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Are Traditional Grade Levels Going Out of Style?

A teacher sits at her desk long after the last school bell rings. She runs her hand through her hair as she struggles to write a lesson plan for a classroom full of students operating at different levels of understanding. Our teacher teaches sixth grade. Half of her class is reading at a seventh-grade level, while the other half is reading at a fifth-grade level. Oh, and don't forget Tommy, who is currently reading at a ninth-grade level.

This is a prevalent challenge in most grade school classrooms today, which leads us to the question, are traditional grade levels going out of style?

Current Grade Level System

In our current system, we assign students to a particular grade based on their age and the month in which their birthday falls. Occasionally, students demonstrate a need to move up to a higher grade or stay for a second year in their current grade. 

This style of classroom structure assumes that all children of a given age group should have a similar understanding and grasp of all subjects taught at that age. The expectation is that the student should have the same level of understanding of the given grade level of math as they do of English and science. Not only does their understanding of each subject need to be relatively similar, but it also needs to be similar to that of their peers.

The Solution

Schools have begun looking at a possible solution that involves moving to a system that allows students to learn in groups with a similar level of understanding in any given subject. This would mean that we divide students by subject matter and proficiency rather than dividing the students by birthday. 

The Challenges

As I am sure you can imagine, transitioning to this style of education structure presents many challenges for the school and the district. 

Grade Level

The first challenge would be deciding at what grade level this change in structure should be implemented. In early grade school, students thrive on consistency and an environment that provides structured support and attachment with the student's teacher. 

Children depend on being within the same environment each day to feel safe exploring and learning. Therefore, the change is likely more beneficial as students enter into middle school, an environment where they are already moving within different classrooms throughout the day. 


The next challenge is deciding how you move children throughout the year. For example, let's say that you group a set of students who have a sixth-grade reading level. Under the traditional model, two of these students would have been placed in eighth grade, two in fifth, and seven in sixth. As the school year progresses, the students begin to improve at different paces. Three of the students may quickly move into the seventh-grade reading level, while one of the students never progresses out of the sixth. 

If we are grouping students based on proficiency, we need to decide if they move into different groups throughout the year based on change or if they remain in the same group. We would also need to decide how to measure proficiency throughout the year. 

The Role of Educators

One of the primary decisions that must be made with this type of transition is what role the educators will play as traditional grade levels go out of style. Various schools have explored the idea that students will self-guide through the subject matter. However, self-guided learning is not effective for many students, especially students who are younger in age. 

The teacher could serve in two functions. The first being a mentor to the self-guided work that the students are doing. The second is a traditional teaching role but one in which students move throughout the day to different teachers based on the subject matter and understanding level.

The Benefits

In today's model, it's easy for students who are behind to stay behind. If a student comes into the eighth grade at a seventh-grade level, learning eighth-grade material will only make the gap between expectation and understanding greater. Grouping students based on proficiency allows the teacher and material to meet the student where they are at. With this, there's greater potential for the student to learn and grow in their capabilities. This model also allows students to study different proficiency levels in different subjects. The student can spend time growing their proficiency in math while continuing to excel in English.

While teachers may have to lesson plan for multiple groups of children for any given day, they will no longer have to plan how to teach those different groups all at once. Teachers will be able to focus their lesson plan on the current group's proficiency level. This reduces stress for the teacher and allows for greater learning potential for the student. 

The Possibilities are Endless

It's exciting to live in a time where the community is so willing to reevaluate our learning structures. To live when we stop and look at the development and learning process and ask ourselves how to meet students where they are developmentally and educationally. I think that it is safe to assume that over the next five years, our learning structure and grade level system will absolutely go out of style. 

As our traditional structure is phased out, we will see schools and districts form programs based on proficiency and learning style rather than grouping students by nothing other than the year they were born. Change is coming if we are brave enough to confront it.

Written by Lacy DeYoung

Education World Contributor

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