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The costs of raising school entry age

The New York Sun reported today on The Lengthening of Childhood, a new paper from David Deming and Susan Dynarski of Harvard’s Kennedy School. The paper examines the costs of “academic redshirting,” the practice of holding children back a year before enrolling them in kindergarten, and how it affects long-term outcomes, like national high school and college graduation rates and economic outcomes. As the New York State Assembly is considering legislation affecting kindergarten enrollment across the state, it’s a good time to think about the possible results of changing school entry age for some or all students.

Academic redshirting is most commonly practiced by white, upper income parents who wish to give their children a competitive advantage over younger peers in academics and athletics. At the same time, many states have raised their minimum school enrollment age by moving cut-off dates earlier in the year; according to the report, the average cut-off date has moved forward about 6 weeks over the last two decades, resulting in an older school population.

The authors challenges the conventional wisdom that the gap in high school completion between males and females has widened since the early 1990’s. The gap in high school completion is, indeed wider at age 18 than it was 15 years ago, but when one looks at high school completion by age 19, the gap does not show an increase. The authors attribute this to the greater numbers of boys redshirted in the early grades, who therefore graduate from high school a year later than peers who were not redshirted. Similarly, adjusting for sex differences in kindergarten entry age explains some of the gender gap in college graduation rates at age 22.

The report examines reasons for the rising age at kindergarten entry, including increasing academic standards in kindergarten and pressure to raise achievement on standardized testing. The authors note that the trend in rising school entry age began before the current push for high-stakes testing, though concerns about competitiveness on standardized tests have been mentioned as justification for state laws raising the entry age.

Currently, the New York State Assembly is considering two bills that would affect students’ entry into kindergarten. The first, New York State Assembly Bill A08688, would require full-day kindergarten and thus lower the compulsory school entry age to 5, with a December 31st cut-off date. Exceptions would be made for parents who choose to hold their child out of school for 1 additional year. The second, New York State Assembly Bill A03425 would raise the compulsory kindergarten entry age by moving the cut-off date to September 1. Meanwhile, New York City’s Chancellor’s Regulations require that all students enter first grade if they will turn six within the calendar year of registration, and kindergarten if they turn five within the year of registration, effectively preventing redshirting.

The danger in mandating later entry to kindergarten programs is that it raises equity concerns. Middle and upper-income families have more day care and pre-kindergarten options available to them than lower-income families; differences in school readiness can only increase the longer we delay school entry. Raising the age of entry also decreases the years a student must spend in school before reaching the legal age to drop out; since lower-income children are more likely to drop out, a later entry age affects them disproportionately.

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