VIEWPOINT: 'Gifted' vs. 'ready': A key difference

GRAND FORKS -- In July, a new state law becomes effective, and children born in August no longer will be able to start kindergarten at age 5 or first grade at 6.

GRAND FORKS -- In July, a new state law becomes effective, and children born in August no longer will be able to start kindergarten at age 5 or first grade at 6.

Notably, the law also changes the standard for deciding which younger children who miss the cutoff still should enter school.

While parents already are being required to follow the earlier birth date cutoff, state and local school officials are ignoring the new standard for determining when slightly younger children should be permitted to enroll. Instead, the Grand Forks Public Schools uses two separate rounds of tests to screen out all but those very few children who achieve exceptionally high IQ scores.

In doing so, the school system has sidestepped the clear mandate of the North Dakota Legislature to accept children who are ready for school.

The assumption that holding children back uniformly benefits them in school is contradicted by research. Studies show that while some older kindergartners score higher than younger kindergartners on standardized reading tests, such differences virtually disappear by middle school.


Furthermore, low-income children whose school entrance is delayed often do not enjoy even this early bump in test scores, exacerbating the achievement gap between richer and poorer children.

Earlier school entry has been associated with higher earnings, improved life outcomes and more effective use of education dollars because younger brains are most rapidly developing.

In light of this information, many parents may not favor the earlier kindergarten cutoff but recognize that it soon will become law. Fortunately, the amended law provides that children who miss the cutoff but are ready to start school still should be allowed to enroll.

Although the old law required that these somewhat younger children "demonstrate special talents or abilities," the Legislature specifically struck out that language last year.

In its place, the new law permits children who do not meet the kindergarten cutoff to nonetheless enroll if they "demonstrate academic, social and emotional readiness."

The intent of this new standard is clear: The Senate Education Committee noted that the old law had created a "gifted child" standard for early admission and determined that limiting early entrance to gifted children wasn't right. Some children are just academically, socially and emotionally ready to start kindergarten.

Grand Forks school officials already have changed to the new cutoff date but continue to use the old, "gifted" standard when children apply for early entrance.

Namely, officials use two sets of IQ tests, each with a target score of 128, to determine whether a younger child is ready to begin kindergarten or first grade. This is the same process that was used before the law was amended.


A child who scores 128 has tested at superior-to-exceptional intelligence. Only slightly more than 2 percent of the general population is expected to achieve such a score.

The school district's use of an exceptionally high IQ score to screen out all but about 2 percent of children clearly is not a suitable standard for academic, social and emotional readiness. Nor does it comply with the new law.

School District employees involved in administering these tests in Grand Forks readily admit that IQ testing screens nearly all children out. Sadly, the Department of Public Instruction is unwilling to set guidelines to address the exclusionary testing methods that the Grand Forks Public Schools continue to use.

If the taxpayers must abide by the new law, so should their public employees. The refusal of School District officials to drop the requirement that young children test in the "gifted" range, in the face of clear legislative direction to focus instead on school "readiness," defies the authority of elected representatives in enacting state law. It also greatly disserves the parents and children of Grand Forks.

Jackson is an associate professor at the UND School of Law.

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