This article by Nancy Robinson and Linda Weimer explains that children learn best when challenged appropriately at a level they are ready for. It suggests strategies for parents to use when advocating for early school entrance through all the different view points of teachers, administrators and professionals. Also included is a catalog of preferred tests and assessments for various domains.
Author: Robinson, N. & Weimer, L.
Publisher: Teachers College Press
Volume: In W.T. Southern and E. Jones (Eds.) The Academic Acceleration of Gifted Children, pp. 29-50
All children-bright or otherwise-tend to learn best when they are appropriately challenged at a level for which they are ready. Achieving an optimal match between child and challenge is a test of its own for parents and teachers. Among the options that can offer appropriate learning environments to young children is early entrance to kindergarten or first grade, provided that the children are intellectually advanced and within 6 months of the usual entry age.
Early school entrance is attractive from many viewpoints. Economically, for example, it relieves parents of the costs of a year of preschool and enables bright students to enter college, and subsequently their careers, at an earlier age. As one of several ways for providing for bright children, it is the least disruptive option from an administrative point of view. Unlike other forms of acceleration, such as grade skipping, early school entry enables children to develop stable friendships and avoids discontinuities in the curriculum. Among the most important aspects of acceleration are that it promises greater intellectual stimulation for children who would be bored with a program that satisfies other children of their age and it offers a potentially better match with their readiness for challenge and growth. There is plenty of evidence, as we shall see, that bright children carefully selected for early entrance tend to do very well indeed, both academically and socially.
Why, then, is this option utilized so infrequently, why do educators oppose it so strongly, and why are so many parents reluctant to take this step? This chapter will address these questions by, first, mentioning some of the issues that give concern to parents and educators; second, reviewing the literature that deals with outcomes of early entrance for carefully selected, capable children; and finally, considering guidelines and measures that schools and parents can use to arrive at and live with decisions.
ACHIEVING AN OPTIMAL MATCH: SCHOOLS FOR CHILDREN OR CHILDREN FOR SCHOOLS?
Increasingly, since about 1925, education in the United States has become locked into age grading (Angus, Mirel, & Vinovskis, 1988). Birth date has become the mandate for admission or exclusion, with little regard to children’s readiness for school or, in fact, the readiness and flexibility of the school to support them once they arrive. Indeed, children born prematurely and at some increased risk for school problems may, by an accident of birth, be admitted a year earlier than if they had been born at term, whereas children who are clearly advanced must wait. To be sure, some parents (typically, middle-class parents of boys) elect to keep back children who would be young-for-grade, making them, the following year, old-for-grade. Aside from the problem presented by these children, the tyranny of the calendar prevails. Unfortunately, the experiences awaiting new kindergartners or first graders are not necessarily matched to their needs and abilities. This is especially the case for brighter children. Those who are at risk for or are actually exhibiting problems in school achievement are much more likely to make special claims on the attention of the teacher and to be provided targeted programs. Very few districts pay systematic heed to kindergartners who have already mastered the goals of the curriculum, leaving it up to their already burdened teachers to make provisions. Because many districts favor only enrichment programs, special planning for advanced students does not begin until late into the elementary school years, after basic skills have been mastered. Leaving these students locked into standard grade-level curriculum, which does not match their learning pace or interest level, means that children with advanced conceptual and academic skills, so eager at first to enter school, are in clear danger of becoming casualties of the system. Although it is no panacea, early entrance can ameliorate some of these problems by matching child to system, since most systems lack sufficient flexibility to adjust to the child.
There are four distinct bodies of research about early school entry that the unwary reader may fail to distinguish. One small set of studies deals simply with teachers’ and administrators’ attitudes about early entry. A second set examines unselected children who happen to be younger than the average child in their class. The third, and much more relevant set of studies, deals with children who have been selected for early school entry by reason of their intellectual, academic, and social readiness. Finally, there are studies about the stability of advanced development: Do bright children remain bright over time, so that it is all right to make long-term decisions when the children are quite young? We will discuss questions raised by each of the four sets of studies considering some methodological issues that need to be taken into account.
Issues of Research Design
The research question. Both the questioner and the question should be considered when designing a study. From a school district’s point of view, for example, it may be sufficient to discover whether, in comparison with classmates children accepted early will as often survive without blatant school failure. The district has a stake in minimizing the demands made on teachers by children who are not doing well and wants to avoid the expense of retaining some fraction of them for an extra year. What the parent really wants to know, however, at the fork in the road, is how the child will fare academically, socially, and emotionally as an earlier or a later entrant. To respond to this question, the most relevant comparison groups are children comparable in birth date, ability, academic skills, maturity, and personality, who do or do not enter early.
