Children who enter kindergarten at age 4 are almost three times as likely to repeat the grade as those who are 5 when they enroll, according to a report presented to the Alexandria School Board last week.

Current state law says children should reach age 5 before Sept. 30 of the year they start kindergarten, but it allows children who reach age 5 between Sept. 30 and Dec. 31 to enroll after parental counseling. According to James P. Akin, acting director of elementary education for the Alexandria public schools, this results in an effective cutoff date of Dec. 31, since the system will take children it feels are not ready for kindergarten if the parents insist.

Of 159 kindergarten students in Alexandria public schools who turned 5 between Sept. 30 and Dec. 31 in the 1983-84 school year, 30, or 18.9 percent, are repeating kindergarten this year. By contrast, only 6.7 percent, 40 out of 597, of the kindergarten students who turned 5 before Sept. 30 were retained in kindergarten this year.

The board has asked Akin to "price out" alternatives to retaining children in kindergarten. Among them are a summer program to prepare children for the first grade who otherwise would be retained in kindergarten; an all-day kindergarten for those students who need the extra time; and a "preprimary" step between kindergarten and first grade, Akin says.

Akin says he is in the process of determining the cost of each of the proposals and fleshing them out for presentation to the board.

School Board Chairman Lou Cook says she was "thinking what a bitter blow it must be to be retained in kindergarten" as Akin presented the report. Cook likes the idea of the interim, "preprimary" year between kindergarten and first grade.

The Virginia legislature has taken a step toward shrinking the number of kindergarten retentions by passing a bill that makes it harder for 4-year-olds to get into kindergarten. Introduced by Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), the bill calls for strict enforcement of the Sept. 30 cutoff date for kindergarten admission. A 4-year-old would be allowed into kindergarten only after the child's parents have petitioned the school system and the child has passed a readiness test.

According to Dillard, the law is not just for kindergarten students. Entering school too early affects the student's entire career, he says, noting that it takes two or three years for parents to realize they've made a mistake by entering their child in school too soon.

Akin and Dillard cite a study done in Fairfax County's Area I schools that followed students in the southeastern part of the county. The study shows children who enter kindergarten at age 4 doing substantially worse on the Metropolitan Readiness Test before first grade and on the Science Research Associates (SRA) tests in the fourth grade, than those who entered kindergarten at age 5. "Students with 130 I.Q. or better" who entered school at age 4 "didn't catch up either," Dillard says.

According to Akin, most of the students who have to repeat kindergarten have not reached a "general developmental level" that would allow them to succeed in first grade. He cites the ability to tell left from right, to identify shapes, to visualize numbers as units, to be able to get along with others, and to obey rules as examples of skills children need to have when they enter the school environment.

"Not every child will make it through the first day of school without crying," Akin says. "We can deal with that." What he, Dillard and others hope to ensure is that children are truly ready for school on that first day.