Age-Based, Grade-Level System Ignores Huge Numbers of Over-Achieving Students

While this country puts a lot of attention on students not achieving at the proficiency level, plenty of focus might be better directed on students who are performing ahead of age-based, grade-level standards. A recent research project found that between 15 percent and 45 percent of students enter elementary classrooms each fall learning above grade level. The result is that they're not challenged enough in school, and teacher time and school resources are wasted in trying to teach them stuff they already know.

"How Can So Many Students Be Invisible? Large Percentages of American Students Perform Above Grade Level," produced in the Institute of Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University, examined data sets from five sources: the Common Core-based Smarter Balanced assessments in Wisconsin and California, Florida's standards assessments, the Northwest Evaluation Association's (NWEA) Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The initial emphasis for the research project was on answering a single question: How many students already perform one or more years above grade level on their first day of school?

The answer to that question, according to the researchers, "has profound implications for American education policy and for the organization of schools." For example, "If one in every five students has surpassed that criterion before the school year even starts, policymakers would need to re-think the merits of an age-based, grade-level focus."

Depending on the standards data being examined, the percentage of students who scored at or above the proficiency threshold one year above their current grades in English language arts varied from 21 percent (in grade 3 for California) to 45 percent (grade 8 in Wisconsin); in math it varied from 11 percent (grade 5 in California) to 44 percent (grade 5 in Florida).

The NWEA MAP and NAEP analyses were more complicated. Because MAP has been aligned to the Smarter Balanced assessment, the researchers evaluated MAP scores using the Smarter Balanced criteria for grade-level proficiency, and specifically grade 5 student data, because, the report noted, it provided a "baseline estimate" prior to the implementation of Common Core. According to the results, 35 percent of students at the beginning of grade 5 were already achieving the end-of-year proficiency levels for that grade. In fact, 10 percent were achieving academic progress equivalent to four or more grades above their grade level. The overall count for MAP math came in lower — 12 percent of 5th graders were performing at the next grade level.

NAEP data, which is only collected in grades 4, 8 and 12, was used in the study to figure out just how many grade 4 students scored better than grade 8 students. As the results showed, nearly 10 percent of grade 4 students outscored the bottom half of grade 8 students in reading, and in math it was about five percent.

Based on its findings, the report offers several conclusions. "Very large percentages of students" perform above grade level, and for "large percentages," it's "well above" grade level.

Perhaps more importantly, these percentages "represent staggeringly large numbers of students." As the report stated, "In Wisconsin alone, some 20,000 students per grade level are performing more than a year ahead of grade-level expectations. Overall, somewhere between 278,000 and 330,000 public-school Wisconsin students across grades K-12 are performing more than a full grade above where they are placed in school. In the much larger state of California, across grades K-12 somewhere between 1.4 million and 2 million students are currently performing more than a full grade level above where they are placed in school."

What that means is that federal and state education policies that place so much stress on age-level and grade-level proficiency aren't addressing the full spectrum of need and require some "serious rethinking." As the report asserted, the United States "likely wastes tens of billions of dollars each year in efforts to teach students content they already know."

The researchers also suggested that states begin requiring districts and schools to report above-grade-level results in order to highlight the problem and bring transparency to it as a first step in creating a "climate of accountability."

The entire report is available on the institute's website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.