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Pros and cons of skipping a grade

Is skipping ahead the answer for gifted students?

By Connie Matthiessen

What do civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and poet T.S. Eliot have in common? All three skipped a grade (or more) in the course of their educational careers: King was just 15 when he graduated from high school, O'Connor graduated at 16, and Eliot earned an undergraduate degree in three years and a master's degree in one.

Even though many people — famous and obscure alike — skip grades in school, it's a highly charged issue. Few people are neutral on the subject — especially if they skipped a grade themselves.

Actor Ken Newman, who skipped a grade in elementary school, came to regret it when he got to high school. He sailed through his academic classes, but was picked on because he was smaller and younger-looking than his classmates. "Kids thought it was funny to grab me and stuff me into the trash can," he recalls.

When he went off to Cornell University at age 15, he still wore braces and wasn't shaving yet. He was emotionally unprepared as well: "For the first few weeks I was so homesick that I cried myself to sleep every night," he recalls. "I couldn't figure out why all the other kids were having such an easy transition. I was always on the sidelines — I didn't fit in. Now I'm in my 50s, and I still feel like I have to prove myself."

In contrast, Tara Lynne Groth doesn’t regret skipping her senior year in high school and heading straight for college at Johnson & Wales University. "I was really driven," she says. "I never had a problem doing the work: I was always surprised at the low effort other people were putting in." At 19 she was a college graduate; now she's 25 and runs a successful freelance writing business — no easy feat, given the tough economy.

There are no solid statistics on how many kids skip a grade each year, but education experts believe the practice was more common in the past than it is today.

One reason for the shift away from grade skipping is concern about potential social problems for kids like Ken Newman, who are advanced academically, but not physically or emotionally. Since social issues are likely to surface in middle and high school, it's difficult to predict if skipping an elementary school child ahead will create problems down the line. Many educators feel that keeping a child with her age group is the safest way to go. As one coworker, who always regretted skipping first grade, summed it up: "Childhood is short enough as it is. Why hurry kids any more than you need to?"

Those on the other side of the debate see a larger danger in letting kids languish in classes that are far too easy for them. Many high-ability, under-challenged kids float through school, growing accustomed to underachieving because they've never been encouraged to push themselves. "I think I would have been incredibly bored if I hadn't skipped ahead," says New Jersey copywriter Caryn Starr-Gates. "Even after skipping, I was always at the top of my class and in the honor society."

For parents of gifted children, the wide range of views on the plusses and minuses of grade skipping can be confusing. What should you do if your gifted child doesn't seem to be challenged at school? Is skipping a grade a good option for high-ability students? And if not, are there better alternatives?

Maureen Marron spends a lot of time thinking about how schools can meet the needs of high-ability students. An associate research scientist at the Connie Belin and Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa, Marron sees grade skipping as just one option in an academic tool kit known as "acceleration."

"Skipping a grade isn't the answer for every gifted student," Marron says. "Acceleration means matching the curriculum to a student's abilities. For one student, that may mean grade skipping; for another, it may mean acceleration in a single subject, like math; for other students, enrichment-based activities in the classroom are all they need." Other acceleration options for high-performing children can include starting kindergarten early, taking AP courses in high school, or fast-tracking to college.

But Marron and her colleagues at the Belin-Blank Center say there are far too few acceleration opportunities for children in the U.S. today. It’s a situation they call "a national scandal" in their comprehensive and highly regarded report, A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students. According to their findings, "America's school system keeps bright students in line by forcing them to learn in a lock-step manner with their classmates. Teachers and principals disregard students' desires to learn more — much more — than they are being taught."

The fallout? "Highly gifted students who are bored and act out as a result, or stop paying attention, or don't attain the skills they need to succeed in college and the workforce," Marron says. "We've heard that American students are falling behind students in other countries — what do we expect if we don't give these kids the tools they need to excel?"

A report by the National Association for Gifted Children echos this concern, warning that the lack of support for gifted children, "if left unchecked, will ultimately leave our nation ill-prepared to field the next generation of innovators and to compete in the global economy."

Experts suggest a number of reasons why acceleration programs are not more widely embraced by teachers and school administrators, including concern about the social impacts of moving a child ahead, and a lack of familiarity with acceleration on the part of teachers and administrators.

