International Compulsory Attendance Age

By: Alison Slatter and Bridgette Whitlow-Spurlock

This year, the Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction has vocally led the charge to lower the compulsory attendance in the state of Indiana. The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) published a nice, full-color, eight-page handout laying out the arguments including a list of all 50 States’ compulsory attendance ages. This was to highlight how “backward” Indiana’s seven-year-old compulsory age is in comparison to the rest of America. Indiana is not alone. There are twelve other states who have chosen the same or older age.

Considering the fact the United States regularly tests squarely in the middle of the International PISA exam results, is it wise to look to ourselves for education models? Does the IDOE publication use the right yardstick with which to measure our state? Perhaps it might be better to look at the top scorers of the international PISA test to judge the wisdom of a compulsory attendance age of 7 years old.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) does not follow the pattern of most exams. This test is designed to identify critical thinking, problem-solving and communications skills, not academic exercises that test memorization, teachers or curricula performance. On the PISA test, one must know how to manipulate the knowledge in their heads, not just spit out information. For example, questions regarding monetary matters require students to devise their own monetary system from which to arrive at the answer.  It is not enough to know how their country’s money system works. They must be able to mentally re-create a monetary system demonstrating a thorough knowledge of how money works in math and in society. Amanda Ripley does an excellent job walking through the PISA exam in her book, “The Smartest Kids in the World: and How They Got That Way”.

So, when do the “smartest kids in the world” start school? Finland, whose educational reform has recently gained renown, scored in the top ten of the PISA science and reading exam and has a compulsory attendance of age seven. Our northern neighbors, Canada, have compulsory attendance beginning at six or seven years, depending on the province. Singapore scored first on all three PISA tests (reading, science, and math) and has a compulsory attendance age of six.  Japan also ranked on all three exams and also boasts an age six start. The small eastern European country of Estonia made the list on all three exams with a seven-year-old beginning to formal education. Hong Kong children can start as young as three to six years in Kindergarten, but primary school does not begin until seven years of age.

The countries listed above have all been recognized, for many years, by academic excellence, yet none of them start primary school at age 5. Also note, the countries who scored well come from vastly different cultures and continents. It is hard to believe American children are somehow developmentally different from children in Europe, Asia, and Canada.

More and more studies are beginning to cast shadows onto just how effective lower compulsory attendance is to socio-emotional learning, physical health, college entrance, and graduation. These are all excellent questions to ponder when making sweeping public policy changes on all children, depriving 100% of parents their rights to determine the appropriate age to begin formal education.  While there is no opposition to making education available at earlier ages when ready, there should be vigorous opposition to mandatory early start ages for formal education.

Parents, not the government, remain the best authority on the readiness of their children to start full-day Kindergarten five days a week. Let’s also make sure we are measuring success by those who have proven successful.

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Social and Cognitive Impact on Children:

Physical Health:

Finland Schools:

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