Age-based grade levels are so ubiquitous in US education that it can be difficult to imagine what a school would be like without them. We just assume that students are going to go through roughly 14 grades (pre school, kindergarten, then 1–12) with the same students in each level. This will come with some variation depending on the school. Although many larger schools will allow for differentiated curricula through tracking certain students into gifted programs and other students through standard or EE programs, school doesn’t obviously have to be structured this way and there are great reasons to look at alternative ways to organize our schools.
The Indian education system is the best case study to show this. They adopted the age-based grade levels of the English system for all of their public, compulsory schools. Students would be placed into grades and then pushed through a set curriculum year-after-year. Teachers were paid based on whether they got through the curriculum for that particular grade they taught. The issue was that Indian students were rarely at grade level and they had huge variation in ability across classes. 9th-grade students were usually reading at a 2nd-grade to 6th-grade reading level. In this study by the Poverty Action Lab (and one Nobel laureate), they used a randomized control trial to test the effects of ability grouped school systems. In other words they rearranged classrooms to “ match teaching to students’ learning levels”. They broke up the original grade levels and then organized students into classes according to their ability in that particular subject without any regard for actual age. The students who were initially in 9th grade with 2nd-grade reading scores and 4th-grade math scores would be moved into classes that reflected their ability (Notice that this doesn’t mean that all students would be moved into classes with students who were much older or younger since most of the schools had the majority of their students 5 grade levels behind, so this would most often look like entire age-groups being held back with some variation for students especially ahead or behind). This intervention has consistently been shown to be one of the most effective and least costly education interventions “among rigorously evaluated education programs”. It outperforms many other, much more costly interventions, like having more teachers or having smaller class sizes.
Teaching at the right level (TaRL) is much more complicated in the US. Some sort of TaRL is available to most US students. In my own experience, I attended a very large public high school that allowed me to basically jump ahead in each of my grades and then only take college classes for the last two years of high school. Some sort of gifted program style tracking is available in most high schools, but the tracking problems in rural and urban US education systems are oftentimes more concerned with students below grade level rather than students who require gifted services for being above grade level. It is not at all uncommon for only 5% of a graduating high school class to be at grade level in reading, science, and math. In other words, many US schools are in a very similar situation to schools in India where entire age-groups need to be retaught material but are instead promoted ahead to content that they aren’t ready for because of perverse incentives within the education system. It may be best to inform our practices partly on the best practices found through rigorous studies from other countries.
As it stands now, US students have been grouped according to age and then pushed through content that they didn’t understand to the point where they are regularly many grade levels behind and being force-fed information that they are likely not ready for. And since schools are so massively incentivized to graduate students, under-prepared students are graduating despite not being ready for college and not having the skills necessary to work non-service-sector jobs.
We should experiment with the possibility of abolishing age-based grade levels in US school systems in favor of TaRL. It would obviously require a massive restructuring of systems, but, as it stands now, there have been no large-scale experiments done assessing the usefulness of TaRL in the United States. The dream would be a large scale, statewide experiment with many schools reorganizing, but it could also be assessed in smaller experiments through individual schools.
How could it look?
Hypothetically, it would work best if the system was broken up into smaller classes (think 1 semester or quarter long as opposed to 1 year long) that students would progress through from a young age. Students would enter kindergarten and be given initial testing then placed into classes according to their ability at that time. They can then progress through these class chunks according to ability which could include keeping them at certain classes. A big advantage of this is that students can more easily progress through content according to their different unique abilities and interests. A student especially invested in English could progress years ahead in English while going at different paces in subjects they are less capable in. This all basically amounts to allowing our most capable students to not be held behind while re-organizing our energy to better serve less capable students who may need more support to master foundational content before being promoted to the next subject.
But what would we do to reorganize existing high schools to accommodate TaRL? It’s hard to imagine now since most large high schools have some amount of differentiation through gifted programs already, but TaRL is considerably more radical than just gifted, standard, and RTI tracking. Students would have to be given initial comprehensive assessments on their skills in each discipline. Then students would be organized into key classes according to their actual ability rather than the grade-level expectations. In most states, students are promoted according to their grades in class, not according to their measured understanding on standardized tests. The reason for this is that schools can currently juice the grades to progress students despite them not meeting grade level expectations according to state tests. The disparity between actual ability and grade level gets worse year-to-year — if 20% were at grade level in 9th grade, <20% will be at grade level each year since the majority of students will be promoted through content that builds on information that students didn’t first master.
For many schools this re-organization may not change the content or makeup of classes significantly. If all your students are already at grade level then no one would have to be moved. But that’s not the case for most schools. Take the example of a local high school I know of in North Nashville. Around 5% of students are at grade level in this school and there is massive disparity between ability within classes. Some students in the same grade are at 2nd-grade reading levels while others are caught up with content and ready for the next grade. A re-organization of this high school would lead to almost every teacher changing their content along with the majority of students being shuffled into classes with much greater age diversity that better match their ability. So, for instance, if the majority of students are still at 6th to 8th grade math levels, teachers may have to change curriculum from typical high school math subjects like Algebra I and II back to typically middle school topics like Pre-Algebra or Arithmetic. The school would bring it’s content back to the ability of the students, allowing them to rebuild foundational content before progressing into high school subjects when they are better capable of success.
Any experimentation with this would require a reorganization of incentives for teachers and schools. “At grade level” would no longer be a good measure of the efficacy of a school. Rather we would have to re-focus on general student growth even if the growth is in content that’s lower than traditional grade level. Along with that, there would have to be considerable adjustments to graduation time, general understanding of content promotion, and incentives for teachers.
In general it seems reasonable to try to inform the organization of our education system according to the best practices that education research has to offer. Teaching at the right level (TaRL) has been consistently shown to be the most effective way to improve struggling schools. If we want to optimize our schools to maximize the amount that our students actually learn rather than just progressing them through levels that increasingly mean less and less each year, then this reform is at least worth experimenting with in the US.