Selective factors. Such comparable groups are very difficult to identify not only because children who are significantly advanced are few in number but also because there are subtle selective factors’ unrelated to intellectual development, that underlie even the initial consideration of early entry. For example, some of the applicants may already be exhibiting signs of boredom and discontent with incipient behavior problems in preschool or kindergarten; or they may be outstandingly mature, physically large, and socially skilled; or the parents may have agendas of their own (such as reducing daycare costs). Application will not be made for all eligible children.
Documentation. Some aspects of a child’s development can be measured more objectively and reliably than others. For example, by age 5, intelligence test scores tend to be more stable than behavior ratings made by parents or teachers. It is often difficult to document adults’ impressions of the child’s abilities, temperament, and maturity. Yet, when one attempts to ferret out how decisions might have been made more effectively, it is essential to have records that are complete and comparable across children. This ideal has seldom been reached.
Longitudinal designs. It is important to follow children’s school careers from the point of school entry and not simply to compare, at some later grade, those who were “let in” early and those who were not. Despite the cost of longitudinal studies, without them one would miss the children who retained in grade as well as children who left the system altogether.
Despite all these caveats, the questions remain and therefore answers must be sought. Fortunately, most of the studies make up in concurrence what they lack in methodological rigor. We report here a few individual studies as well as reviews available for detailed reading.
Reluctance of Teachers and Administrators
A few investigators have surveyed teachers and administrators, invariably reporting negative attitudes toward early entrance. Braga (1971), for example, found negative attitudes toward early entrance expressed by primary-grade teachers, some of whom maintained these views even after positive experiences with such children. One the whole, however, primary-grade teachers with early entrants in their classes were more likely to respond favorably. Kindergarten teachers asked by Jackson, Famiglietti, and Robinson (1981) to rank the probable achievement of hypothetical cases–highly advanced children, moderately advanced children, and average children–consistently gave low ranks to early entrants. First-grade teachers were less consistent, suggesting that the first-grade teachers recognized the value of early entrance but preferred that kindergarten teachers manage the period of adaptation. Southern, Jones, and Fiscus (1989) similarly found conservative attitudes expressed by school personnel, though they also found that personal experience (self or family member) with accelerative options was associates with more positive views; gifted coordinators and school psychologists were also somewhat more accepting of the practice then were teachers and administrators. Proctor, Black, and Feldhusen (1988) surmise that administrators are predisposed against early entrance mainly because it is administratively messy, requires expensive assessment, and risks the ire of parents whose children are excluded.
Educators, when queried, consistently indicate worries about the social and emotional maturity of accelerated children. Not about their academic success. Perhaps they are not aware of research that points to the social maturity that characterizes brighter children as a group; perhaps they give greater weight to social goals; perhaps they overgeneralize from a few younger children who do exhibit problems (as do some older children as well). Since the monumental research of Lewis Terman and his colleagues (e.g., Terman & Oden, 1947), confirmed with consistent redundancy by educators ever since (Daurio, 1979; Janos & Robinson, 1985), we have known that, as a group, gifted children prefer older friends, show mature patterns of communication, and exhibit high levels of social skills and social/moral reasoning: although there are, of course, broad individual differences. The fact that the personality and maturity of the child will weigh heavily in the decision to admit or exclude is often forgotten by educators.
Unselected Populations: Younger Versus Older
Studies comparing the achievement and school problems of young-for-grade children with those of their classmates make use of easily accessible indices such as school grades, achievement test scores, referrals to psychologists, and grade retention. Probably because they are easy to do, such studies abound. Earlier reports (e.g., Bigelow, 1934; Carter, 1956; Green & Simmons, 1967; Hall, 1963; King, 1955) agree remarkably with later ones (e.g., Breznitz & Teltsch, 1989; DiPasquale, Moule, & Flewelling, 1980; Drabman, Tarnowski, & Kelly, 1987): At least through elementary school, those children whose birthdays are later in the school year tend to fall short on all indices, a phenomenon that holds true across countries (Husen, 1967), even though standard ages of school entry differ significantly by state and country (Shepard & Smith, 1986). The effect is usually found to diminish over time (Shepard & Smith, 1986).
It is disheartening that so many school settings expect all the children in a grade-differing by as much as 12 months in age and usually more than that in developmental level-to be alike. By doing so, we create failures and exaggerate the significance of transient or mild learning problems. These are unfortunate outcomes, but they are not particularly relevant to capable children who have been carefully selected and are expected not merely to hold their own in the class but to be among the top students.
