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Friday, January 13, 2023

Should Grade-Skipping Be More Common? Here’s What the Research Says

Evidence suggests grade-skipping is not nearly as prevalent as it ought to be.

Image Credit: Ernesto Eslava - Pixabay

Have you ever been bored in school? For most people, the answer is probably yes. Sometimes it’s a particular teacher that goes way too slow through the material. At other times, the curriculum is just too easy. In either case, the result is countless wasted hours that you will simply never get back.

Gifted kids seem especially prone to boredom in school, and it’s no wonder why. With a wide range of aptitudes in the class, teachers are forced to teach to the lowest common denominator, and the result is that gifted kids are left unchallenged and unstimulated.

For the particularly gifted, a question sometimes arises: should they skip a grade? When this question comes up, the response of many parents is one of apprehension. What if they aren’t ready? What if it will take a psychological toll? These are valid concerns, but we shouldn’t let these concerns stop us from pursuing the question further. The fact is, there are many students who stand to benefit a lot from skipping a grade, and we do them a great disservice when we let fear and status quo bias guide this decision rather than evidence and reason.

So let’s look at what the research actually says about skipping grades.

Academic and Psychological Effects

When we think about skipping grades, some of the main questions that arise are about how this will affect the student academically and psychologically. The good news is, many students have traveled this path before, and we now have a plethora of studies that tell us how it went for them.

One of the more well-known studies is a 2013 paper titled ​​When Less Is More: Effects of Grade Skipping on Adult STEM Productivity Among Mathematically Precocious Adolescents. The study followed a set of gifted children for 40 years and found that the kids who skipped grades had noticeably better academic performance into adulthood than students with similar aptitude who didn’t skip grades.

“Results suggest that grade skippers (a) were more likely to pursue advanced degrees in STEM and author peer-reviewed publications in STEM, (b) earned their degrees and authored their 1st publication earlier, and (c) accrued more total citations and highly cited publications by age 50 years.”

A 2014 study came to a similar conclusion.

“Research has repeatedly demonstrated the positive effects of acceleration for gifted and talented students,” the authors note. “Results [from this study] suggest that, on average, accelerated students consistently and significantly outperformed their nonaccelerated peers, both in high school and in college.”

The case for grade acceleration is looking good from an academic perspective, but what about the psychological perspective? Do kids who skip grades experience emotional drawbacks, perhaps because they are surrounded by older students?

Not usually. In fact, according to a 2010 meta-analysis, the psychological effect of grade acceleration might even be positive.

“The social—emotional development effects [of grade acceleration] appeared to be slightly positive,” the authors note, “although not as strong as for academic achievement…Accelerants equal or surpass non-accelerants in self-concept, self-esteem, self-confidence, social relationships, participation in extracurricular activities, and life satisfaction.”

This may be surprising to some, but it shouldn’t be. Putting a kid in a more stimulating environment can do wonders for their excitement about life and learning.

A 2022 literature review was more cautious, but confirmed that grade acceleration “has a positive impact on academic achievement and is not detrimental to psychosocial development.”

Now, this isn’t to say that every student who skips a grade is guaranteed to be better off. Some students aren’t ready for that challenge, and they could certainly experience academic and/or psychological difficulty if they go ahead with the acceleration. In general, however, a student who seems like a good grade-skipping candidate will likely find it to be a worthwhile move.

In fact, given the evidence, we should really be worried about the risks of not accelerating them. After all, if there’s anything that’s detrimental to academic performance and psychological well-being, it’s incessant boredom.

Should Grade-Skipping Be More Common?

So far we’ve established that grade acceleration often has positive effects for high-performing students, both academically and psychologically, and is thus a good idea for those students. But what about the students who are maybe above average but aren’t at the very top of the class? Should they be accelerated too? More broadly, is the current prevalence of grade acceleration optimal, or would it be better if there was more or less?

