What If Schools Abolished Grade Levels?

Sorting kids by age or ability creates problems, according to our panel of education experts.

A green chalkboard with a sketched outline of a graduation cap and tassel. Pieces of chalk and an eraser are on the ledge of the chalkboard.
Guillermo del Olmo / vicgmyr / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

This is the sixth installment in our series about school in a perfect world. Read previous entries on calendars, content, homework, teachers, and classrooms.

We asked prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—to look beyond laws, politics, and funding and imagine a utopian system of learning. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build an educational Garden of Eden. We’re publishing their answers to one question each day this week. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Today’s assignment: The Classification. What impact do students’ individual abilities have on their education?

Rita Pin Ahrens, the director of education policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

In an ideal school, there will be more diagnosis and detailed reporting on what students know and can do in relation to the academic objectives that are identified at their grade level, complemented with reporting on students’ strengths on social and emotional skills that are valuable for career readiness and civic engagement. This information will be readily available to the student, parents, and teachers at any time to allow all stakeholders involved to offer remediation and enrichment where necessary. There will be less emphasis on grading for specific subjects than there would be for accomplishing learning objectives. The key is to have a rich, detailed view of what the student knows and can do. Advancement will then be at the student’s pace, but there will be  expectations for how quickly a student should advance. With flexible scheduling and more time in both the day and the year for schooling, students will have more opportunity to catch up during, before, or after school.

Students will be required to start school at age 4 and continue through age 18, when they are considered adults and able to make their own decisions and live independently.

Nicholson Baker, the author of Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids

The reality is that schools go by age, even when they claim they're embracing "performance-based" as opposed to "age-based" instruction: It just looks strange and embarrassing when one student is two feet taller than his classmates.

Everyone understands letter grades, and the fear of failure is a motivator. Some informal tracking is inevitable. But there's too much ranking and GPA-ing now—it makes the kids who are struggling miserable.

Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education

A synthesis of the research on multi-age and multi-grade classrooms (classrooms in which one teacher or group of teachers instruct students of two or more grade levels at one time) shows neither a positive nor a negative effect for this practice. Like block scheduling, a school may embrace the practice for philosophical or practical reasons, but there will likely not be learning or non-cognitive gains or losses for students.

Ability grouping, on the other hand, will be avoided. The research is clear: Ability grouping harms lower achievers while providing no academic benefit for average or higher achievers. Although there are some studies that show ability grouping slightly depresses the learning of higher achievers, the preponderance of studies across decades shows that higher-achieving students are not harmed by being in classrooms with lower achievers.

For 15 years, I worked with my faculty to eliminate ability grouping from our high school and provide all students access to our best curriculum—the International Baccalaureate. Not only did lower achievers benefit, but higher achievers did as well.  Mixed-ability classrooms, with a teacher skilled in differentiating instruction teaching an enriched curriculum, is the best possible way to group students.

Catherine Cushinberry, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools

Students will be grouped by age. Grades will be used as a measure of progress for parents and caregivers, and for students ages 13-18—particularly because college-admission requirements may not shift with the change in the school structure. Having age categories for classes will continue to give students something to aspire to as they matriculate. Students will be required to attend school as early as 3 years old. Pre-K students will not be “in class” all day. They need time to play and nap, but will stay in school for the full day.

Michael Horn, the co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute

Students will learn in competency-based environments in which they make progress based on their mastery of knowledge and skills, not based on time. The traditional notions of grades will fall away as a result.

That said, because schooling performs an important social function, students will continue to be grouped with their peers. But with the rise of blended learning, students won’t be prisoners to the progress of those peers. If a student already understands something, she can move on to another concept or go deeper in her learning. If she needs more time learning, then she can learn more. Students will learn in mixed-age groupings—studies show there are benefits for all in doing so—and educators will take advantage by having students learn in both homogenous and heterogeneous groups depending on the objective. Students who have mastered a concept, for example, can fine-tune their understanding and bolster their confidence through teaching it to another student. A huge benefit of this shift will be breaking the age-old trade off between social promotion and holding a student back. In one case, the student doesn’t learn the material. In the other, there are social drawbacks. We won’t have to settle in the future.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation

Grouping students according to ability is one of the most challenging issues in education. On the one hand, strict tracking programs that poorly identify students and allow little fluidity between tracks can unfairly trap low-income and minority students into low-level groups that perpetuate inequality. On the other hand, individual students (as opposed to groups) do vary in ability, and it makes little sense to include in a single classroom a student ready for calculus and another who struggles with basic arithmetic.

A number of schools, however, are avoiding this Hobson’s choice by employing a hybrid approach. As Michael Petrilli, the president of the conservative Fordham Institute notes, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School in Maryland, which educates the children of ambassadors alongside the children of maids, has eliminated tracking in biology and now teaches mixed-ability classes. Within these classes, particularly gifted students are given more challenging assignments that go into greater depth than others. This system works well, Petrilli says: “B-CC continues to excel academically while also making the most of its rich diversity.” Likewise, schools will be strategic about the use of ability grouping, employing the practice more consistently in high school than in elementary school, where differences in manifest ability are smaller, and more in certain subjects, such as mathematics, than in others, such as civics, where democratic accessibility is a key message of the curriculum itself.

Michelle Rhee, the founder of StudentsFirst and the former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools

The education system of the future has universal, high-quality prekindergarten programs available for all three- and four-year-old children, absolutely free. From pre-K forward, students will advance based on their academic achievement and pace—with options throughout their course of study to test into more advanced placements or receive additional supports to ensure all children have access to school experiences that meet their needs. Children will be grouped broadly by age, but classes will be based largely on skill levels.  Access to qualifying entry for advanced classes will result in more age-diverse classes as students progress through the K-12 pipeline. Students will also be encouraged to pursue their interests more deeply through opportunities such as electives, internships, and apprenticeships.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers

Do we want to give every child a fair shot to pursue his or her dreams? How can we possibly expect kids to develop their individual abilities if we only offer them English and math, but never give them a chance to try painting, playing a sport, learning an instrument, or cooking a meal?

Children need a variety of opportunities—and we will start by restoring arts, music, physical education, and so many other subjects that have been squeezed out by test mania and austerity budgets. We will expand magnet, and career-and-tech programs to give kids pathways to explore their passions.

But helping kids discover their individual abilities takes more than options; it takes the capacity to meet kids where they are. It is imperative to be able to differentiate instruction and help draw kids out, to make the learning real.

For that to happen, classes will be small enough for educators to give kids individual attention. These educators will have the support and knowledge to engage students, and resources throughout the school—like libraries and counselors—to ensure kids are supported throughout the learning process.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment in this series.