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Great Grade Level Debate: Age v. Ability

Patricia Hawke

IAssigningn Colorado, Maine, Alaska and other districts throughout the country, schools are saying goodbye to traditional grade levels.

The traditional way of students moving up a grade as the kids get older is being replaced by a new model that groups students by their abilities. We're weighing the pros and cons of this educational experiment. 

The Pros of Grouping Students by Ability

This seems way more practical. By catering to the student’s abilities rather than the overall assumptions of what students at that age can handle, it will help the student’s progress at their own pace.

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In traditional classrooms, students that are not being challenged enough get bored. Since they aren’t being challenged properly, it also hinders the advancement of their learning. Students that learn more slowly would benefit from being in a grade that is suited more toward their learning abilities so they too can learn more and at a faster pace.

  • “The current system of public education in this country is not working” said Kansas City Schools Superintendent John Covington. “It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.”

Allowing students to learn at their own pace will help them get the most out of school. They can progress more quickly and with a better understanding of the material. Instead of students “getting by” in their classes and not fully understanding it, they can be placed in the grades that they should be in and learn at a pace suited more towards their learning abilities.

By schools doing grouping by ability, the students will be better prepared for college and get the most out of their educational experience since they are able to fully understand each subject at their own pace.

The new approach is providing successful, according to a USA Today article:

  • Marzano Research Laboratory, an educational research and professional development firm, evaluated 2009 state test data for over 3,500 students from 15 school districts in Alaska, Colorado, and Florida. Researchers found that students who learned through the different approach were 2.5 times more likely to score at a level that shows they have a good grasp of the material on exams for reading, writing, and mathematics.

The Cons of Grouping Students by Ability

Social Issues & Self-Esteem

This new approach of assign grades by ability rather than age could increase social interruptions. Despite the educational advantages, dividing students from kids their own age might not be beneficial to their socialization or self-esteem.

What will happen if a student’s best and only friend falls behind and they progress two levels above them? Not only will this create hardship for the student left behind, making them feel “stupid” or unworthy of leveling up like their best friend has, but then they will be forced to be in classrooms with different aged students. Depending on the ages of the students around them, they might feel too old, or too young around them. No matter what the educational abilities are, maturity is definitely a factor to consider.

If a student is 14 and in a senior classroom with all 18-year-olds because of they way they placed in subject tests, their maturity level is entirely different and won't mesh well with the older kids. They may feel left out of their peer’s invitations to birthdays or events because they are too young and feel discouraged because of this. Also, kids that are eighteen and stuck in classrooms with fourteen year olds because of their abilities may feel not worthy and “stupid” as well.

This would be especially problematic in elementary schools or in cases where students are several grades behind. Imagine being a 13-year-old forced into a second grade classroom where most students are 7 or 8 years old.

Scheduling & Logistics

Scheduling and organizing ability-based groups is also a tremendous challenge, especially as larger schools and districts explore the option. Getting parents, teachers and students on board will be tremendously important to implementing this broad-scale shift.

Schools will need to become more adaptable to the needs of their students depending on students' abilities in each subject matter. The process of scheduling and assigning courses for each student will certainly become more complicated.

What do you think? Do the educational advantages of assigning grades by ability outweigh the social pitfalls? Share in the comments section!

About the Author: Patricia Hawke is a staff writer for Schools K-12, providing free, in-depth reports on all U.S. public and private K-12 schools. For more information please visit Denver School Rankings and Public School Rankings

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