Lawmakers raise kindergarten age issue

A little-noticed measure approved by the Indiana Legislature could provide flexibility for parents who want their children to start kindergarten a little early.

Contrary to some interpretations, it did not change the kindergarten age requirement. State law still says that children may start kindergarten if they turn 5 by Aug. 1. That’s the earliest cutoff date of any state, tied with Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska and North Dakota.

But the law lets schools waive the age requirement and enroll children who miss the cutoff date, if parents request it. It’s up to local school districts to set policies on when to grant waivers.

During the current school year, kindergartners who didn’t turn 5 by Aug. 1, 2018, were not counted in their school’s enrollment for state funding purposes. That created an incentive for school districts to just say no to waiver requests, and reportedly many did.

But lawmakers apparently decided the funding ban was too strict, so they softened it, with a provision in the budget bill. Next school year, kindergartners will count for funding if they turn 5 before Sept. 1, 2019. The follow year, they will count if they turn 5 before Oct. 1, 2020.

“Pushing back the kindergarten start date for kids to qualify for enrollment provides flexibility for more students to begin their education sooner,” Rep. Todd Huston, co-chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement. “If a child is eligible and their family believes they are ready, they should be able to attend school.”

That makes sense. Children are different, and some are more ready at age 5 than others.

There’s a little more to this story, however. Why did legislators, in the 2018 session, decide the state shouldn’t fund kindergartners who didn’t meet the age cutoff? Apparently they were concerned that parents were having their kids start early, before they turned 5, then having them repeat kindergarten. It was like they were getting an extra a year of state-funded preschool.

I thought this seemed unlikely. Surely parents wouldn’t deliberately set their children up to repeat kindergarten. But then I looked at state retention data, and it turned out that Hoosier children were twice as likely to repeat kindergarten as any other grade.

So maybe the legislators were onto something.

Or maybe teachers and school officials were deciding a lot of kindergartners weren’t ready for first grade and that they should give kindergarten another year.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of school “readiness.” But I remember that, a few years ago, kindergarten and early childhood teachers lived by the mantra that it wasn’t the job of parents to have their children ready for kindergarten. Instead, they said, schools should be ready for children, regardless of what skills they brought.

I don’t think you hear that as much today.

What happened? For one thing, the federal No Child Left Behind Act happened, along with the growth of state accountability systems that tie school and teacher evaluations to the results of standardized tests.

Children start taking high-stakes test in third grade. In Indiana, IREAD-3 is supposed to determine whether they’re ready for fourth grade, and results from ILEARN will be used to evaluate schools.

If schools are reluctant to decide young 5-year-olds are “ready” for kindergarten, it may be that they’re looking ahead three years and wondering if they will be “ready” for testing.

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