Selected Populations: Early School Entry
A very different picture emerges when we examine the literature dealing with early school entry for children who have been carefully evaluated. The several comprehensive reviews available (Braga, 1971; Daurio, 1979; Proctor, Black, & Feldhusen, 1986; Reynolds, Birch, & Tuseth, 1962; Worcester, 1956) tend to produce optimistic expectations. Even by 1962, reviewers could state:
- It may be concluded . . . early admission to school of mentally advanced children who are within a year of the ordinary school-entrance age and who are generally mature is to their advantage….There are few issues in education on which the research evidence… is so clear and so universally favorable to a particular solution. (Reynolds et al., 1962, p. 16)
A review by Proctor et al.(1986) includes 21 studies, some comparing early entrants with their unselected classmates and others comparing them with matched samples. Of the first group, 16 of 17 studies found early entrants the equal of or surpassing their classmates in achievement, with several studies showing progressive improvement in academic standing. There were hints of some social adjustment problems for a small percentage of children in the early grades, although these disappeared over time. Only one study (Obrzut, Nelson, & Obrzut, 1984) found increased incidence of retention, primarily for social reasons. A careful reading of the data, however, suggests that teacher judgment, “the determining element that discriminated the success or failure of the students (p. 76),” may have been biased against acceleration. The accelerated children may often have been placed in settings where they were not well tolerated, and their behavior may have been rated by adults with biased perceptions.
Especially significant were the several studies of early entrants who were in junior and senior high schools; the students were excelling academically, participating in numerous extracurricular activities, and exhibiting strong, positive self-concepts. Perhaps best known of these studies is one by Hobson (1963), who followed a group longitudinally and found that by high school, the early entrants exceeded their classmates by 2 to 1 in honors, awards, and other graduation distinctions despite greater involvement in extracurricular activities (including athletics and social honors as well as more intellectual pursuits).
In a definitive experimental study, children who are eligible for early admission would be randomly assigned to early versus standard year of entrance. No one, however, has undertaken such a study, which would certainly be unpopular with parents (who have definite ideas about what they want for their children) and well might raise questions of ethical responsibility. There is, however, a very small group of studies that has made an attempt at control by comparing early entrants with non-accelerated children matched in ability. Such methods do not escape the selective factors that determine which children were, or were not, accelerated, but they are a step in the right direction. Mueller (1955) and Pennau (1981) compared early entrants with matched samples one year behind them in school.
In Mueller’s study, children who had met the criteria and had entered kindergarten early were rated by their teachers in grades 1-5, on traits of achievement, health, coordination, popularity, school attitude, and emotional adjustment. Early entrants were rated as superior on all traits to all other groups, including regular classmates, children who had not met the criteria, and even eligible children who had been kept back a year.
Pennau (1981), also using a matched sample, found few differences; in fact, any differences in adjustment tended to favor the early entrants, although, as Proctor et al. (1986) point out, there may have been subtle differences in adjustment between the groups prior to school entry.
One can conclude that early admission is almost certainly not a bad idea and may even be helpful when selection is careful and admissions criteria relatively stringent. For example, in the eight matched-control studies cited by Proctor et al. (1986), those finding mildly negative effects tended to be the minority with relatively low requirements, such as an IQ of 115 or an MA of 5-0, so that the early entrants did not have a “running start.”
Although not limited to early school entrants, the major analysis by Kulik and Kulik (1984) of school accelerants clearly demonstrates that academic achievement advantage lies with the student who is accelerated. In that meta-analysis of a large number of studies, students who were a year advanced in placement were equally advanced in academic achievement.
Children who enter early may not be admitted as frequently to their district’s special program for gifted children (Maddux, 1983). This consideration will vary in importance according to the nature of the program itself and the strength of the child’s abilities. By implication, at least in the early grades, the needs of some of these children may be effectively met in the regular classroom. Since most “gifted” programs occupy only a fraction of a child’s school week, this trade-off may be positive in some instances, negative in others.
To which variables should most weight be given? Very few investigators have asked this question. With early entrance clearly a viable option, it is time that investigators turn to specific issues such as this so that decisions can be better informed.
Stability of Developmental Advancement
By the time a child is of school age, scores on tests of general intelligence tend to remain fairly stable over time. A very long-term follow-up of the California segment of the original preschool standardization sample for the 1937 Stanford-Binet is probably the best study available of an unselected young population. By heroic efforts, Bradway was able to track III subjects into early adulthood (Bradway & Robinson, 1961), 62 of them into their middle adult years (Kangas & Bradway, 1971). The correlation between first test in 1931 and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale administered 25 years later was an impressive 0.64 (0.80 over the 15-year period from junior high to adulthood).
