— Zac Chase (@MrChase) February 8, 2016
Grade level is only useful because it so long has been correlated with a child’s age. Just as it is useful to know if a child is 5 years old rather than 10, it is somewhat useful to think about the type of work and cognitive skill that is possible for a brain with that many years behind it. We vaguely know that there are some challenges that 14 year olds are ready for that 7 year olds are not, but that vague notion has been formalized and codified by years of thinking about where the cutoff points are within our curriculums.
The true issue arises when we start to limit what a child can do based upon those cutoff points. When we say things like, “my second graders could never do that,” we are denying the potential of an individual student to excel. And grade levels are grossly inaccurate when it comes to brain-based milestones anyway. The child who started kindergarten much earlier than other kids will have different experience than one who started much later. The fact that they are being promoted along with their “peers” just means that we are much more interested in preserving the myth of grade levels than truly understanding when a child is ready for the next challenge.
Needing to be “On grade level” is yet another layer that we can add. It represents the notion that the chronological age, the grade level number, and the cognitive/academic challenge all can and should match up. If one of those things is out of sync, a child is not “on grade level”. It may not match up with research on competency or of brain development, but it has so much legacy in our schools that it may be the toughest to change. Children and adults both roughly know what it means to be in 3rd grade. They have a sense of what is required of a 10th grader. Parents can compare notes on their children’s progress and there is an easier transition between schools when a student moves. In fact, grade levels are all about ease of use.
We have 12 grades plus kindergarten (give or take an ECE). We follow those grades with the calendar year (give or take a few credits earned in high school). We have an elementary school, a middle, and a high school (give or take a k-8 or k-12). It is easy to look at and to plan for.
Unfortunately, children are not easy to educate and communities need more than socially promoted kids who lack the skills to be citizens. Being “on grade level” is not a fair marker of a child’s success. It denies the support that child needs to move forward. We don’t worry about kids who are “on grade level.” We only worry about kids who are behind or ahead. “On grade level” has become a code for “spend less time with” as a teacher.
I do not deny that it is useful to have signposts in the growth of students. It is useful to have comparison points, but the grade level and the age of the child are terrible surrogates for actual accomplishments and success in school and life.