NYC Schools Should Re-examine Grade Levels, Study Suggests

October 9, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

NEW YORK—Did the time come for schools to re-examine the use of grade levels? Pat Delatour from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, would probably agree, and he’s not alone.

“My daughter is six and she’s in second grade. She was skipped from kindergarten to second grade,” Delatour said. His child goes to a charter school where such a move is possible.

A long-term study by a team from the Columbia Teacher’s College released on Oct. 8 suggests just that.

“Schools continue to group students into conventional levels and grades that are based largely on age,” the study states. “The Common Core, for the most part, continues to reflect this organizational structure.”

The study suggests a more performance-oriented approach of “alternative groupings and structures” based on the pace of students’ development.

“I do think it’s time to rethink age-grade placement,” said Judith Johnson, the interim superintendent of the Mount Vernon School District, at a forum hosted by the Education Funders Research Alliance on Oct. 8. “Wouldn’t it be great if I took the test when I was ready as opposed to being eight-, nine-, or ten-[years-old]?”

The research paper examined 77,000 New York City public high school students who entered kindergarten in 1996, and followed their progress until their first year in college. About 35,000 were accepted to college in the 2009-2010 academic year.

Although the researchers praise growing graduation rates and new initiatives, like the adoption of the Common Core curriculum, the amount of criticism leaves no place for complacency either.

“Far too many students find themselves on pathways that do not lead to college or productive careers,” the researchers say.

On- or Off-Track Since Early Age

The report shows that a student’s performance in early grades is a powerful determinant of their performance later on.

Less than 3 percent of students who failed to meet the third-grade English Language Arts (ELA) standard were able to meet or exceed the benchmark in eighth grade. Only a third of the students who failed the third-grade ELA test graduated from high school.

The same holds true, however, for the early high-achievers: more than 90 percent of those who exceeded the ELA standard in third grade did so again in eighth grade and almost 90 percent of them graduated within four years.

The report suggests youngsters experience “two different schools systems,” where for some advanced classes, clear benchmarks, and associated efforts serve as a helpful support pushing them through high school and up to the college. Yet for others the same instruments, plus plethora of exams and requirements, look more like obstacles.

“For the students who struggle the most, drastic changes in the system of obstacles may be required,” study suggests.