Ageless Grade Levels?

grade levels

This month’s post could easily have been titled “Education’s Long, Divisive Debate of Teaching to a Child’s Developmental Age versus Chronological Age” — but I thought that might be too long 🙂

No matter what you title this debate the question remains the same: Why do we continue to divide up students by how old they are versus how many skills the know?

My Classroom this Year

In Special Education, we have a variation of the same problem. Many of our self-contained classes are mixed grade/age/ability/learning difference levels.  For example, I currently teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in our Autism-Core Class. I am teaching state required common core standards that must be scaffolded according to my students’ needs as well as integrating their IEP Goals as the overarching compass of our units. My students range from ages 10-14, with ELD (English Language Development) Levels of 1-5 and a few EO’s (English Only) learners sprinkled in. When assessed, my students are reading anywhere from a 3rd-7th grade level. Math is a little higher, probably because it’s universal in any language and more concrete in content.

Now, some educators would balk at the learning makeup of my classroom and advocate for grade-level specific classes. But I say, this is how it should be.

We Started Off with 1 Teacher for All Grades

If you’re a “Heartie” or a fan of shows like “Little House on the Prairie”  or “Anne of Green Gables” (I love her!) or even just remember a little of your Frontier History, you’ll note that there was one teacher for all of the kids in the town. That teacher was responsible for instructing whole group lessons in all core content areas and differentiating was required across K-12 subject-matters.

Really it was an administrative decision based on funding and student enrollment. There was one teacher that needed to teach to everyone.

Age Division is Partly Based on Administrative Necessity

It’s just plain easier to put all of the 9 and 10 year-olds together and call it Fourth Grade. The reality is that when working to place so many students, particularly within the public school setting, it is more convenient to group by ages and then, if the school and district chooses, to branch out from there. Some schools have various differences within the age level programming, such as Gifted and Talented, but few public schools structure their groupings with a focus on mixed-age levels determined by skill mastery.

Yet there are more supporters of this type of class groupings within the last 10 years than was previously thought (a few snippets of the conversation below):

What’s really frustrating, though, is that it seems like everything from text-books to games to a student and parent’s mindset is categorized by ages and grade levels in place of skill mastery. Due to the limited to no-retention policies, a fifth student who has not yet mastered their multiplication tables will go on to sixth and seventh and eighth grade and possibly be more behind in that skill area as the years go by.

Here’s What I Want 

What I would like to see in the span of my teaching career is a move away from grouping students by chronological age and grouping students more by what they know. If a 3rd grader is ready to go on to 5th grade reading but needs more time in 2nd grade math, then let that be our guide in how to structure classes and provide the right support, intervention, instruction and content for that student.

With technology, our society is becoming more and more individualized. My hope is that education jumps on board and begins to guide a student throughout their academic career by what they know instead of how old they are.


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