ERIC Identifier: ED308989
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Shepard, Lorrie A. - Smith, Mary Lee
Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Escalating Kindergarten Curriculum. ERIC Digest.
The practice of kindergarten retention is increasing dramatically. In some
districts, as many as 60% of kindergartners are judged to be unready for first
grade. These children are provided with alternative programming: developmental
kindergarten (followed by regular kindergarten), transition or pre-first grade,
or the repeating of kindergarten.
An extra year before first grade is intended to protect unready children from
entering too soon into a demanding academic environment where, it is thought,
they will almost surely experience failure. The extra year is meant to be a time
when immature children can grow and develop learning readiness skills, and
children with deficient prereading skills can strengthen them. When parents are
asked to agree to retention or transition placement, they are often told that
with an extra year to grow, their children will move to the top of their classes
and become leaders.
Advocates of kindergarten retention are undoubtedly well-intentioned. They
see retention as a way for the school to respond to children's enormous
differences in background, developmental stages, and aptitude. They view
retention as a means of preventing failure before it occurs.
WHAT RESEARCH SAYS ABOUT RETENTION
The research on
kindergarten retention which we conducted from 1984-88 led to three major
1. Kindergarten retention does nothing to boost subsequent academic
2. Regardless of what the extra year may be called, there is a social stigma
for children who attend an extra year;
3. Retention actually fosters inappropriate academic demands in first grade.
We have located 14 controlled studies that document effects of kindergarten
retention. Six were included in Gredler's (1984) major review of research on
transition rooms, and eight were newly identified empirical studies. The
dominant finding is one of no difference between retained and promoted children.
Gredler concluded that at-risk children promoted to first grade performed as
well or better than children who spent an extra year in transition rooms. In
another study, retained children were matched with promoted children. At the end
of first grade, children in the two groups did not differ on standardized math
scores or on teacher ratings of reading and math achievement, learner
self-concept, social maturity, and attention span (Shepard and Smith, 1985).
Though many retention advocates cite findings that seem to be positive, these
studies are often flawed. A major flaw is the absence of a control group. A
control group is a critical element in the process of determining differences
between children who have been promoted and children who have been retained or
placed in transition classes. Studies with control groups consistently show that
readiness gains do not persist into the next grade.
Children end up at approximately the same percentile rank compared to their
new grade peers as they would have had they stayed with their age peers.
Furthermore, young and at-risk students who are promoted perform as well in
first grade as do retained students.
Tests that are used to determine readiness are not sufficiently accurate to
justify extra-year placements. For example, Kaufman and Kaufman (1972) have
provided the only reliability data on the widely used Gesell School Readiness
Test. They found a standard error of measurement equivalent to six months; in
other words, a child who is measured to be at a developmental level of 4 1/2
years, and thus unready for school, could easily be at a development level of 5
years, and fully ready. As many as 30-50% of children will be falsely identified
as unready (Shepard & Smith, 1986). Kindergarten teachers are generally
unaware of these end results. They know only that retained children do better
than they did in their first year of kindergarten. In the short run, teachers
see progress: longer attention spans, better compliance with classroom rules,
and success with paper and pencil tasks that were a struggle the year before.
But these relatively few academic benefits do not usually persist into later
SOCIAL STIGMA OF RETENTION
Retained children understand
that because of something that is wrong with them, they cannot go on with their
classmates. Retained children know that they are not making normal progress.
They also know the implicit meaning of placement in ability groups such as "the
bluebird reading group."
Kindergarten retention is traumatic and disruptive for children. This
conclusion is supported by our extensive interviews with parents of retained
children. Most parents report significant negative emotional effects associated
with retention. Parents' qualitative assessments of their retained children also
support our arguments about the social stigma of retention. Kindergarten
retention also has a negative consequence over the long run. Children who are
too old for their grade are much more likely than their classmates to drop out
THE ESCALATING KINDERGARTEN CURRICULUM
The fad to flunk
kindergartners is the product of inappropriate curriculum. For the last 20
years, there has been a persistent escalation of academic demand on
kindergartners and first-graders. In one survey, 85% of elementary principals
indicated that academic achievement in kindergarten has medium or high priority
in their schools (Educational Research Service, 1986). Many middle-class parents
who visit their child's school convey the message that their only criterion for
judging a teacher's effectiveness is the teacher's success in advancing their
child's reading accomplishments. What was formerly expected for the next grade
has been shoved downward into the lower grade. More academics borrowed from the
next grade is not necessarily better learning. A dozen national organizations
have issued position statements decrying the negative effects of a narrow focus
on literacy and mathematical proficiency in the earliest grades (National
Association for the Education of Young Children, 1988).
Many kindergarten teachers acknowledge that extra-year programs would be
unnecessary if children went on to a flexible, child-centered first grade. But
educators do not express an awareness that retention may actually contribute to
the escalation of curriculum. Teachers naturally adjust what they teach to the
level of their students. If many children are older and read, then teachers will
not teach as if the room were full of five-year-olds. The subtle adjustment of
curricular expectations to the capabilities of an older, faster-moving group is
demonstrated in the research literature on school entrance ages (Shepard &
Smith, 1988). The victims of inappropriate curriculum are the children judged
inadequate by its standards: children who can't stay in the lines and sit still
ALTERNATIVES TO RETENTION
One alternative can be found in
schools where teachers and principals are committed to adapting curriculum and
instructional practices to a wide range of individual differences. In such
schools, a child who is not yet proficient is not failed. The kindergarten
teacher begins at the child's level and moves him along to the extent possible.
The first-grade teacher picks up where the kindergarten teacher left off. In
between-grade arrangements, children move freely across grade boundaries in such
activities as cross-age tutoring or student visits to the next grade for three
hours a week. The average standardized achievement test scores for third graders
in these schools are no different from those of students in high-retaining
Schools with appropriate curriculum and collegial understandings among
teachers and principals make retention unnecessary. Once the larger context of
curriculum escalation is understood, teachers and principals may have greater
incentive to resist the pressures and accountability culture that render more
and more children "unready."
Reprinted with permission from the Summer, 1988 issue of AMERICAN EDUCATOR,
the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers. Adapted by
Jeanette Allison Hartman.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Educational Research Service. "Kindergarten Programs and Practices in Public Schools." PRINCIPAL (May 1986).
Gredler, G.R. "Transition Classes: A Viable Alternative for the At-risk
Child?" PSYCHOLOGY IN THE SCHOOLS 21 (1984): 463-470.
Kaufman, A.S., & Kaufman, N.L. "Tests Built from Piaget's and Gesell's
Tasks As Predictors of First-grade Achievement." CHILD DEVELOPMENT 43 (1972):
National Association for the Education of Young Children. "NAEYC Position
Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice in the Primary Grades, Serving
5- Through 8-Year-Olds." YOUNG CHILDREN 43 (1988): 64-84.
Shepard, L.A., & Smith, M.L. (1985). BOULDER VALLEY KINDERGARTEN STUDY: RETENTION PRACTICES AND RETENTION EFFECTS. Boulder, CO: Boulder Valley Public Schools.
Shepard, L.A., & Smith, M.L. "Synthesis of Research on School Readiness
and Kindergarten Retention." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 44 (1986): 78-86.
Shepard, L.A., & Smith, M.L. "Escalating Academic Demand in Kindergarten:
Counterproductive Policies." ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL 89 (1988): 135-146.