By Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy
Stacie Waldman, a mother of a kindergartner in the Eastchester school district, has often been called “lucky” by other parents because her daughter is January-born, and therefore one of the oldest in her class.
But one month into school, Waldman is not quite sure if that really is an advantage.
During the course of writing a story about academic redshirting — the practice of holding age-eligible kids back to give them a head start — Waldman came upon a 2009 study done by the Scarsdale school district.
The study showed a negative correlation between age and GPA within the senior class, i.e., the younger students tended to have higher grade point averages.
“I don’t feel that lucky anymore,” said Waldman, who writes for scarsdale10583.com.
Lynne Shain, the assistant superintendent of instruction in the Scarsdale school district, who started her 50-year career in education as a history teacher at the Rye High School, said kindergarten redshirting was one of the most sensitive topics she had dealt with as an educator.
“It’s a very, very touchy subject, and parents own this decision,” said Shain. “In talking with parents they often cite other perceived advantages of holding back their children, especially boys, such as social maturity, a better chance in competitive sports, and even being first in peer group to drive.”
So in 2006, Shain, then the superintendent of instruction at the Westport school district in Connecticut, commissioned an internal study to see if there was a connection between the students’ ages and their relative GPA.
“We did that because that was the only data we had that was measurable,” Shain told me.
The study revealed what Shain had suspected.
“The older the student, the lower the GPA,” said Shain. “When we shared it with our staff, some were very surprised.”
When Shain joined the Scarsdale school district in 2008, she commissioned the same study and found similar results for years 2006, 2007 and 2008.
The district provided The Journal News a summary pivot table indicating the correlation, but did not share the source data.
Rachel Moseley, the chief information officer for the district, said they couldn’t share the source data as it could reveal the identity of students and their GPAs because the information includes birth dates.
The Journal News does not publish graphs without reviewing the source data backing them.
In Scarsdale, an average of 11.4 % of the kids have been held back per year between 2005 and 2013, according to statistics provided by the district. This often creates kindergarten classrooms with kids who are up to 17 months apart. (See the table below, click to enlarge)
So if the correlation between age and academic achievement were shared more widely by Scarsdale, would parents think twice about redshirting their kids?
“I think so,” said Waldman. “Especially around here, where it is all about academics.”
There are numerous studies critical of academic redshirting. Everything from the 2001 study by the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists to the 2006 book, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt to the 2008 Harvard study, The Lengthening of Childhood, indicates the strategy is likely to be counterproductive.
“In high school, redshirted children are less motivated and perform less well,” wrote Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, in a 2011 New York Times Op-Ed.
The term redshirting is borrowed from collegiate sports where an athlete’s participation is a delayed or suspended in order to lengthen his or her period of eligibility.
The studies on kindergarten redshirting suggest that that’s where the analogy ends.
Sanjita Gupta, whose daughter, Nimisha, was born just two weeks after Mahopac school district’s Dec.1 cutoff date says she didn’t need a study to tell her that.
A software engineer, Gupta said she and her husband had both observed that their college batch mates who were younger often also were the top-rankers.
“The younger kids learn to face challenges early on, and in time, they get really good at it,” said Gupta. “You put them in water and they learn to swim.”
So the Guptas decided to bite the financial bullet and send their daughter to a private school for kindergarten. Then the following year, they transferred her to their public school for first grade.
Gupta said her daughter, now in sixth grade, is thriving academically.
“Plus, she’ll start earning one year earlier,” said Gupta with a laugh.
As for Waldman, who hopes to move to Scarsdale in the next couple of years, her December born younger son will likely be one of the youngest in class, given the district’s Dec. 31 cutoff date.
And as the advantages of being the youngest in class become part of popular psychology, chances are, she’ll be called “lucky” once again.