Thursday, September 06, 2007

Too young for school?

This article really demonstrates how high-stakes testing is affecting children even before they enter school. Quite sad. -Patricia

Some parents say 5-year-olds not ready.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

In Suzanne Ashby's kindergarten class at Linder Elementary School in Southeast Austin, the topic of the day is pigs.

Students pair up, shake hands and chat. "I like the pigs when they go snort," says Elijah Hernandez, snorting and scrunching up his face. His partner, Santiago Vasquez, mimics a pig's snout with his hands and says, "They're like this — oink, oink."

When Ashby started teaching kindergarten almost four decades ago, she didn't assign chat partners, who help students learn to focus, feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and absorb concepts in language and science.

But kindergarten has changed a great deal in that time, as have expectations for kindergartners.

Higher expectations — in preparation for high-stakes testing that starts in third grade — can leave parents facing a difficult choice about when to enroll their child in kindergarten if the youngster's birthday is close to the cutoff date.

A child's fifth birthday no longer means that he or she automatically will be enrolled in kindergarten.

Some parents across the state are opting to "redshirt" their children, either enrolling them in kindergarten at age 6 or keeping them in kindergarten an extra year. The term "redshirt" comes from school athletics and is used to describe team members who don't play for a year so they can physically mature; traditionally, they wore red jerseys to distinguish them from regular team members.

Many educators say an extra year will give students an advantage later, in the classroom or on the athletic field.

But other educators say the practice creates its own set of problems because older children can become bored learning at the slower pace of a 5-year-old.

In Texas public schools, a child must be 5 by Sept. 1 to enter kindergarten, which is not a prerequisite for first grade.

Statewide, kindergarten retention rates — an indication of how often parents and teachers determine that students aren't ready for first grade — have stayed relatively consistent since 2000 at less than 4 percent.

In the Austin school district, 119 students, less than 2 percent, were retained in kindergarten last year.

The percentage of redshirted children across the country has remained relatively steady since the 1980s, the New York Times Magazine reported in June.

The number of redshirted children tends to be higher in more affluent districts, where many parents can afford to stay home with their children or pay for day care.

Last school year, 4 percent of about 8,000 Austin kindergartners were enrolled at 6 years old, compared with 6 percent in the wealthier Lake Travis school district.

And Austin elementary schools in some higher-income neighborhoods, including Baranoff, Casis, Highland Park and Mills, had more students who enrolled in kindergarten at 6.

This year, 13 percent in the higher-income Eanes district were enrolled at 6.

But Ashby said 6-year-olds are too advanced for kindergarten, which she said is not a "watered-down first grade."

Six-year-old kindergartners are typically larger than younger peers, have more refined motor skills and should face tougher demands, she said.

"If you have a truly well-matched kindergarten environment that's designed for (5-year-olds), that environment is so tailored to their needs that a 6-year-old will be bored," Ashby said. "To me, it's such a mismatch."

Even children who have learning disabilities can do well in first grade, she said, recalling a former student who was dyslexic. If he'd been retained, "he would have lost being with his friends," she said. "Being part of that group is so important for their confidence."

Julia Fannin decided this fall was too soon to enroll her son Braeden in kindergarten. He turned 5 in June.

She remembers kindergarten as a place where children played and socialized, where they learned to tie their shoe laces.

But spurred in part by high-stakes testing demands, kindergartners now are expected to be reading by the end of the school year.

Fannin enrolled her son in a transitional kindergarten class at Tarrytown Children's Center in West Austin that has a shorter school day and less of an emphasis on academics.

"He does have some friends that were born in May and June that are going on to kindergarten," she said. "We've talked about it a lot. He'll tell people he's not ready for kindergarten and that some people choose to do kindergarten when they are 6."

Cristina Feldott runs several local Gymboree Play & Music sites, which offer a weekly class focusing on the social skills children may need before starting school.

"It seems like the stakes are so much higher today," Feldott said. "We hear about the testing that takes place in elementary school. When I look at my 5-year-old right now, I hope she can do it."; 445-3620

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