Grouping students by year of birth is so much a part of the way we think of school that most of us give the practice little thought. In fact, assigning young people to grades is so pervasive that asking children what grade they are in is tantamount to asking them their age.
Grouping students based on the year of birth, or graded education, did not grow out of any rigorous research, nor has the practice been shown to increase student achievement. Graded education in the United States can be traced back to the 1840s following Horace Mann’s honeymoon visit to Prussia where he observed the practice in a highly structured and regimented system. The practice found its start in Massachusetts in 1843 based on its appeal to puritanical traditions and promise of administrative efficiency.
At a time when the goals of education were to give the masses exposure to academic instruction and develop at least minimal levels of formal learning for all students, the practice of graded education offered efficiency and order. However, more than 170 years later, it’s time to rethink this core assumption about how most American schools are organized.
Consider that the average American school classroom includes students with academic achievement and learning readiness levels spanning 3.5 years! Even though students may have been born within the same twelve months, they grow, mature and progress in their learning at different rates. Teaching students as though they all should be ready to learn the same things at the same time makes little sense.
Still, the practice of assigning students to grades based on age drives many core functions in schools. For example, most school curricula are organized around the assumption that students will be exposed to content and skills within an annual graded progression. Further, most large scale testing programs are calibrated to specific grade levels. Consequently, teachers are asked to teach a curriculum based on students’ age rather than their readiness. The assumption is that at a given age, students will be ready to learn what the curriculum indicates should be taught. Yet, given the learning readiness span within an age-based classroom, we know that this assumption is not correct.
Beyond making the task of reaching all students more difficult, graded education creates a variety of problems for students. If a student is not ready to learn what is being taught, they too often are judged to be poor learners. In fact, they may just need more time, or currently lack key background knowledge and skills to be successful. On the other hand, if a student learns at a faster rate, they too often face the challenge of sitting through instruction that is redundant and not relevant to their learning needs. These are problems created by the way we assign students to classes. They do not originate in the students.
Graded education also appears to be connected to increased diagnosis of learning problems, such as ADHD. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (Layton, Barnett, Hicks, & Jena, 2018) involving review of the records of more than 400,000 students found that students who are the youngest in their class are thirty percent more at risk of being diagnosed with ADHD than older students in the same class. The implication is that the immaturity of younger students is often misjudged as a learning problem, not maturity issues.
Even though grouping students by grade appears to offer greater efficiency, the practice often does the opposite. While initial instruction might be presented to a class of students, the variances in learning readiness leads to multiple problems, including students who already know what is being taught becoming bored and misbehaving and students who are not yet ready to learn what is being taught needing follow-up support and even remediation to “fix” their learning. In the end, more time and expense is required to achieve what might have been accomplished if instruction and students were grouped by learning readiness from the beginning.
The argument about grouping students by age rather than readiness is not new. In the early 1990s, education reform advocates Anderson and Pavan leveled a stinging criticism of the practice: “Although the parallel may seem harsh, staying with gradedness in the 1990s is somewhat similar to what tobacco was about a decade ago: a self-destructive habit, distressingly hard to abandon, and encountering insufficient national outrage to generate policies against it.”
Now, more than 25 years later, little has changed. We still assign students to grades based on age. We instruct students as though they learn at the same rate and in the same ways. We even test students against standards correlated to grade progressions.
The time has come to shift from an instruction-driven system to a system centered on learning. Curricula can be organized in logical sequence while allowing flexibility to respond to individual rates of learning. We have the capacity to provide flexibility in the rate of learning progression for students by grouping and regrouping them by readiness, or at least by wider age bands. In fact, doing so is likely to significantly increase learning success for all students, regardless of whether they need more or less time to learn.
Layton, T. J., Barnett, M. L., Hicks, T. R., Jena, A. B. (2018, November 29). Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and month of school enrollment. Retrieved from https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1806828