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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How Can So Many Students Be Invisible? Large Percentages of American Students Perform Above Grade Level

From the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy
via Real Clear Education

August 21, 2016

Read the entire report HERE (16 pages; pdf).


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. (7) 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?


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 multi-state MAP data, we 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 high as the reading/language arts numbers. Due to inconsistent or nonexistent 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.

Conclusion 2: Large percentages of students are performing well above grade level.

Using MAP data, we estimate that 8-10% of Grade 4 students perform at the Grade 8 level in reading/English/language arts, with 2-5% scoring at similar levels in math. Relying specifically on the MAP data, one out of every 10 fifth-graders is performing at the high-school level in reading, and nearly one child in 40 at this age is performing at the high-school level in mathematics.

Because of the MAP test’s computer-adaptive format and high measurement ceiling, these results cannot be explained away by the correction that commonly applies to pencil-and-paper, grade-level achievement tests. On the latter tests, a fifth-grader with a ninth-grade level equivalent score amounts to a ninth-grader’s completing a fifth-grade test. By contrast, a MAP test score that is equivalent to ninth-grade performance reflects ninth-grade content knowledge and skills.

Conclusion 3: These percentages represent staggeringly large numbers of students.

Converting these percentages to numbers of children provides a sobering picture of the number of students who are not well served under the current grade-based educational paradigm. In Wisconsin alone, some 20,000 students per grade level are performing more than a year ahead of grade-level expectations. Overall, somewhere between 278,000 and 330,000 public-school Wisconsin students across grades K-12 are performing more than a full grade above where they are placed in school.

In the much larger state of California, across grades K-12 somewhere between 1.4 million and 2 million students are currently performing more than a full grade level above where they are placed in school. NAEP data provide evidence that, in 2013 alone, more than 400,000 Grade 4 students performed above the level of the lowest quarter of Grade 12 students in reading. Roughly 14.5 million Grade 4 students have scored at this level in reading in the years since 2002.

Looking at NAEP mathematics scores, in 2015 alone more than one million Grade 4 students would have outscored the same number of Grade 8 students. In other words, in a single recent year, there were more students in the United States already working four years above grade level than the entire population of Rhode Island.


Implication 1: Federal and state education policies focusing on grade-level proficiency are irrelevant for a huge number of American students.

Bringing students to grade-level proficiency has been a focus of U.S. education policy and practice for well over a decade, but little attention has been devoted to addressing the learning needs of those students who already have achieved this proficiency target before setting foot in the classroom. This may be because, as our informal experience suggests, it has widely been supposed that there are only a very few such learners.

The present work demonstrates that this supposition is flawed. This begs the question of just what these students are learning from grade-level content in classes organized by age. The United States likely wastes tens of billions of dollars each year in efforts to teach students content they already know.

Implication 2: The U.S. K-12 context, which is organized primarily around age-based grade levels, needs serious rethinking.

Clearly, either something is wrong with how grade-level performance is determined, or the K-12 educational system should be providing a different educational environment to meet the learning needs of many American students.

Our findings suggest that a great many students could benefit from whole-grade or single-subject acceleration. Indeed, this is consistent with the literature, which has documented uniformly positive benefits when academic acceleration is implemented thoughtfully.

Academic acceleration is particularly beneficial for students pursuing professional careers that require substantial academic preparation and credentialing, a point that has been recognized for more than 80 years.

We are aware that one likely response to these findings is to point to instructional and curricular differentiation as an obvious intervention. In instructional differentiation, the teacher provides varied learning alternatives within the same overall classroom and curricula that are designed in response to differences in student readiness.

However, research suggests that instructional differentiation is difficult to accomplish and thus is rarely implemented well, likely due to the enormous distribution of student ability in elementary school classrooms (e.g., up to 11 grade levels of reading performance in Grades 4 and 5).

Although a good idea in theory, the nature of our age-based, grade-level system prevents differentiation from being implemented consistently or effectively. Acceleration, whether at the whole-grade or single-subject level, minimizes the difficulty in offering differentiated learning experiences, because students within a given classroom are selected to be far more homogeneous in ability and prior knowledge than they are in the traditional system.

Implication 3: States should require each district and school to report its percentages of above-grade-level performers and to dis-aggregate students’ average growth by starting scores.

Research suggests that currently these students’ learning needs are not being met through alternative placements or by within-grade differentiation. Rather, these students are under-challenged by the curriculum and instruction they are being provided.

Millions of American K-12 students are performing above grade level and are not being appropriately challenged, putting their intellectual development and the country’s future prosperity at risk. One initial step that every state, district, and school should take to address this problem is to report the absolute numbers and percentages of students who are performing above grade level.

Transparency creates a climate of accountability. What is tested gets taught; what we report receives attention. The first step toward meeting these high-performing learners’ educational needs is to routinely report their presence and their numbers. In addition to above-grade-level performance, states, districts, and schools should use assessments that measure growth and report typical growth for students at various, initial performance levels (e.g., bottom 10%, top 10%).

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