Using data from a large study of twins in Louisville, Humphreys and Davey (1988) report that IQs at age 4 were correlated 0.79 with those at age 6 and 0.60 with IQs earned at age 15; age 5 IQs yielded higher correlations, 0.87 to age 6 and 0.67 to age 15.
Despite the tendency for scores to remain relatively constant over a period of years, the IQs of some individuals do change dramatically sometimes steadily upward or downward, sometimes in an irregular pattern (Honzik, Macfarlane, & Allen, 1948; McCall, 1970; McCall, Appelbaum, & Hogarty, 1973), the larger changes tending to occur in brighter children. Even the high follow-up correspondences reported by Bradway et al. concealed some large shifts; in the first 10 years after the preschool tests, 22% changed by more than 15 points, and between the second and third, 7% changed by the same amount. Using deviation IQs rather than ratio IQs has, however, reduced the magnitude of some of these shifts (Pinneau, 1961).
With respect to specific skills identified in young children, early reading is a standout easily identified by adults and exhibiting some stability during the early years. Mills and Jackson (in press), following children to second grade who had been identified as precocious readers in kindergarten, found them later to be advanced readers but not as remarkably so as when first assessed. In a longitudinal study following children whose parents had identified them as gifted during the preschool years, Robinson, Robinson, and Stillman (cited in Robinson, in press) found preschool reading skills to be modestly stable to age 6, more stable than within-domain skills in spatial, numerical, or verbal reasoning.
Longitudinal studies of this nature can yield some hints about the direction of changes to be expected for an individual child. Some part of the instability is simply error of measurement; an initially high score is Rely to be followed by a slightly lower one. Bradway and Robinson (1961) found that changes could be predicted by an index of familial attainment stretching over two generations; often the changes tracked by Honzik et al. (1948) were accompanied by changes in family situation, social adjustment, and mental health. Sontag, Baker, and Nelson (1958), interestingly, found that the most significant gains in IQ between ages 3 and 10 were earned by children high in achievement motivation; more passive, lackadaisical children decreased in relative standing. There are, then, no easy answers, but for a child who is active and curious, who exhibits personal maturity, and whose family is supportive, the picture is a relatively positive one not only for stability but possible growth.
CONTEXTUAL ISSUES OF ASSESSMENT AND DECISION MAKING
In this section, we consider some contextual issues bearing upon application for early entry. Subsequently, we discuss specific areas of ability and suggest methods of assessing a child’s status to inform such a decision.
Assessment and decision making do not occur in a vacuum or in a uniform educational setting. The legal standards and common practices of the school system in question are important, as are the characteristics of the particular school, its curriculum, and its population.
Legal entry dates vary such that a child deemed old enough in one state may be several months too young in another, although there is a trend to make the cutoff as early as September 1. Additionally, local communities evolve their own patterns, a frequent variant being the custom of waiting a year to enroll boys with spring or summer birthdays in kindergarten. Many of these are bright children whose parents hope to give them a “competitive edge.” The result is an older average age and increasing within-classroom ranges of chronological and developmental ages, both of which need to be considered in determining the readiness of a young child.
Differences among state and school systems also influence the results of standardizing testing. Tests standardized nationally or in states with late cutoff dates are likely to underestimate the proficiency of children in areas with earlier cutoffs (older average ages). It is easy to be misled by an impressive score on a nationally normed test. Young children’s reading and calculating skills make significant leaps in a short period of time, so that one must be very careful about the normative group with which they are being compared.
The openness and flexibility of the school system are also important considerations. No matter how ready a child may be, early entry in a setting where teacher and administrators are opposed to this strategy may be setting up the child for failure. A cooperative spirit of partnership among teachers, counselors, and parents will greatly increase the likelihood of success. The ease of grade-placement adjustments up or down during the kindergarten to second-grade period, and the support given to students who experience such adjustments, can also greatly facilitate the match between student ability and class setting and reduce the risks of a decision (for or against early entry). The likelihood that being young-in-grade may lessen chances of later placement in special “gifted” programs (Maddux, 1983) may be an argument, in some settings, for delaying entrance in spite of a child’s readiness, depending upon the child’s intellectual advancement. Weighing in such a decision, too, are the alternative interim options (including private options) to maintain the child’s interest and developmental progress.
Individual and family factors must also be taken into account. Regardless of advancement, a child undergoing significant personal stress such as adjustment to divorce, serious illness in the family, frequent moves, or family financial crisis may not have the emotional energy available for a transition that requires more than the usual adjustment of beginning school. Gathering background information, preferably in a face-to-face parent interview, should be included in any careful assessment. Additionally, a trained examiner can sometimes provide clues to the cud’s anxiety, stress, and resilience.