To answer this question, we can look to a fascinating report released by Johns Hopkins University in 2016. The report investigates what percentage of students are performing a year or more above grade level at various grades. The results are staggering. According to the report, “between 15% and 45% of students enter the late-elementary classroom each fall already performing at least one year ahead of expectations.”

It’s a wide margin, sure, but the point is clear. Roughly 1 in 3 students—a full third of the class—are already prepared for the next grade up when they walk into class at the beginning of the school year. By comparison, only about 1 percent of students skip grades at some point in K-12.

Clearly, grade acceleration isn’t being practiced nearly enough. As a result, countless students are sitting in classrooms every day, bored to death, failing to reach their potential.

“The U.S. likely wastes tens of billions of dollars each year in efforts to teach students content they already know,” the Johns Hopkins researchers write. “Our findings suggest that a great many students could benefit from whole-grade or single-subject acceleration. Indeed, this is consistent with the literature, which has documented uniformly positive benefits when academic acceleration is implemented thoughtfully.”

The researchers anticipate an objection: instead of accelerating a student, why not have instructional and curricular differentiation for brighter students? The problem, they say, is that this is practically infeasible due to the wide distribution of student ability in any given class.

“Although a good idea in theory, the nature of our age-based, grade-level-focused system prevents differentiation from being implemented consistently or effectively,” they write. “Acceleration, whether at the whole-grade or single-subject level, minimizes the difficulty in offering differentiated learning experiences, because students within a given classroom are selected to be far more homogeneous in ability and prior knowledge than they are in the traditional system.”

“Millions of American K-12 students are performing above grade level and are not being appropriately challenged,” the researchers conclude, “putting their intellectual development and the country’s future prosperity at risk.”

Many other researchers in this field have offered similar takeaways.

“The literature concerning radical acceleration strongly supports the wider adoption of this most successful intervention,” notes a 2016 paper.

A 2017 book titled Fundamentals of Gifted Education echoes these remarks. “The research support for academic acceleration as an effective intervention for highly able students stands in stark contrast to the actual implementation of acceleration in schools,” researchers write.

Treating Students as Individuals

If grade-skipping became more prevalent, the school system could look quite different. It might even become normal to finish in 9 or 10 years, with the brightest group in the class heading off to college or the workforce around age 16.

Some likely bristle at the thought. “Kids aren’t mature enough to join the adult world at 16,” they might say. But the phrasing of this objection highlights the fundamental problem with the current education paradigm. “Kids” aren’t a uniform blob. They are unique individuals with vastly different talents, aptitudes, and maturity. Sure, some kids aren’t ready to go to graduate at 16, but many kids are, and we’re only holding them back when we insist they go at the same pace as the slowest students in the class.

The age-based one-pace-fits-all approach to education might make sense if all kids of the same age were a uniform collective, but they aren’t. There is immense variation among students, and we need to take that into account. It makes zero sense to impose a rigid educational structure on a diverse array of learners.

When you think about it, the idea that every student should take 12 years to complete the standard curriculum is completely incongruous with everything we know about student variability.

There’s a further implication here, and a bolder one. Normalizing grade-skipping is a great first step toward a more tailored educational approach, but what if we went further? What if we moved away from the 12-year model altogether and instead created a range of educational pathways for children that are as varied in pace and curriculum as are the interests and aptitudes of the students they serve?

Is that crazy? It’s certainly a radical departure from the status quo. Then again, maybe a radical change is exactly what’s needed.

The Johns Hopkins researchers certainly seem to think so.

“The current K-12 education system essentially ignores the learning needs of a huge percentage of its students,” they write. “Knowing this, 20 years from now we may look back and wonder why we kept using age-based grade levels to organize K-12 education for so long.”

The people at the forefront of education research are questioning the very concept of age-based learning.

Maybe it’s time we did as well.

Further Reading:

Segregating Students by Age Is a Terrible Practice by Daniel Lattier

Grade Acceleration Benefits Learners and Schools. So Why Is It so Rare? by James Devereaux

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.