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Large Percentages of American Students Perform Above Grade Level

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 master. 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.

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?

**Conclusion 1: Very large percentages of students are performing above grade level.**
** **

Five different data sets from five distinct assessment administrations
provide consistent evidence that many students perform above grade
level. Based on the Wisconsin and California Smarter Balanced, Florida
FSA, and multistate MAP data, the authors estimate that 20-40% of elementary and
middle school students perform at least one grade level above their
current grade in reading, with 11-30% scoring at least one grade level
above in math.

It is not surprising that the mathematics
percentages, although quite high, are not as large as the
reading/language arts numbers. Due to inconsistent or absent policies
regarding acceleration, high-performing Grade 5 or 6 students are rarely
given access to algebra, geometry, statistics, or calculus courses. The
lack of acceleration in math thus provides a structural barrier to
moving too far “above grade level.” Achievement in reading does not face
similar barriers.

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