Although this chapter focuses on assessment to determine the advisability of early entry for intellectually advanced young children, it is important that the clinician not narrow the focus of an individual evaluation to questions of grade placement alone. A thorough assessment is also an opportunity to screen for real problems that may impact a child’s learning or social-emotional adjustment. Intervention that is likely to help the child’s development or adjustment should be planned whether the child is admitted as an accelerant or not.
AREAS OF ASSESSMENT
When development is evenly advanced across the board in all domains, the process of determining the child’s “fit” with chronologically older children is greatly simplified. The difficult decisions occur where there is unevenness of development, probably a more common circumstance.
As we have mentioned, there are few studies identifying the best predictors of the success of an accelerative strategy, and therefore decisions at this time rely heavily on clinical and teacher experience. In this circumstance, we suggest that, in light of the goal of improving the match between the child and the educational environment, priority be given to those factors most central to the school experience, namely, intellectual and academic ability. Assessment of perceptual abilities and memory in young children who have not yet become readers and calculators can screen for problems predictive of early learning difficulties, but advancement in these areas is not necessarily predictive of later high attainment. Assessment of social and emotional maturity and physical development also provides essential information about the ease with which the child is likely to function within the peer group. In very bright children, however, social skills may appear “retarded” when in fact they have had no intellectual peers with whom to share play interests or conversation.
Cognitive, or reasoning, abilities are critical to achieving a match with a child’s school placement. Several measures exist that provide not only an estimate of overall cognitive advancement but a sampling of special abilities as well. Included are, for example, measures of vocabulary, verbal reasoning of both an abstract and an everyday nature, quantitative reasoning, construction of figures requiring analytic and integrative abilities, and so on. Scores from these tests are the strongest predictors available for later intellectual development and school achievement. Used as an estimate of the child’s rate of development (e.g., an IQ of 125 suggests cognitive development roughly 25% more rapid than that of the average child), one can approximate the difference expected over time between the individual child’s abilities and the typical age norms that guide curriculum development. A word of caution about use of IQs is in order. Although frequently useful as predictors of how early entrants will fare, IQs should be used only as approximate predictors of successful adjustment to early entrance.
A professionally administered individual intelligence test, such as the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, Revised (WPPSI-R) (Wechsler, 1989), or the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Fourth Edition (Thorndike, Hagen, & Sattler, 1986), is recommended as the measure of cognitive abilities. These measures are well designed, nationally normed, and comprehensively validated. Both yield IQs (a form of standard score) and age norms for each of the subscales. Other measures such as the McCarthy Scales of Children’s Abilities (McCarthy, 1972), or the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children (K-ABC) (Kaufman & Kaufman, 1983) are popular in some regions, and there is an advantage to using a measure that is familiar to the local schools. These instruments also feature individual achievement tests normed on the same populations.
As mentioned above, individual administration allows the tester to observe the child’s reaction to challenge and difficulty, enthusiasm for problem solving, or anxiety in a new situation. Such information is useful in predicting a child’s response to early entrance and is also essential (especially for the young child) in estimating the degree to which test performance approximates the child’s best effort.
Except, perhaps, where a child misses a cutoff by only a matter of days, or in a school with decidedly low achievement levels, children who show moderate advancement (e.g., an IQ of 115) usually are not strong candidates for early entrance. In mental age, they are unlikely to fall within the top half of the classes in the immediate or distant future. In contrast, for a child who is unusually advanced (e.g., IQ > 145), early entrance may at best represent only a temporary solution to the problem of achieving an ability match with classmates. The question then becomes whether early entrance provides short-term benefit, and what plans can be made when this adjustment is outgrown.
When evaluating a profile from the WPPSI-R or the Stanford-Binet, Fourth Edition, it is helpful, again, to consider the relative significance of the factors assessed. For example, it is reasonable to give special weight to the portions of the tests that assess verbal and quantitative reasoning, because these abilities are most central to school success. Follow-up studies have not supported the expectation that above-average (as opposed to below-average) abilities in visual-motor skills assessed during the preschool era are particularly effective predictors of later academic achievement (Badian, 1988), although short-term memory skills may be of somewhat more importance (Sattler, 1988).