Government education policy may also play a role. A 2008 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that, since the introduction of No Child Left Behind, there have been achievement gains for low-performing students, but the performance of high-ability students has stagnated. Teachers reported feeling pressure to focus on their lowest-achieving students: 60 percent said low-achieving students were the top priority at their school; only 23 percent said that high-achieving students were a top priority. (Note: The report does not establish a definitive causal link between No Child Left Behind and the outcomes for low- and high-achieving students, but the timing of these trends implies a connection).

One step forward….
Marron and her colleagues at the Belin-Blank Center hope their research will encourage more schools to make acceleration programs available to gifted students. Along with A Nation Deceived, the Center also published Guidelines for Developing an Academic Acceleration Policy, which documents the effectiveness of acceleration programs and provides practical steps for implementation. If you think your child would benefit from acceleration, these reports are an excellent resource. They‘re full of acceleration options and programs geared specifically to gifted kids.

Unfortunately, many of the gifted programs that do exist at schools around the country are currently under fire: From California to Kentucky, these programs are a popular target when cash-strapped school districts are looking for places to cut.

It's impossible to calculate the long-term cost of cutting gifted programs for society as a whole, but a letter from an Ohio student underscores the individual toll: 

"This is my story. My school used to have gifted programs. I loved school. We did many interesting things [such] as intriguing science readings on stem cell research and possible cloning. The funding of these classrooms stopped. School has become increasingly boring without acceleration classes. Since the gifted classrooms have stopped my grade point average has [dropped] from a 4.0 to a C-plus average.

I have found it very hard to stay interested in the school subjects and find myself frequently not being able to keep focus on learned material and getting myself into trouble.”
(From the Belin-Blank website)



Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from readers

"can i skip a grade from 8th grade to 9th grade at the city of shakopee or minneapolis? "
"My twin boy/girl preschoolers have September birthdays and we're trying to decide whether to start them in Kindergarten the year they turn 5 in September or wait until they are turning 6 per state guidelines. My daughter is 3 1/2 and already writing her name and sounding out words. Her brother is very insightful, memorizes rhyming books, and likes to take things apart. Holding them back seems a sure way to make them bored, and unchallenged since that's exactly how their father felt and he had a September birthday. I get extra frustrated when I hear of parents "red-shirting" their children and holding them back a year from Kindergarten specifically so they'll be bigger and better at sports. Is that really where our focus should be for our children? On sports instead of academic achievement? "
"Schools today, because of NCLB, are required to focus on under-achieving students. Our bright students are increasingly falling behind in all academic areas, but especially in math and science, because of lack of gifted and accelerated programs. Where will our future scientists come from if our brightest are too bored to learn? "
"I asked about the GATE program, (whether they promoted to the next grade), at a recent school tour and was promptly hushed with the admonition that, it can be bad for the childs social/emotional readiness. While this is a valid concern, the response was so swift and in a school that highly values it's state scores. It really allots a lot of resources for it that it made me wonder if schools are using this "concern" more as an excuse to keep their gifted students in the same grade to boost their state test scores. Anyone else catch a whiff of this type of thing? I remember a lazy GATE program from a highly reputable school in the past that simply kept the kids in the same grade and brought in the work from the next grade up, which was why I even had the idea why not just skip the kids and get them moving onto college or careers quicker if you're just going to give them the work from the next grade up and isolate them from their peers anyway might as well just skip them. I'm glad people are looking into this group since I fear way too much time is spent trying to "correct" what are perceived as "problem" students. When really they just probably only need their particular needs addressed in creative and tailored ways as well. I feel our best and brightest are falling by the wayside and it's a sad shame. "
"Our children are/were in a small private Lutheran School. My daughter skipped third grade even though everybody told us not to, since she is a petit person to begin with. She is in 9th grade now in public High School and remains a straight A student, even with one AP and several Honor classes. My son attending 7th grade in the same private school was chosen from DUKE University's talent search and did his SAT testing. He did very well and since he seemed to us under challenged the last school year we approached our school to advance him to High School. The High School had a place for him in the same special program our daughter is in. But the public school board said NO do to the LAW that we need an 8th grade graduation report card. Any suggestions what we can do to either advance him or at least to make his 8th grade school year not a wasted one? "
"I was placed from the fourth to the sixth grade in the 1950's. I handled the academics OK; I graduated, still 16, second in a class of less than 100 in a small high school. However, I was at a distinct disadvantage socially and in sports. I would not recommend accelerated advancement, or double promotion as it was called then. "
"Girls skipping grades into college have an easier time because small size and youthful appearance are an assest at all ages -- but NOT for boys. "
"I really enjoyed all the detail. It was like a juicy grapefruit pouring out it's contents. Great work! "
"this artical is awsome exept let kids skip more grades "
"Does anybody else think grade skipping is a districts cheap way out of providing an education to a gifted child because they do not place a priority on gifted education when creating their budget? "
"Does anybody else think grade skipping is a districts cheap way out of providing an education to a gifted child because they do not place a priority on gifted education when creating their budget? "
"I have to be in 9 cause i am 15"
"If a student is ready, skipping a grade is the way to go. I skipped two grades, started high school at 12. It does not hurt to move on. The kids adapt. "
"There are great benefits to younger and older children interacting, as long as there are just a few years difference. Look at the successful learning patterns of children in Montessori schools! They interact with older and younger kids daily and it generally proves to be very positive. If parents and teachers stay connected to the child skipping a grade then there is a structure in place for the child to consult if social difficulties do arise. There are many smaller kids in class that have not skipped a grade. Are we going to hold them back because we are concerned about the social pressure they may face? Certainly not."
"Although it is very difficult for a parent to decide to push a child ahead, one must look at the child. When our child was 5, we decided to have him skip kindergarten in public schools (he had gone to Montessori pre-school) and start in first grade. At the end of the prior school year, we had him visit for a day the public school kindergarten with the most experienced teacher. After two hours, she said he was definitely ready for 1st grade, as did his Montessori teacher and a psychologist who tested him for readiness and ability. He was not only gifted, but also tall, mature and confident. Our only concern was sports in high school. He made the varsity team but sat the bench because there were other boys as tall and much stronger (and 1 1/2 years older which makes a big difference physically in high school). That was our only regret, but we knew it could happen. Our concern that he might be bored and therefore lose interest in school trumped the concern for taking a back seat in high school sports. And we believe high school sports are very important to a child's development. Otherwise, he has excelled in every way and still had a decent if not stellar high school sports experience."
"these stories do prove that a student/child still has to be emotionally ready if they are going to skip a grade. To be 19 in college is perfect; since she was able to transition from her other grades with her peers; acceralted classes are more suitable because you are still with like-peers who won't make fun of you or try to make you feel left out."
"What I'd like to read additional commentary on is what parents can do to help kids who need more challenge. Is it enough, for example, for a parent to seize on the interests of a driven student and provide learning opportunities in that area? I'm referring to tutoring programs, but also trips to museums, hands-on science experiments, and that sort of thing. Is there any research to show whether that can help? I have a child who is very bright academically but quite immature for her age, even though she's on the older end of her class. I don't think she's bored yet but I DID get bored in school in some subjects, and then lost interest in all my studies when I hit a roadblock in math. I guess the moral is, there really is no one-size-fits all approach, but my personal belief is that parents can pick up where the schools leave off."
"I can't believe we are still debating this. More and more gifted students, especially the highly gifted - are joining the ranks of the at-risk because their educational needs are not being met. There is no room in the budget for our best and brightest, so at least allow them to do the next best (and cost-free) alternative: acceleration."
"Some students are ahead of their peers and to be kept with them is wrong because they can be in front, and never have to look back. I sgree that students should be skipped, if they are doing 100% better then the average student and they need to be rewarded for being almost as smart as their teacher."
"Nothing wrong with skipping a grade or two. But parents should be in tune with what's best for their cild's personality. Some children are OK with being with older kids. Some defiitely are not. It is up to the parents to carve out the best learning environment for their child. Most public school systems are not equipped to stimulate and nuture children who are very advanced academically."
"As a teacher I have seen that students who skip a grade based on the following guidelines: height/weight (they tend to be taller etc. for their grade), good social skills, and high grades/standardized test scores, tend to do well when promoted early."