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Gifted students can be shortchanged by not skipping a grade

Jan 30, 2017

It seemed like skipping students ahead a grade level or putting them in split-grade classes were common strategies to keep advanced students engaged when I was in elementary school.

But more than 20 years later, the practice of accelerating students is a lot less common. Just 1% of students today jump a grade, according to a recent report by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

It's a change that has happened for a variety of reasons, according to Linda Flanagan at KQED:

Few teachers have classroom experience working with accelerated students and so resist the change. Schools generally lack the systems and policies to determine fairly which students can be skipped. For parents, the effect on a child’s social and emotional development is the main objection to bumping them up.

But research suggests kids may actually be missing out by not skipping a grade. Several studies show grade skipping is largely beneficial and devoid of significant drawbacks, according to KQED.

Johns Hopkins researchers found two out of seven children test at a grade level higher than their current one. And when high-achieving students aren't challenged in the classroom, it can cause them to disengage. According to the recent study:

Bringing students to grade-level proficiency has been a focus of U.S. education policy and practice for well over a decade, but little attention has been devoted to addressing the learning needs of those students who already have achieved this proficiency target before setting foot in the classroom. This may be because — as our informal experience suggests — it has widely been supposed that there are only a very few such learners. The present work demonstrates that this supposition is flawed. This begs the question of just what these students are learning from grade-level content in classes organized by age. The U.S. likely wastes tens of billions of dollars each year in efforts to teach students content they already know.

So, if acceleration is such a good idea, why isn't it done more often? One reason is that schools generally lack systems and policies to fairly determine which students should be accelerated. According to KQED:

A clear and fair method of selecting students would be necessary to ensure access for all qualified kids, not merely those with ambitious and well-informed parents who insist on it. For example, in one Florida county gifted and talented education program, selecting students based on teacher and parent referrals resulted in under representation of African American and Latino students compared to the student population. Introducing a universal screening program (which is no longer being used) doubled the number of gifted students who are African American and Latino.

Another reason is that although grade-skipping has been found to have no significant impact on students' emotion and social well-being, students may not be ready for it based on intellect alone. Contributor Jessica Lahey wrote for The New York Times:

If we are to teach the whole child, and to honor our students’ emotional and intellectual development, we need to give them the gift of time. Time to develop, time to grow up, time to feel secure in themselves and their achievements. For some gifted students, acceleration can be a great way to give them the challenges they crave; but for socially and emotionally immature students, academic acceleration is not a gift, but a weighty burden we should not ask them to carry into middle school and beyond.

Michael S. Matthews is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and contributor to the Johns Hopkins study.

He told KQED parents and educators alike need to consider the largely hidden costs of holding overqualified kids in lower-level classes, including wasted time, abundant boredom and diminished enthusiasm for learning. According to the study:

Currently, these students’ learning needs are not being met through alternative placements or by within-grade differentiation. Rather, these students are under-challenged by the curriculum and instruction they are being provided. Millions of American K-12 students are performing above grade level and are not being appropriately challenged, putting their intellectual development and the country’s future prosperity at risk. The current K-12 education system essentially ignores the learning needs of a huge percentage of its students. Knowing this, 20 years from now we may look back and wonder why we kept using age-based grade levels to organize K-12 education for so long.

You can read the full study from Johns Hopkins University here.