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Posted at 11:20 AM ET, 11/ 9/2009

The rush to hold kids back – does it make sense?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Linda McGhee, a lawyer and clinical psychologist with a specialty in learning disorders and ADHD. Her office is in Chevy Chase, MD.

By Linda McGhee
In the past few years, jurisdictions across the country have moved to push back the starting age for kindergarten, including Montgomery County and the District of Columbia. Some believe that older children are more mature and academically-inclined than their younger counterparts.

States also see it as a quick way to boost test scores. And parents may be increasingly jumping aboard this trend toward “redshirting,” holding children out of school until they are older or having them repeat a grade. It is not at all unusual to see a 6 1/2 year old in kindergarten or a high school freshman old enough to get a driver’s license.

There is some evidence that redshirting is positively related to income, meaning that wealthier parents disproportionately hold their children back.

One only needs to look at blogs and online discussions (DC Urban Moms, for example) to know that this issue resonates with parents seeking to gain advantages for their children. I often hear people say they would rather have their child be the oldest in their class as opposed to the youngest. Underlying this argument is the presumption that the retained child would also be smarter and more successful at school.

When a child is struggling academically, it is well established that merely repeating a grade (absent other specialized intervention) is not a panacea for curing learning deficits. Viewed through a slightly different prism, can one get ahead academically or athletically if they start school later? If DC (or darling child in online lingo) is held back from kindergarten until age 6, is there a competitive advantage?

The research in this area is in no way settled and studies offer contradictory results. Several studies point out that if a grade is repeated (as opposed to starting school later) the positive effects gained from reinforcing previously learned materials only last about 12-18 months. So the academic gain is believed to be short-lived.

However, economists Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey (University of California, Santa Barbara) concluded in their study that older children in 4th grade scored between 4 and 12 percentiles higher on standardized academic tests than the younger counterparts. The relative age advantage persisted but was not as pronounced between the younger and older children in eighth grade.

The conclusion of the Bedard/Dhuey study is that the academic advantages for relatively older children build on themselves and reach into later life. However, several other studies indicate that students who are held back have more behavioral problems in adolescence than their younger classmates.

Given the inconclusiveness of the research, I admit to being somewhat of a skeptic about the long-term overall benefits to redshirting children who are otherwise ready to begin school. More study needs to be done from varying orientations, including sociological and psychological impacts of grade retention. A particularly interesting line of inquiry would be to see if there is any correlation between age and SAT performance.

Another issue that confounds efforts to tease out the effects of retention is that academic success is often the result of many disparate factors, such as heredity and economics.

At top public and private schools, children tend to have a huge advantage in terms of resources -- such as updated facilities, innovative programs, computer labs, field trips and travel -- that put them at an advantage academically whether or not they are redshirted.

In addition, many studies emphasize relative age. A child may have a competitive advantage because she is older than the other children in her class. What happens if most everyone has also been held back? It is logical to assume that any advantages of redshirting would disappear.

Another concern with retention is that most children, especially those in non-affluent areas, would likely benefit from early schooling, such as Head Start and kindergarten, in order to help to boost school readiness and instill the basic skills necessary for academic success in school. Testing benchmarks contained in No Child Left Behind legislation make schooling in early childhood all the more compelling.

It is often assumed that younger boys (summer birthdays) should automatically be held back. We do now know that in some areas of intellectual and emotional functioning, girls mature faster than boy in the aggregate. However, generalizations fail to take into account an individual child’s strengths and weaknesses. It is still best to evaluate a boy as an individual and not necessarily retain him automatically because of his gender.

The prevailing decision-making process is to size up your child’s strengths and weaknesses in order to determine the best course of action. How do you make an assessment of school readiness?

Main factors to consider are the child’s readiness to be in groups, the ability to articulate ideas, and the absence of serious separation issues. Also, consult with teachers and other education professionals. Chances are that they have seen hundreds of 5-year-old children and are often very adept at assessing a child’s capabilities.

The trend toward holding back children either by law or parental fiat also undermines the way this decision is made.

If holding back becomes the norm, will there be a “redshirt race?” In order to not put your child at a disadvantage would you have to hold them back? Making a reasoned and defensible choic.e to not retain your child, could end up being wrong because you have made a decision contrary to all of your child’s peers.

So you could be wrong even if you are right.

Finally, redshirting a child is not a panacea for all ills. It will not catapult a child with average academic capabilities into an academic superstar. Nor will it make a non-athlete into a homerun machine.

Oh, if it were only that simple.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 9, 2009; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Guest Bloggers, Montgomery County Public Schools, Parents  | Tags:  redshirting, school readiness  
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Other problem: what happens if a sizable portion of my kid's class has been redshirted, and my kid wasn't? My 10 year old may be perfectly able to interact productively with 10-11 year olds and handle the academics, but what about the older 12 year old that's in the class because they were redshirted? How is the older 12 year old going to interact with my hypothetical 10 year old (as this is the age where the leaps-and-bounds differences between the years start -- 12 year olds usually want to hang out with the 12-, 13-, and 14- year olds, not the 10 year olds, even though the age difference is the same).

Or for that matter, what happens when high school juniors are turning 18 (because they started later) and can legally sign themselves out of class (for good reasons or not-so-good ones)? Usually this was a privilege/responsibility only a few seniors got before they graduated.

Posted by: | November 9, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

This bugs me, a LOT. I know DD would have been hugely bored, and acted up on a regular basis, had she not been placed appropriately (her school actually jumped her from K to 2nd for that very reason).

DS is two days on the wrong side of the date line -- latest bday for K enrollment in our area is 10/31, he was born 11/2. So he will always be the oldest kid in his class. Yet it is also clear to me that he will be completely ready for kindergarten next year, both academically and behaviorally (moreso than DD, who definitely had some behavioral issues that were exacerbated by putting her with the older kids). Doesn't help that he is also big for his age (when he turned 3, my dr. told me that the kid was perfectly sized -- for a 4-yr-old). I don't worry about him acting up and causing trouble, but I do worry that he will be bored by working on stuff he already knows, for at least the first few years.

What seems strange to me is that this is the same school system that has decided that the first year of G&T should combine both a 3rd- and 4th-grade curriculum. So, what, we hold kids back regardless of readiness, then a few years make them learn 2 years' worth in a year -- all to catch them up to where they should have been in the first place? Ahhh, but now we can call them "advanced."

Posted by: laura33 | November 9, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

This is one of those issues where the US Ed system should realize that one size does not fit all. The system should be flexible, if we really want to see No Child Left Behind. Let the children start when they seem ready (between 5-6yrs), shorten the schoolday to about 3 hours a day, offer enrichment programs in the afternoon for those who need it (to boost school readiness and basic skills). And let them PLAY!

Posted by: SaMu42 | November 9, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Is MCPS really considering this, it's so absurd, no it doesn't make sense!?! It's time to have a change at the top of MCPS. It's an absurd idea to push the idea of starting kindergarten at age 6 WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY pushing the curriculum down the grade levels! How about some novel ideas like backing off on the curriculum? Next year MCPS 8th graders will be taking high school science. How about leaving high school classes in high school as general rule except for the relatively small number of students who TRULY need the accelerated work. How about admitting that students need to be differentiated instead of this approach that all students are ready/want/can handle acceleration in all areas. MCPS leaders seem to forget that the students are human beings all with different abilities, talents, interests, support systems, etc. They are not robots, stop pretending they are. Sheesh!

Don't push the curriculum down or throw everyone into AP classes and then be surprised that so many can't handle it. Be willing to group students by ability and give each one what they really need when they come to school, then and only then will more students be successful.

Posted by: valerie11 | November 10, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

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