy can’t sit still in a classroom chair. Some want Junior to be captain of the high school football team.

But not everyone agrees that an increasing number of 6-year-old kindergartners is a good thing.

“The ones we’re holding out are the ones who need school the most,” said Cami Jones, who has been director of early childhood education at the Texas Education Agency since 1987. She is an active opponent of holding children out of kindergarten.

“Whatever reason you give – they’re socially not ready, they’re emotionally immature, whatever – those are the children who need to be in school. The solution is not to keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

Parents’ choice

Texas law states that children who turn 5 before Sept. 1 are eligible to enroll in kindergarten. (Schools can make exceptions for younger kids.) But unlike in later grades, kindergarten enrollment is not required by law. So parents have leeway to keep their 5-year-olds at home if they choose.

“I just couldn’t send her to school that early,” said Stacey Townsend, a Hurst mom whose daughter Victoria has a late August birthday. “Her level of maturity and all that is so different from the others who would have been in her class.”

That’s one way students reach kindergarten older than average – parents hold them out a year. The other is for students to spend two years in kindergarten – often with the second year spent in an in-between program called “pre-first grade” or “transitional first grade.” (The Texas Education Agency doesn’t recognize such programs as a distinct grade; the agency counts them as a second year of kindergarten.)

“I deal with intellectually bright, chronologically young children,” said Louise Golden, a pre-first teacher in Comal ISD outside San Antonio. “It’s for the child who is so shy she won’t open her mouth all day, or who has motor skills so weak he can’t form letters correctly on paper.”

Each spring, many suburban preschools and kindergartens use the Gesell test to judge whether students are ready. The test doesn’t attempt to measure a child’s intelligence. Instead, it measures mental maturity and a variety of motor skills. Kids who can’t stay still or focus on a task don’t fare well.

Such was the case with Johnny Ramsbottom of Grapevine.

“We were at a restaurant, and Johnny had a hard time sitting still,” said his mother, Helen. “He was curious about the things on the wall. He wasn’t being disobedient – just being a 4-year-old boy.”

At first glance, he seems a likely candidate for kindergarten. His birthday is in early May, three months before the start of school. His mother (though she admits her possible bias) says he’s one of the smartest kids in his peer group, and he’s not a discipline problem.

But he was only borderline on the Gesell. Ms. Ramsbottom also said he’s an inch or two shorter than average and can get fidgety.

“He’s on track to be right at age 5, developmentally, at the start of school,” she said. “But some people might be ahead of him.”

Ms. Ramsbottom said she doesn’t plan to send Johnny to kindergarten until 2005, after he turns 6.

One reason for such decisions, educators say, is that kindergarten has changed as Texas has moved to higher academic standards. As test pressure has increased, schools have pushed more academic content earlier in a child’s schooling. That means more time sitting still for lessons and less time playing.

“We’ve moved the curriculum down a year over the last 20 years,” said Maggie Hanna, principal of Comal ISD’s Rahe Primary School, where the pre-first grade emphasizes reading and hands-on, exploratory learning. “What used to be covered in first grade is now kindergarten. The kids who are ready for it do fine, but not everyone is ready.”

In Comal ISD, the popularity of the pre-first program has exploded in the last few years. In the mid-1990s, about 5 percent of Comal district kindergartners started the school year at age 6. Now, nearly 20 percent do.

“I think it’s the advent of that third-grade test,” said Victoria Pursch, Comal ISD’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. She’s referring to the TAKS reading test, which third-graders must pass to advance to the next grade.

“We have very savvy parents who pay attention to what’s coming and how it’ll affect their kids,” she said. “They think, ‘I’ve got this young child who’s doing OK. But I want to set them up now to be successful. I don’t want them to worry about success down the line.'”

Educators divided

While parents are the main drivers, in some cases a single principal, counselor or teacher can advocate a later start.

“Parents want to quit paying the day-care fees because it’s a burden on their household income,” said Beth Briscoe, principal of Needville Elementary in Needville, southwest of Houston. “We all understand that. But the child shouldn’t be in school until he’s physically ready.”

Needville has had one of the state’s highest rates of older kindergartners for more than a decade. Last year, 28 percent of its kindergartners started at age 6. Ms. Briscoe said she shows a brief video to all parents of prospective kindergartners before it’s time to enroll. “The film makes parents realize that you can’t make your child learn until they’re ready to learn,” she said.

