Monday, October 31, 2016

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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