Assembly Bill to Raise the Age for Kindergarten Entry Misguided

Diana Wright Guerin is president of the Orange County Assn. for the Education of Young Children and a professor of child and adolescent studies at Cal State Fullerton

Assembly Bill 85, a proposal to raise the age at which California's children are admitted to kindergarten, was recently defeated in the Assembly Committee on Education. Introduced by Assemblyman George Runner Jr. (R-Lancaster), the bill proposed to move back the cutoff date for youngsters turning 5 for kindergarten admission from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 over a three-year period. The rationale was: "By changing the age at which children generally enter kindergarten, California's children will be better prepared to enter into the academic environment that is required by the kindergarten curriculum." The Assembly Committee on Education's action to kill the bill was sound.

AB 85 failed to recognize that many factors besides chronological age determine children's school success. There is a wide range of developmental levels presented by children of the same chronological age. The large majority of children born between September and December (as allowed by existing law) do succeed. In fact, recent scientific findings from the Fullerton Longitudinal Study at Cal State Fullerton, which followed a large sample of children with fall birthdays from infancy through high school graduation, found that those children overwhelmingly progressed well through their elementary and secondary education. To prohibit all children born between September and early December from entering kindergarten because a small fraction do not succeed sacrifices the progress of the many for the need of the few. Moreover, evidence is accumulating to suggest that there may be academic, motivational and/or developmental risks associated with delaying kindergarten.

Results from two recently published studies indicate that raising the entry age may be counterproductive for children across a range of socioeconomic levels. A study recently published in the journal Pediatrics demonstrated a link between being "old for grade" and the highest levels of behavior problems during adolescence, and these results held for children retained in grade as well as for those whose entry into school was delayed. These findings highlight the importance of considering the long-term effects of altering the kindergarten entrance age; some problems may not surface for years. A second study, published in Developmental Psychology, showed that the youngest first-graders made just as much progress over the school year as did older ones--and far more progress than their age cohorts whose school entry was delayed. The authors concluded: "Clearly, wholesale retention of sizable numbers of younger school entrants is not warranted by existing data and is of dubious educational benefit."

Existing law allows parents to determine whether their children should enter kindergarten as they are turning 5. The bill would have removed parental choice. It would have given that decision to a tribunal of administrators, counselors and teachers who may have had little or no knowledge of the child's development.

Parents of children turning 5 between September and December would have had to demonstrate the presence of "extraordinary circumstances" to support their child's admission. Moreover, no objective criteria to define "extraordinary circumstances" were specified. On what evidence would the admission decision have been based? Would children whose parents could afford to build a case be admitted, but children whose parents could not be excluded?

Furthermore, there is no assurance that children would be better prepared for kindergarten by waiting an additional year. Indeed, children in intellectually impoverished environments may be further disadvantaged by delaying entry into a stimulating and enriching kindergarten program. Such families may not have the financial resources to afford private preschool or kindergarten programs. Passage not only would have disadvantaged children of poor families further but also could have delayed identification of children in need of remedial services for learning disabilities or other special needs (for example, vision and hearing problems). Until such issues can be addressed, any future attempts to reintroduce the bill should be discouraged.

Delaying kindergarten entry for 25% of California's children is not the way to ensure that children will be better prepared to meet the academic curriculum. Children do not ripen like fruit with the passage of time. Rather than excluding children who are ready to learn from educational opportunities, California should direct its efforts in several ways. It should make quality preschool experiences available to as many children as possible, continue efforts to identify children with special needs early, and communicate with parents about how they can help their children prepare for kindergarten. It also should incorporate developmentally appropriate curricula and provide well-trained teachers. If preparing children for the academic environment is the goal, these are more promising directions.

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