When the time came to register her older daughter for kindergarten, Tara D'Onofrio Bonawandt had an advantage over most parents. As a former kindergarten teacher, the Westhampton, New York, mother of two knew firsthand the types of skills required to succeed in class: the ability to listen attentively at storytime, follow directions, concentrate during lessons, share. Even though her child had turned 5 in July, five months before her school district's age cutoff, Bonawandt ultimately decided to wait. "I didn't feel she could handle all the work and so much less play, so I held her back," she says. "A lot of my friends thought that I should send her, but I reminded myself that each child is different."
Though Bonawandt's friends may have questioned her decision, an increasing number of parents nationwide would wholeheartedly support it. The beginning of each school year finds more and more families delaying kindergarten for a year so that the following fall their kids will be among the oldest in the class.
This trend is known as "redshirting." It's a term coined for college football players who maintain an extra year of sports eligibility by practicing with the team as freshmen but not playing in games. The idea of redshirting preschoolers has blossomed in the wake of a 2006 University of California at Santa Barbara study. Researchers Kathy Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey found that grade-schoolers who are among the oldest in their class have a distinct competitive learning edge over the youngest kids in their grade, scoring 4 to 12 percent higher on standardized math and science tests. While the achievement gap narrows over time, it doesn't go away, since the skills acquired in the early grades are complementary to later education as well. The same study showed that the oldest middle-school students outperformed younger classmates by 2 to 9 percent, and that high-school students who were among the oldest in their class were nearly 12 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college or university.
Another factor influencing redshirting has been Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 bestselling book, Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, he uses statistical analysis to prove that a disproportionate number of professional hockey players are born during the months of January, February, and March, lending further support to the theory that kids who are among the oldest in their class have a developmental advantage that boosts the odds that they'll excel in school, on the sports field, and in many other aspects of life.
These influences have helped turn the idea of holding kids back into a national trend, especially among boys (who are generally less mature than girls at age 5) and children born in the latter half of the year. The number of kindergartners over the age of 5 has more than tripled from 5.4 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While about one quarter of the increase is due to modifications in states' age-cutoff rules, redshirting accounts for the rest, according to data compiled by the National Bureau of Economic Research. (Most states require a child to be 5, or turning 5, by the end of the calendar year when he starts kindergarten.
For parents like Bonawandt, delaying the start of school is a logical way of working around what they feel are unwelcome changes in the elementary- education system. As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, schools are now held directly accountable for student progress in reading and math and face sanctions, including potential closure, if they don't perform. To boost test scores, many districts have shifted the learning process downward, so that kindergarten now looks a lot more like first grade used to. For example, 5-year-olds are generally expected to read by year's end, and in some states they are taught to count by twos, fives, and tens, and to identify fractions such as halves, thirds, and fourths. A growing number of parents have reacted to this increased pressure to perform at a young age by refusing to send their child to kindergarten when the calendar says it's time, and instead giving him what proponents commonly refer to as "the gift of an extra year."
Still, redshirting's impact as an age equalizer may be overstated. A recent study published in the Journal of Human Resources, a quarterly academic publication from the University of Wisconsin Press, found that a number of related factors, including a family's economic status and how well-prepared a student is for kindergarten, have a greater impact on a child's predicted achievement than her chronological age does. So how can you determine whether your kid is ready to go or needs an extra year?