Skipping a Grade, Holding Back

The choice for Tom and Debbie Johnson wasn’t easy. With a December birthday, their 4-year-old daughter, Gracie, would be one of the oldest in her kindergarten class when the time came, giving her a great advantage. But they thought she might be ready for school well before then. She was always eager to learn, mastering difficult skills at an early age.

They decided to place their bright, precocious daughter where they thought she belonged — in a kindergarten class before she even turned 5.

“We always knew that Gracie was bright, but we didn’t want to be one of those pushy parents,” says Tom Johnson of Cary who serves as president of PAGE, Partners for the Advancement of Gifted Education of Wake County, a group that works to support and encourage the development of gifted students in the county. “After a lot of testing, questioning and debating, we decided to go ahead and put her in kindergarten early,” he says.

Gracie is just one of many students across Wake, Durham and Orange counties who are being accelerated or retained a grade level. It is a decision that challenges parents, teachers and the school systems as all try to best serve the needs of a diverse student population.

To Skip or Not to Skip?

In North Carolina, kindergarten is not required. But children are eligible to begin public kindergarten if they will be 5 years old by October 16. In the case of the Johnsons and Gracie, special permission was required to start her formal education at an earlier age.

Before making the final decision on Gracie’s advancement, the Johnsons had her professionally tested to measure her academic development. Social and emotional issues associated with moving ahead with older children were considered, too. The Johnsons also sought the advice of Gracie’s preschool teachers, who could offer an objective opinion on her performance and development.

“We got as many opinions on Gracie as we possibly could and even asked her what she thought about it all,” says Johnson. Today, as Gracie completes first grade, her parents have no regrets about the early start for their daughter. “Now, Gracie is still at the top of her class academically and seems to have adapted well socially also. It seems to have been a good decision for her.”

When considering the acceleration of a child, parents should also try to look into the future as much as possible, Segalla says.

“Parents need to consider the fact that in high school their student will be a year younger emotionally and socially,” she says. “While it may be difficult, parents need to consider if the child will be able to maintain their motivation for learning through the future.”

Area public school systems offer advanced learning opportunities through special academically gifted programs for elementary school students. Students who qualify through special testing meet with an AG teacher at least once a week for advanced instruction.

“Academically gifted students who are accelerated usually work out just fine,” says Segalla. “It is just very important for parents to gather all the facts and carefully study the situation before making a decision.”

Does Holding Back Work?

Although some parents are making the decision for an earlier school start, others are deciding to hold their child back a year, often enrolling the child in a private kindergarten instead. Studies show that 7 to 9 percent of kindergarteners are enrolled a year later than they are eligible, to give them an edge, a practice known as “academic redshirting.” Redshirting refers to the college sports practice of holding a team member out of games to add a year of eligibility. Boys, who develop slower than girls, are more likely to be redshirted, as are students from more affluent families who can afford to pay for a private pre-kindergarten program.

For Margaret and Bill Smith, the decision to delay their son’s start of kindergarten was an easy one. Nathan, at 4, struggled to sit still and listen. He cried easily, had no interest in writing and was easily distracted.

“We didn’t want him to be the youngest going into kindergarten,” says Margaret Smith, who lives in North Raleigh. “He seemed pretty immature, and we felt like one more year would really help him with his emotional and social skills.”

Throughout the Triangle, the issue of retention, or having a child repeat a grade, also is a challenge. Studies indicate that most children do not benefit from repeating a grade. Consequently, experts recommend that other options always be considered.

“Retention is always seen as a last resort for the student,” says Lee Ann Segalla, senior director of elementary programs with the Wake County Public School System.

Facing increased accountability pressures and seeking to fight what is called “social promotion,” state public instruction leaders adopted stringent student accountability standards in 2000. Students are required to meet statewide standards for promotion from grades 3, 5 and 8 and high school graduation. The standards, also called “gateways,” were established to ensure that students are working at grade level in reading, writing and mathematics before being promoted to the next grade.

Wake County Public Schools has an eight-page policy on promotion and intervention that outlines performance requirements for students on the end-of-grade tests, one of the primary measures of students’ progress. According to the policy, promotion decisions are made based on multiple criteria including “local assessments, standardized test scores and final progress reports. Personal education plans, focused on intervention strategies, and accelerated activities are provided for students not performing at grade level.”

“A school-based team looks at some 20 factors when considering the best options for a child,” explains Segalla. “Studies have indicated that remediation works only if the school situation is different. Intervention is a key part of any decision.”

In 1999, the North Carolina Education Research Council produced a report on retention and social promotion. According to the report, retention in the early elementary grades, especially before second grade, is harmful. Students retained in first grade have been found to do worse academically and socially compared to other low-performing students who were not retained.

Indeed, much of the research on retention across all grades suggests that retention isn’t the best answer. Eighty-six percent of retained students showed lower achievement than comparable non-retained students. In other studies, students who were retained in school were more likely to drop out of school compared to similar low-performing students who were not retained.

A variety of alternatives to retention is offered in a report prepared by members of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in Chapel Hill.

“The purpose of the report was to highlight trends in retention in kindergarten through third grade in North Carolina and to discuss the implications of and alternatives to this practice,” according to Diane Early of the FPG Child Development Institute.

Some of the successful alternatives to retention that are outlined in the report include:

• early interventions

• interventions in the context of the regular classroom setting

• parental involvement

• after-school support

• summer enrichment programs

• professional development for staff members

• a connection with community resources

• a “can-do” attitude by school staff members

“Successful school districts view their mission as trying to do everything possible to avoid student failure,” says Early. “Staff members never give up on children who are struggling to succeed.”

The Final Decision

According to Segalla, “The principal of a school makes the ultimate final decision in student acceleration or retention.” But she emphasizes that parents need to do their homework when considering retaining or accelerating their child in school. “This is not a one-size-fits-all decision,” she says. “Each child is different and each situation is different. It needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”