Transitional first grades and other programs that keep students in kindergarten for an extra year do not improve subsequent achievement and may in fact penalize students, particularly black males, according to a report from the Virginia Department of Education.

The report, based on data from 55 Virginia school divisions that have transitional first grades or junior kindergartens, shows that in first grade the children who have attended those programs fall behind children of the same sex, race and socio-economic status who attended regular kindergarten and went on to first grade.

The study, released this week, also showed that extra-year programs have disproportionately high percentages of males, minorities and children from low-income families.

Transitional first grade is designed to help children deemed developmentally slow by giving them an extra year after kindergarten to catch up with their peers. Junior kindergarten is a pre-kindergarten year for 5-year-olds.

In Northern Virginia, the only school systems with extensive extra-year programs are Alexandria with 11 transitional first grades and Prince William County with 15. Extra-year programs proliferated along with a rise in the number of children failing kindergarten in Virginia and elsewhere in the mid-1980s, often in response to what critics have said are overly academic first grades.

"There's no doubt, we've pushed down the curriculum, and we have very academic first grades," said Jan Adkisson, supervisor of early childhood education in Arlington, where there is only one transitional first-grade class and no plans to add more. "When you're a kindergarten teacher, you say, 'I don't want this child going on to that.' "

Children, proponents theorize, will see success in transitional first grades and junior kindergarten. They will not only be better equipped for their future schoolwork but will be less likely to drop out of school later, say supporters, whose ranks five years ago included the Virginia Department of Education.

This new study signals a change in department emphasis, according to state officials. "What we'll be trying to do is redirect our efforts toward prevention rather than remediation by keeping students with their peers" instead of retaining them, said Assistant Superintendent Callie Shingleton. "There may be more productive ways of approaching developmental differences between children."

Shingleton and other educators say the best strategy is to redesign kindergarten and primary grade programs so they are less academic and more flexible.

Findings in the Virginia study parallel those in at least a dozen others published elsewhere within the last several years. Virtually all show that students not only fail to make academic strides in the extra-year programs, but often equate their two years there with "flunking." Research shows that many students who are held back subsequently drop out of school.

Data collected by Gerald M. Eads III of the Department of Education shows that on first-grade cognitive tests, children from transitional first grades scored about 20 points below children of the same social background and gender who went to first grade directly from kindergarten.

Junior kindergarten may even increase the performance gap between black and white male students, the study showed. All children from transitional first grade fell equally far behind their peers.

Transitional programs are "a means of homogeneous grouping -- a way of making children fit a curriculum," said Muriel Farley, coordinator of early childhood programs for Fairfax County, where six transitional first grades were phased out this year.

In Prince William, transitional first grades were started five years ago in response to a rising failure rate for first-graders, according to Donna Toigo, who supervises the programs in the county.

"At that time, we felt the first-grade curriculum was appropriate," said Toigo. "So we started T-1."

The Prince William program, which is about 60 percent male, costs about $500,000 annually. Data from Prince William was not included in the state's study.

Although research shows that extra-year programs are ineffective, even counterproductive, they are often popular with teachers and parents.