In view of the emphasis during the first few school grades on the acquisition of reading and calculation skills, children’s interest and readiness for learning these skills is a prime consideration in the early-entrance decision. A child who is entering kindergarten need not already be a reader or calculator but should exhibit an interest in and readiness for such activities. For early advancement to first grade, Proctor, Feldhusen, and Black (1988) recommend what seem to us reasonable minimums: reading comprehension and arithmetic reasoning at the second-semester level of first grade in the local school district. Such achievement assures that the child will not be among those who need a little extra time with these skills, as do many children with age-appropriate or even advanced cognitive development.
Several considerations mandate careful selection of an appropriate academic achievement measure for this decision process. First, current norms are essential, particularly for the earliest grades. With so many children attending preschool, with the advent of educational television for young children and an abundance of academically oriented games and books, and with increased parental interest in early childhood education, children are not entering kindergarten with skills that were formerly acquired during the kindergarten year. Outdated norms yield significantly inflated grade equivalents and raise unreasonably high expectations for the child’s performance and relative standing in the classroom. When available, the use of local norms for such tests may also help decision making. Such statistics provide direct comparisons with the group where children are to be placed.
Second, the ceiling effect of some scales will affect the ablest students who take tests designed for their age-mates. Very few items of sufficient difficulty are available to discriminate individual differences among the top group; on some tests, even a perfect score results in a percentile rank of less than 90 (Cohn, 1988). Missing even one item may result in the child’s failing to qualify for a program appropriate to his or her educational needs. The ceiling effect is most critical on tests designed for a narrow age or grade range. Bright children need to be tested on a measure that leaves room for advanced performance.
The most appropriate achievement measures for this purpose are those that are designed for individual administration and assess performance across a broad range of academic skills. Individual administration allows observation of the child’s interest level, reaction to failure, attentiveness, and working pace. Using a wide-ranging test, the examiner can adapt the level of difficulty to the child’s ability level without lengthy administration of easier material. Reading tests should include reading comprehension as well as word recognition; arithmetic tests should include reasoning tasks as well as standard operations. Three achievement test batteries that meet these criteria are the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery, Revised (Woodcock & Johnson, 1989), the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (K-TEA) (Kaufman & Kaufman, 1985), and the Peabody Individual Achievement Test-Revised (PIAT-R) (Dunn & Markwardt, 1989).
Classroom Learning Skills
Although not strictly academic, there also exist a set of learning skills that most children acquire in the course of preschool. These include, for example, the ability to remain engaged in an interesting task for perhaps 15 minutes without adult redirection, the ability to be a member of a group (as, e.g., listening to a story), the ability to listen and remember oral instructions, the ability to translate from one visual stimulus (e.g., a blackboard) to another (e.g., a piece of paper), and a vocabulary that encompasses concepts of relationship and quantity basic to classroom communication. There is no easy measure for any of these behaviors. Perhaps the best source of information here is the preschool teacher, who generally has a good sense of how a child compares with age-mates in these learning skills. A child who has not attended preschool, and therefore has not had the previous experience of developing group social skills, adapting to structured routines, and sharing adult attention, is seldom a good candidate for early school entry.
Screening for Learning Problems
Because some children with advanced intellectual ability still experience significant learning difficulties, and because neuropsychological deficits are associated with reading underachievement among both intellectually average and superior children (Bow, 1988; Mantzicopoulos, Morrison, Hinshaw, & Carte, 1989), it is essential that for children who are not reading fluently, a screening of reading readiness be included in the assessment. It is not necessary that the child demonstrate significant advancement in these areas, only age-appropriate processing abilities for reading acquisition. Significant predictors of successful versus delayed reading achievement include perception of orientation of letters and numbers, phonological awareness and auditory discrimination, and auditory short-term memory.
Some children with quite adequate visual discrimination and orientation may have trouble identifying easily confused letters such as b, d, p, and q, or m and w simply because of minimal exposure. For them, a measure using other visual stimuli such as the Motor-Free Visual Discrimination Test (Colarusso & Hammill, 1972) or the Visual Discrimination subtest of the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Assessment Battery would be appropriate.
Auditory discrimination in kindergarten applicants may be assessed with the Wepman Auditory Discrimination Test (Reynolds, 1987), although norms are inexact and the length of the test taxes the attention of young children. A preferable option is the Word Discrimination subtest of the Test of Language Development-2 Primary Level (Newcomer & Hammill, 1988). The ability is generally developed fully by age 6 and tests of pure auditory discrimination show strong 6-year ceiling effects.
Auditory processing may also be assessed by the Memory for Sentences subtests of the WPPSI-R or the Stanford-Binet, Fourth Edition, which require both word discrimination and short-term auditory memory. Short-term auditory memory has consistently been found to predict reading achievement (Bow, 1988; Sattler, 1988; Stanovich, 1985). We suggest that a child who does well on Memory for Sentences need not be given a further auditory discrimination test. Such tests are unnecessary for children already reading at the late first-or second-grade level, but solid age-level ability in short-term auditory memory is important to ensure the ability to follow classroom instructions.
