We often hear about the many problems plaguing our education system in the United States but there is one detrimental factor that few people even realize exists, let alone make any effort to take into account: age. There is little dispute that the older we are, the wiser we are (or at the very least could be). But something as innocent as an arbitrary cut-off date to enter into public schools can be holding back our students and predetermining their academic futures.
A few years ago, economists Elizabeth Dhuey and Kelly Bedard compared the month of birth for students with the scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which is a standardized math and science assessment given to students in numerous countries.
These studies showed that the oldest students scored between 4 and 12 percentile points better than the youngest students. This means that students who are in the same grade level but simply the oldest can score within the 80th percentile while the youngest of the same grade are in the 68th.
This may not seem that important at first glance but consider how a student gets into a gifted program, honors classes, advanced placement courses, and more. Your child’s only disadvantage could be that they are simply younger than their peers. And when you consider that in the United States you must be 5 years old to start school, the oldest students can be 20 percent older than the youngest students upon entry.
In the United States, the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) in 1992 and 1994 showed, as Dhuey found, that “the relatively oldest students are 7.7 percent more likely to have taken the SAT or ACT, and 11.6 percent more likely to enroll in an accredited four-year college/university.” She even goes on to say that, “in the United States, for example, 5 percent of children enter kindergarten a year later than they are eligible to do so. While this may seem innocent enough, 77% of deferrals are for students born in the last relative quarter and 30 percent of these children are from the top quarter of the socioeconomic distribution.”
Students in the lower portion of the socioeconomic distribution make up a large proportion of the youngest children, which, when you consider a low family income and the above challenges that face the youngest students in a cohort, gives them two significant disadvantages right out of the gate.
One possible solution is if each state’s standardized assessments were given at multiple times of the year so that students took the same test at roughly the same age (oldest students taking the tests first while the youngest take them last). This could eliminate much of the accidental and unconscious age bias. Given the importance weighted to standardized tests in regards to students’ futures as well as schools’ funding, it could be a worthwhile endeavor. Though this may not be the most economic solution, it certainly exists within the realm of possibility.
The simplest solution is to hold your children back until that state requires them to be entered into school, perhaps giving them the extra time to physically grow and cognitively develop enough to compete with their peers on a more level playing field.
Countless of our best and brightest may never realize their full potential because of a rather strange yet serious problem. In order to overcome the obstacles obstructing our students’ goals, we should first address the pivotal issues holding them back from the very start.
Dylan Emerick-Brown is a first-year English teacher in Deltona ( Fla.) High School, who also has taught adult basic education.
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