Study: Age-Based Grade Assignments Hinder Millions

Date Published: 
Thursday, September 1, 2016

Traditional age-based grade levels may be hampering the progress of millions of U.S. K-12 students and should be a target for reform, according to a new study co-authored by a UNC Charlotte education professor.

Using data from a sample of state and national assessments, professor Michael Matthews and colleagues found that between 15 and 45 percent of students enter upper elementary school classrooms already performing at least one year above grade level.

Legislation like the Every Student Succeeds Act and its predecessors emphasize “getting students to grade level” to a degree that doing so is suggested at least implicitly to be the primary purpose of schooling, the authors argue. As a result, students’ class assignments are established with a rigidity that prevents some from reaching their potential, while also foisting on teachers the burdensome task of providing appropriately differentiated instruction to a vast range of abilities.

Published by the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University, the study is one of only a handful to examine in detail the number of students outpacing age-based grade level expectations.

“The numbers are far higher than we expected, especially for the proportion of children who already are achieving three or more years above grade level in elementary school,” Matthews said. “We already knew that acceleration is tremendously under-utilized, but it looks like vastly more students could benefit from being allowed to move through the educational system at a more rapid pace.”

The study found that 11 to 30 percent of elementary school students perform at least one year above their current grade level in mathematics, and between 20 and 40 percent of students are a level ahead in reading. As a result, billions are wasted annually teaching students content they already know, the researchers say.  They recommend more systematic monitoring of the numbers of advanced students and a more liberal application of acceleration policies, including grade skipping,

The benefits of this approach would likely extend beyond advanced students.

“Regardless of the instructional level, it is far more likely that teachers will be highly effective when they have a narrower range of ability to address in their classroom,” Matthews said, noting that currently, the average upper elementary teacher has around a nine-year range of a reading ability among students in the classroom.

“It is difficult if not impossible for one person to design effective instruction at an appropriate level for all of these learners within the constraints of a 24-hour day,” he said.

The study’s authors suggest instructional models that cluster students based on their level of prior learning could narrow that range and improve achievement of children at all levels.

Helping high-achieving students does not mean foregoing support for those at other levels, Matthews said, and even beyond economic arguments and national interest, there are other important reasons for schools to ensure high-ability students reach their potential.

“Schools currently spend substantially more on bringing underperforming students up than on their students who already are achieving at or above grade level,” Matthews noted.

”This leads to the unfortunate situation that students who are high achievers often rely a lot on their families to provide them with access to appropriately advanced learning experiences, and consequently as a society we probably are missing large numbers of potentially high-achieving students who come from homes whose resources don't permit them as much access to such experiences.

By providing details on the scope of the problem the authors say they hope to convince schools and policymakers to take a closer look at accommodations for high-achieving learners.

A longer paper now being prepared by the same researchers will include more detailed data from different states. The original policy brief is available here.

Scott Peters of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Matthew Makel of Duke University, Karen Rambo-Hernandez of West Virginia University, and Jonathan Plucker of Johns Hopkins are co-authors of the study

by: Wills Citty