Saxon Scott was 5 years old when her parents decided she could do without kindergarten. She’d sailed through a series of tests that measured her acumen, and moved directly to first grade once preschool ended. Now she’s 15 and a high school junior, and Scott thinks nothing of her relative youth. She continues to shine in the classroom, is friendly with students in her grade, and only briefly laments the fact that she won’t be driving until the end of her freshman year in college. “As someone who skipped kindergarten, I can say it wasn’t a big deal,” Scott said.
Skipping grades used to be a common strategy to keep gifted or very bright children engaged in learning; it was a simple intervention that worked well when schools were smaller, more flexible and lacking enrichment programs. But today, according to a recent report by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, just 1 percent of students jumps a grade level.
The practice has fallen out of favor among parents and teachers for a variety of reasons. “Like any system, schools like it when all parts are identical, and all kids are the same,” explained Michael S. Matthews, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and contributor to the Johns Hopkins study. Few teachers have classroom experience working with accelerated students and so resist the change. Schools generally lack the systems and policies to determine fairly which students can be skipped. For parents, the effect on a child’s social and emotional development is the main objection to bumping them up. Their worries center on what educational assessment expert Katie McClarty calls “the three D’s”: drinking, driving and dating.
A parent named Chelle had a different set of worries when she considered whether or not her daughter Jordan should skip first grade. It was the start of the school year and Jordan was misbehaving—uncharacteristically—in class. Yet the child would come home after school and sail through her brother’s third-grade math homework. When Chelle contemplated the idea of grade skipping with other parents, “Everyone had a very strong opinion,” she said. “’Don’t take away her childhood!’” some told her.
Chelle worried most about interfering with her daughter’s natural gregariousness and willingness to take the lead. But after testing showed that Jordan could handle advanced material, Chelle quickly moved her into second grade and hoped for the best. Now, years later, she is thankful for her decision. “Jordan has done very well. She has made great friends with other girls, and is one of the strongest leaders,” Chelle said. “It’s a non-issue by now.”
Several studies indicate that grade skipping is largely beneficial for able children and devoid of significant drawbacks. A 2011 review of 38 studies on grade skipping asserts that gifted students who passed over a grade achieved more academically than their equally qualified peers who remained in the “appropriate” grade level. A 2015 study on gifted children carried out at the University of Iowa, A Nation Empowered, concludes that accelerating children helps them academically and socially. The worry that grade-skipped kids will fall behind or slip to the middle is without merit, Matthews said.
How many kids would benefit from grade skipping? According to the study team at Johns Hopkins, two out of seven children test at a grade level higher than their current one—“staggeringly large numbers of students,” in their words, who might benefit from jumping ahead by grade or class. Advocates of accelerated learning point out that skipping a grade is just one way to jump ahead. In middle and high school, students can more easily move in and out of higher-level classes without missing an entire grade. And technology has eased the way for accelerated learning. Children living in remote parts of the country, for example, can move up by taking AP classes online.
As much as proponents of grade skipping encourage families to consider the intervention, they also recognize that it won’t suit every child, and that schools have work to do before they embrace the idea on a large scale. Research shows that the social and emotional development of children who skip grades is usually not harmed—and might even be helped—but some children might not be ready for it.
“Grade skipping is not the answer for every kid,” said McClarty, who is currently chief assessment officer at Questar.
She recommends that parents and teachers evaluate a child’s social, emotional and intellectual readiness using a tool known as the Iowa Acceleration Scale.
Teacher and author Jessica Lahey wrote about some of the developmental concerns about accelerating students based on intellect that become more pronounced in middle school. She wrote in The New York Times:
And that whole child, a child who skipped happily along through elementary school, becomes profoundly and heartbreakingly vulnerable in adolescence.
Schools, too, would have to develop a transparent process for determining which kids can skip ahead, including offering regular pre-testing.
“This would require a shift in how we do assessments,” Matthews said.
A clear and fair method of selecting students would be necessary to ensure access for all qualified kids, not merely those with ambitious and well-informed parents who insist on it. “Schools would have to be careful not to miss people who would benefit from acceleration,” Matthews added. For example, in one Florida county gifted and talented education program, selecting students based on teacher and parent referrals resulted in under representation of African American and Latino students compared to the student population. Introducing a universal screening program (which is no longer being used) doubled the number of gifted students who are African American and Latino.
And, if two out of seven children suddenly bumped up a grade, schools and colleges would have to react to some probable unintended consequences. Universities would need to offer more emotional support, guidance and supervision to incoming freshman who might not be legal adults, Matthews explained. Schools would also need to figure out how to share the cost savings that would result from educating a child in 11 years, say, rather than 12.
These adjustments are worth the effort, Matthews believes. Parents and educators need to consider the largely hidden costs of holding overqualified kids in classes that are beneath them, including wasted time, abundant boredom and diminished enthusiasm for learning. And for young people who hope to enter careers that require years of undergraduate and graduate school education, grade skipping early in life can expedite their entry into the professional world.
“It’s a social capital issue,” Matthews said. “What are we missing as a society by not taking advantage of the talents in our population?”