Information from parent interview will also be helpful in assessing risk for learning problems. Children with reading problems are more likely to have histories of problems such as birth complications, speech delays, or family histories of learning disability. Such background factors are significant for decision making if the child’s own development appears questionable. Where some evidence of learning problems is discovered during this step of the assessment process, further evaluation may be needed to determine the appropriate course of action. For some children, the issue is one of maturity; however, parents and educators should be cautious about delaying schooling as a sole treatment. For children with problems in perceptual discrimination, fine motor skills, language, or the like, specific intervention during the intervening year may maximize chances of later success.
The child’s competence in motor skills, as well as health and physical stamina, is important in determining a comfortable fit within the peer group and the ability to participate in classroom and playground activities. Fine motor coordination and visual-motor integration are essential to the paper and pencil activities typically introduced in kindergarten, and delays in visual-motor integration are often associated with delays in acquiring reading skills. Well-standardized measures of visual-motor integration are exemplified by the tasks of copying designs that are included in subscales of the WPPSIR and the Stanford-Binet, Fourth Edition. If the intellectual measure does not include such a subscale, the Test of Visual-Motor Integration (Beery, 1982) may be administered.
Because a quality kindergarten program should include a variety of physical activities, information about physical strength and coordination will help estimate whether the child will stand out as significantly less mature than classmates, thereby increasing the risk of advanced placement. The McCarthy Scales of Children’s Abilities (McCarthy, 1972) includes a variety of upper and lower body coordination tasks that are appropriate for 5-and 6-year old activities. In questionable cases’ where motor skills may be pivotal to a decision, the lengthier Peabody Developmental Motor Scales (Folio & Fewell, 1982) would provide a more thorough assessment of both fine and gross motor skills. If suspicion arises of a significant problem, then referral to a pediatric occupational therapist would be appropriate.
Social-Emotional Maturity Issues
As described earlier in this chapter, most reviewers have concluded that opposition to acceleration of gifted students is based primarily on concern for the child’s social and emotional development. Teachers cite social maturity as the most desired information in assessing adjustment of early entrants, despite the consistent failure of reviewers to document a social-emotional disadvantage for accelerants, and despite the consistent finding that, as a group, gifted children prefer older friends and show mature patterns of communication and social skills. Rather than following an age-based policy based on generalization, assessors need to consider each child’s social and emotional maturity. Unfortunately, valid and reliable information regarding social maturity is very difficulty to provide. Favorable information would be reports of adaptation to preschool or group activities and evidence of existing friendships with children within the age range of the proposed class. Yet, the decision process often occurs during the summer, when teachers may be unavailable as informants and when the luxury of observing the child in an appropriate group setting is impossible; in such cases, parent interview and the behavioral observations of the psychologist must be more heavily weighted, The Socialization subscale of the Revised Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale (Sparrow, Balla Cicchetti, 1984), a parent interview measure, will provide an estimate of social maturity but should be supplemented by additional inquiry regarding the child’s emotional adjustment and the parents’ reasons for considering acceleration. Children who are unready for school tend to exhibit short attention spans, inattentiveness, trouble postponing gratification, impulsiveness, low frustration tolerance, poor task orientation, and behavioral rather than verbal expression of aggression (de Hirsh, 1975).
What appears to be evidence of social immaturity should, however, be considered in light of the child’s background and advanced intellect. From our experience in consultation with families and schools, we have seen that lack of success in making friends may be due to lack of common interest and communication style with age peers; what may at first appear to be distractibility may be due to the combination of a quick and curious mind with unchallenging material. In such cases, behavior problems may signal the advisability of advancement rather than its reverse. Well-adjusted, gifted young children, although often considered popular by age-mates, may prefer older children (who share interests) or younger children (whom they can organize in games of imagination) and may believe that they have few “friends” because their notion of friendship is more mature than that of their age-mates (Roedell, Jackson, & Robinson, 1980). Extremely bright children may, moreover, have fewer friends than do other children of their age, and some may experience marked loneliness (Janos, Marwood, & Robinson, 1985).
