Should More Students Be Allowed to Skip a Grade?

skipping gradesWhen Heather Rains was in elementary school, she skipped ahead two years, from kindergarten to 2nd grade. The decision placed her in the same class as her older sister, which was a little awkward, and she had a hard time making new friends. Rains still played with her same-age friends at recess but “I couldn’t really relate to my peers,” she recalls.

Academically, however, the move made sense.

“I was in the top spelling groups and I thrived with the more challenging work and wanted more.” Overall, Rains considers herself a grade skipping success story.

Today, Rains is an elementary teacher in Wasilla, AK, where she will on rare occasions work with children who also are wondering if skipping a grade, or grade acceleration, is the best option. Rains supports it in certain situations, as long as it is a decision that is made collaboratively and carefully with administrators, students and obviously their parents. “It should not be done lightly,” she says.

And, as it turns out, grade skipping is hardly done at all. Data is a little hard to come by, but, according to the Acceleration Institute, only about one percent of students actually make this move. According to a team of researchers, it should be much higher.

In 2016, Johns Hopkins University placed the age-based grade level system under the microscope by determining the percentage of students who are already above grade level on the first day of school. After examining five assessment data sets, the researchers found that a large number of U.S. students are performing above grade level.

“Millions of American K-12 students are performing above grade level and are not being appropriately challenged,” the report concludes. Not only does this deficit drag down a child’s intellectual development, the researchers warn, it is putting “the country’s future prosperity” at risk.

As an option for high-schieving or gifted students, skipping a grade is one form of acceleration that is generally unpopular. Michael S. Matthews, associate professor at the University of North Carolinas and a contributor to the Johns Hopkins study, blames what he sees as a dependency on the status quo.  “Like any system, schools like it when all parts are identical, and all kids are the same,” Matthews told KQED MindShift.

“More and more parents want to view their children as gifted and subsequently pursue acceleration as the next logical step. Truly gifted children are exceedingly rare, and grade acceleration should be equally rare.”- Jessica Lahey

Or maybe the skepticism has more to with the concerns many educators and parents have about pushing their children’s academic development ahead of their social and development. But it’s a complicated issue. If you ask educators for their opinion about skipping grades, you’re likely to receive a variety of responses, depending on what they have seen as classroom teachers (and often as parents).

Patty Deigan, a national board certified teacher in Northbrook, IL, saw signs in her young son child that indicated he could be placed straight into 1st grade. She decided against the move because the school recognized his strengths and provided challenges for him. And “he needed the interactions with his age-level peers.”

Deigan doesn’t regret the decision (her son is now a computer software engineer) and agrees with her district’s reluctance to greenlight grade skipping. She recalls the academic struggles a second grader had after his parents urged the school to move him into third grade. “Holes developed in his learning and ended up needing tutors by 5th grade,” she says.

Deigan recognizes that some students are so off the charts to make grade acceleration a workable and beneficial choice. But she fears a push to make it more available will only intensify the pressure on young children to always outshine their peers.

Then, Deigan says, school becomes a “race.”

When ‘Average’ is a Dirty Word

Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” believes “gifted” is a term that is thrown around too often.

“The line between truly gifted and a parent’s subjective perception of gifted has blurred,” she explains. “In an age when “average” is a dirty word, more and more parents want to view their children as gifted and subsequently pursue acceleration as the next logical step. Truly gifted children are exceedingly rare, and grade acceleration should be equally rare.”

While very bright children understandably can get bored and frustrated when they are not academically challenged, “it’s incredibly important to consider both brains and social development when making this decision,” Lahey says.

Many parents, however, are resistant for these very reasons. Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, a nonprofit organization that works with academically-gifted youth, understands the trepidation, but, citing a collection of recent studies, argues that “the socio-emotional outcomes of those who grade skip or educationally accelerate shows that the impact is fairly neutral, overall.”

Of course, much of the research is based on statistical averages, meaning that some students will fare negatively and some will fare positively. But Wai believes that “at some point the academic need clearly begins to outweigh concerns about potential social/emotional impact.”

Meet C.J.
C.J. Wilson is a fourteen-year-old from Alexandria, Va., who likes video games, going to the movies and playing neighborhood football. He is also academically gifted.

A number of years ago, Heather Rains worked closely with the principal and a second grade teacher to carefully transition an academically and socially-advanced student. The parents were not on board.

“They were very resistant,” Rains recalls. “They were worried that their child would start to struggle, but the transition was so gentle. So with lots of reassurance that nothing would be set in stone, that we could pull back at any time, and that we would stay in close contact, they agreed to try segments with 2nd grade. Their child was so excited to be learning with peers who were on the same level.”

Before long, the draw to be with peers who were thinking and learning at the same level won out and the student made a full transition for the final quarter of the year. Now in high school, he continues to thrive and is among the top performers in his class.

“The parents took some time to trust the process but it worked well for everyone.”

‘If We Aren’t Differentiating, We Aren’t Doing Our Job’

Rains is quick to point out that the decision to advance a student to a higher grade is not an admission that classrooms shouldn’t strive to be as challenging and engaging as possible.

“Promoting a student is absolutely not an alternative to teaching at a higher level for the top 10% of a class,” Rains says. Differentiating her instruction to meet the challenges of every student is essential, but it sometimes isn’t enough. In these rare cases, Rains believes grade promotion is a viable alternative.

Emily Welte, a teacher at Slater Elementary School in Lakewood Colorado, says that while differentiation is far from easy, it is “what is best for kids.”  While not an advocate of skipping grades, Welte believes schools don’t spend enough time meeting needs of the students who need some form of acceleration.

“No two students are alike. Ever. If differentiation isn’t happening, we are not doing our jobs,” Welte says. “The ‘one size, fits all’ approach is out-dated and a disservice to our students. Small group instruction, individualized instruction should happen in every classroom, all day.”

But differentiation is a daunting task and, says educator and author Carol Ann Tomlinson, “there is no single ‘right way’ to create an effectively differentiated classroom.”

And there’s no right way to enrich our students’ education, adds Jonathan Wai. “Fundamentally it comes comes down to understanding that there is wide variation in academic readiness in any classroom or school, and there are different ways to engage students at every level of performance and to help them learn something new each day.”