By Matthew C. Makel, Michael S. Matthews, Scott J. Peters, Karen Rambo-Hernandez, and Jonathan A. Plucker
America’s K-12 education systems place students in grade levels by age and set performance expectations accordingly, using historical, average grade-level performance rather than any specific content students are expected to master7. This should not surprise us. Nearly all aspects of America’s schools are built upon age-based grade levels and corresponding grade-level expectations: standards, instruction, curriculum, and assessment, among others. Indeed, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), like the No Child Left Behind Act before it, has a strong grade-level framework running throughout its nearly 400 pages. The stated importance of “getting students to grade level” reinforces the implicit message that doing so is the primary purpose of schooling. This emphasis ignores an important question: How many students already perform one or more years above grade level on their first day of school?
The answer to this question has profound implications for American education policy and for the organization of schools. If a mere 2% of students perform above grade level, the present obsession with grade-level proficiency might make sense. But what if it were a far larger proportion? If one in every five students has surpassed that criterion before the school year even starts, policymakers would need to re-think the merits of an age-based, grade-level focus.
The purpose of this policy brief is to answer the following foundational question, which should be considered by policymakers and school administrators well before adopting curricula or assessments: How many students perform above grade level?
Before investigating, we canvassed colleagues and friends for their estimates of the percentage of students performing above grade level. Our queries were generally met with bemused silence, followed by hesitant (and quite wide-ranging) estimates, and ended with comments such as, “That seems like a question we should be able to answer, but I just don’t know.”
Prior research in this area is limited. Two data points stand out: textbook and curriculum analyses suggest that intellectual rigor declined significantly over the last hundred years;8 the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented found that teachers, using pre-testing strategies, could eliminate 40-50% of the existing curriculum for advanced elementary school students without causing achievement declines on out-of-level standardized tests.9 The authors noted, “Targeted students had mastered some material in all content areas prior to instruction; at a minimum, they demonstrated mastery of one-fourth of the curriculum for the year before it was taught” (p. 81). A few students in the same study had mastered three-quarters of the upcoming year’s curriculum. This research and related studies suggest that the regular classroom routinely under-challenges advanced students. This work does not, however, provide insight into the matter at hand: How many K-12 students perform above grade level?