When adjustment problems are suspected, it is important to distinguish between “immaturity” and a stable personality trait. It seems reasonable to consider that serious adjustment problems such as angry or depressed mood or habitual noncompliance signal additional risk for early entrants. On the other hand, children who are slow to enter a group may not be anxious or maladjusted but may be showing the same family temperament and interactional style as their shy, cautious parents. Such a style is not likely to change significantly with an intervening year. Indeed, intellectually advanced children who lack desirable social skills, such as entering a group or negotiating a shared activity, may have a better setting for developing those skills with peers of similar mental age and interests than in a strictly chronological age group. It is also important to remember that social skills are teachable and that timely instruction and support by teachers and parents can greatly aid a child’s adaptation to peers and avoid problems in emotional development.
A Suggested Battery
Table 2.1 summarizes the measures we have recommended for an assessment battery suitable to address the issues we have raised. Note that the measures are, in the main, individually administered, recently normed, and broad scale enough to assess advanced levels of functioning.
Table 2.1 Kindergarten and First-Grade Screening Battery
Preferred tests are capitalized; alternatives are also listed in some cases.
- WECHLER PRESCHOOL AND PRIMARY SCALE OF INTELLIGENCE, REVISED (WPPSI-R) or
- STANFORD-BINET, FOURTH EDITION
- McCarthy Scales of Children’s Abilities
- Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children
- KAUFMAN TEST OF EDUCATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT
- PEABODY INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENT TEST, REVISED READING RECOGNITION (for children not reading well, additional visual discrimination measure is needed)
- WOODCOCK-JOHNSON PSYCHO-EDUCATIONAL BATTERY, REVISED, VISUAL DISCRIMINATION subscale (if needed)
- Motor-Free Visual Discrimination Test
GROSS MOTOR SKILLS
- MCCARTHY SCALES OF CHILDREN’S ABILITIES, MOTOR SCALE
- Peabody Developmental Motor Scale
- Revised Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale, Motor subscale (kindergartners only)
FINE MOTOR SKILLS
- WPPSI-R GEOMETRIC DESIGNS
- Peabody Developmental Motor Scale (if detailed assessment needed)
- Test of Visual Motor Integration (VMI)
(May be supplemented, as above, by Vineland Motor Scale)
(ordinarily will not be needed for children reading well)
- WPPSI-R MEMORY FOR SENTENCES (this does involve memory load)
- TEST OF LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT-2 PRIMARY, WORD
- Wepman Auditory Discrimination Test
- Goldman-Fristoe Auditory Discrimination Test
- REVISED VINELAND ADAPTIVE-BEHAVIOR SCALE (Socialization, Daily Living Skills)
AVAILABILITY OF OPTIONS
As we have indicated previously, there are a number of issues quite apart from the child’s developmental level that impinge on the early-entrance decision. Among these are current and future educational options.
Despite all the findings we have quoted that demonstrate clearly that early entrance is a viable option for carefully selected children, there will always be individual cases that defy the odds. Later circumstances, such as a change in the child’s developmental pace, increased family stress, or a child’s preference, may call for a change of plans. The availability of options may encourage a bit of risk taking in the early decision; if no options are available, more conservatism may be in order.
Local resources may or may not present a wide variety of choices. We list here but a few to look for:
- The suitability and availability of gifted programs
- Ungraded or combined-grade elementary classes through which a child can later move rapidly or more slowly
- Cross-grade skill-level grouping for academic subjects
- A suitable private school in which a grade could be repeated
- Skipping a grade later on (a much more positive option than grade retention)
LIVING WITH JUDGMENT CALLS AND COMPROMISES
Educational options for children who do not fit the “average” mold almost always are compromises. For the very bright child, it is nearly impossible within the common educational system to achieve simultaneously placement with classmates who are (1) age-mates with heterogeneous abilities, (2) at the child’s own level of social and emotional maturity, and (3) at the child’s level of intellectual maturity and academic achievement. Some families are secretly hoping for heaven on earth. They want their bright children not only to grow with challenge but to be supremely happy in every aspect of their lives, academically successful, outstanding at sports, musically talented, and socially acclaimed. Any sign of stress or minor failure can serve as evidence that the entry choice was a bad one, that all would have been well if the child had (or had not) entered kindergarten early.
Given the careful consideration of intellectual, social, and physical development, available options, and supportiveness of the environment for an individual child, parents and school personnel simply must do the best they can. It is important to recognize, however, that there are drawbacks to any decision, and it is usually unwise to shift back and forth unless conditions prove compelling.
Indeed, some decisions do prove later to have been unwise and need undoing. The majority are, however, worthy and sensible compromises that can and should be lived with. Most children cope well with most circumstances. Children who have the solid backing of parents who appreciate them as people, who attend to their efforts rather than just their successes, and who lend them optimism through life’s ups and downs are themselves likely to experience school in a very satisfactory way. Gifted children and their families are destined to live with compromise.
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