Fast Learners Benefit From Skipping Grades, Report Concludes

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Few educators these days want to go back to the early 19th century, when often the only opportunities for learning were one-room schoolhouses or, if you were rich, private tutors. But a report from the University of Iowa says at least those students had no age and grade rules to hold them back.

What was lost in the 20th century was "an appreciation for individual differences," scholars Nicholas Colangelo, Susan G. Assouline and Miraca U.M. Gross conclude in the report, "A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students." Now, the report says, "America's school system keeps bright students in line by forcing them to learn in a lock-step manner with their classmates."

The report is part of a national effort to move gifted-education programs away from keeping students in the same grades and giving them extra, enriched classes and projects. It is better, the report says, to let third-graders capable of fifth-grade work go to fifth grade. Or break out of the grade system altogether.

Some programs that serve children of all abilities, like the Montessori method for elementary schools, resist organizing grades by age and let all students choose what to learn. The acceleration advocates would prefer a case-by-case approach, letting each child reach the appropriate level, even if it means 10-year-olds in high school.

The Iowa report contradicts the widespread belief that skipping grades or heading for college at age 15 risks social trauma and psychological harm. Accelerated students are often more comfortable with students at higher levels of learning and seek out older students when denied a chance to skip grades, the report says.

James Kulik, director of the office of evaluations and examinations at the University of Michigan, said, "No other arrangement for gifted children works as well as acceleration." But many school administrators, influenced by claims that low-achieving students are hurt by tracking systems that confine them to lower-level classes, have resisted grade-skipping, Kulik said.

UCLA professor Jeannie Oakes, a leading opponent of tracking, said she agreed with the Iowa report's case-by-case approach. If a sixth-grader understands advanced mathematical concepts, she said, "the solution is to send that child to high school," not to put the child in a class with other bright sixth-graders and just call it accelerated, even if it isn't.

-- Jay Mathews

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