But some educators warn that holding children back could put them at greater risk for dropping out later. A large body of research indicates that being older than average for your grade is a major risk factor. Some researchers say it’s the single greatest predictor of who will drop out.

Ms. Jones, the state director of early childhood education, said older kindergarten students were a growing issue in the 1980s, when many Texas school districts adopted pre-first programs. But in 1990, the State Board of Education encouraged schools to eliminate the programs, in part because of the dropout issue. Most districts followed suit, and the number of overage kindergartners dropped.

In the late 1990s, their numbers began to climb again. In 1995 in Texas, 9,718 students started kindergarten at age 6. By 2002, 17,039 did.

Many parents don’t want their children – often ones with summertime birthdays – to be the youngest or smallest in their kindergarten classes. But someone has to be the youngest and smallest. Ms. Jones said it’s not fair to other children to have summer-born kids cutting to the start of the line.

“If we’re filling up our kindergarten classes with big 6-year-olds,” she said, “then the 5-year-olds who enroll are going to be looked at as being behind when they’re really not.”

There’s some anecdotal evidence that this is happening. Ms. Ramsbottom said that one of her reasons for holding back Johnny was that other parents in her neighborhood often hold back their kids. That means that if Johnny started kindergarten at age 5, some of the kids in his class would be older, making the age gap between them and Johnny seem even wider.

It’s also a class issue. Children in better-off families are much less likely to drop out of high school, so parents are probably less worried about their being older than peers. And families that can afford a stay-at-home mom or a high-quality preschool are more likely to consider holding a child back.

“Money is a factor,” said Ms. Ramsbottom, who works only a few hours a week and has time to volunteer at her son’s preschool. “If you’re not a stay-home mom, that’s a lot of child care you have to pay for. I’m sure some people say, ‘I’ve just got to get this kid off to school.'”

Of course, Ms. Jones said, those families – generally suburban and well-off – are often the ones least in need of an extra academic boost. “It leaves the poor 5-year-olds even farther behind,” she said.

And in Texas, where football is king, athletic prowess is sometimes a consideration. An extra year of growth could, down the line, make the difference between a third-string bench warmer and a starting quarterback.

“The hardest thing to be in school is a small, young boy,” said Margo Clark, a counselor at Johnson Elementary in Southlake.

Older kindergartners eventually turn into older, bigger high school students. Some of the school districts with the highest kindergarten retention rates are also, perhaps coincidentally, home to top-notch football programs.

“It’s an unintentional benefit,” said Comal’s Dr. Pursch. Comal’s Smithson Valley High School has made the state football playoffs for the last eight seasons and has gone 24-4 over the last two years.

Chris Nelson, father of giraffe-lover Sarah, also has a son, Jake. He and his wife, Lori, decided to keep Jake out of kindergarten until age 6 because they felt he might not have been emotionally ready. But Mr. Nelson acknowledges sports were a factor.

“I hate to say it, but I’m like any other dad with a son,” he said. “You want your son to do well in sports. Size gives you an advantage.”

Academic effects unclear

But research has been unable to find much evidence that being older gives students much of an academic advantage. A University of Colorado analysis of 16 studies found that pre-first programs had, on average, no significant impact on student performance.

In the 1990s, Irving schools had a pre-first program. But it was eliminated after the district did a study in 1997 that indicated pre-first graduates fared no better academically than similar students who went straight to first grade.

Pre-first graduates were even slightly more likely to later fail a state test, be placed in special education or repeat a grade.

“We found many of the same things that national research has found: While there may be temporary effects, those effects are not lasting,” said Whit Johnstone, Irving’s director of evaluation, planning and research.

Last year, there were fewer above-age kindergartners (52) in Irving than there were in Highland Park (77) – even though Irving’s total enrollment is five times greater than Highland Park’s.

Sarah: Ahead of the pack

Back to Sarah Nelson, the lip-biting 4-year-old. She won’t turn 5 until May, but her list of animals scored at a 6-year-old level.

“Kids who are younger developmentally will usually just say ‘doggy, kitty, horsey,'” said Sarah Bentz, director of the First Presbyterian Church preschool in Grapevine, who administered the Gesell.

Sarah had a strong, confident grip on her pencil and built a block tower without difficulty – both signs of good motor skills. She answered questions with ease. (Her favorite indoor activity: jumping on her bed.) Despite a few problems, like a few backward numerals, she passed with flying colors.

“She’s definitely ready for kindergarten,” Ms. Bentz said.