What is Grade Level?
Your child just met another kid at soccer, gymnastics, on the playground, or across the street. His first question isn’t, “What is your name.” Rather, he asks, “What grade are you in?”
It’s how kids identify each other. This is how they find their tribe, their peers, and their new best friend. While this seems simple enough, it can be difficult to answer for students in families who are not a part of a traditional school system. What grade level are they? Is this an age question? A function of their gifted abilities or just the last class they took? So many variables exist to answer here. Many homeschool families don’t even use grade levels. Instead, they opt to follow their children’s lead and utilize entirely different methods to measure their progress. For example, how well the computer they just built works.
While there are several convenient reasons schools use grade levels to identify and place students, there are just as many equally valid reasons non-traditional schools, like homeschools, usually do not.
Thinking outside the grade level box
In traditional brick-and-mortar public schools and most private schools, grade level refers to a small age range and a standardized (and fixed) curriculum designed to meet the average students’ needs and abilities in that age group. The problem with this type of grade-level structure is that it does not provide much wiggle room to accommodate differences in ability in individual subjects or areas of study. While very useful for accommodating many students and moving them forward en masse, grade levels are a bit of an all-or-nothing approach to education. You either succeed “in toto” to pass the grade, or you fail. While easiest to use when managing a large group, this approach can have significant impacts on an individual student when the student’s abilities are not consistently on the same grade level across all subjects. The child can either be held back when they really want to race forward or pushed ahead when they truly need a bit more time to master a subject.
Homeschooling offers a different path. Parents can make changes to meet the unique needs of every child. Grade levels in a homeschool do not necessarily correlate with age. For some families, this may still look very similar to a traditional school’s grade level system. For others, grade levels may be completely disregarded. For yet more, this may mean that the students are a grade or two above their peers or a grade or two behind. They may even be in completely different grades for different subjects. One of the very best things about homeschooling is that homeschoolers can usually progress through the subject “grade levels” at their own pace. One favorite answer to the question “What grade are you in?” as a homeschool family is “What grade do I need to be in to do this particular activity? I’m in that one.”
Asynchronous learners who don’t need grade levels
When students are above or below grade level in one subject but not in others, they are called asynchronous learners—some might refer to these students, if advanced, as “gifted.” Children who are asynchronous learners often breeze through one or two subjects with lightning speed, but they may need more time to work through other subjects. Great at math? Need to push ahead? Does the school have the resources to do that? What if you need extra reading help and are falling behind at the same time? Can the school accommodate this?
Regular schools often have a hard time helping children at either end of the bell curve, gifted and needing extra help. Homeschooling gives these students the ability to go at their own speed. They can race ahead when it comes naturally to them and slow down to focus on areas they may struggle a little with. There is no “one-speed.” Instead, the child moves at their own pace, working to their strengths and spending time on their challenges. They are not held back when they are raring to go. But they are also not pushed forward when they need a little extra help. Each independent subject area moves at its own needed pace for excellence.
Overall, this can lead to an increased drive to learn and excel. These students are competing with only themselves instead of their peers. It may also lead to higher confidence and better performance in general because they do not usually have the same pressures to “fit in” with their peers academically, like children in traditional schools. It also allows a gifted or remedial child to move forward at their own “academic” speed while maintaining an age-appropriate social level. Socialization becomes separated from academics and can be treated independently. Even an average student may not be taking the same courses as their traditional school peers or may take them in a different order. With all of this, it can be difficult to determine a grade level for these kids if/when it becomes necessary.
But does grade matter? When you no longer follow the “traditional” curriculum or “core curriculum” of a brick and mortar school, the order of learning can be vastly different. As the subjects don’t follow the same pattern, they can be hard to “place” in a grade. In this case, age is perhaps more appropriate for socialization and academic achievement for “grade level.” They are no longer the same thing.
History can be taught in a different order. Books read on a subject not covered in traditional schools may offer discussion and insights often not delved into until much later grades. Feel like doing two years of math in the next 8 months? Go right ahead… Personalized education lends itself to a lot of flexibility.
Though homeschoolers frequently deviate from the traditional grade-level system, there are some instances where assigning a grade level may be necessary. One reason a homeschooler may go by grade levels is that it is required by law. In some states, even homeschooled students must perform at least to grade-level academic standards and are required to take standardized tests. In these states, keeping to a more “common core” approach may be needed even if they press ahead on some subjects. Anything Academic is an excellent resource to point you in the right direction to learn more about whether this is a requirement in your state.
Determining a grade level when necessary
Another reason a family may need to assign a grade level is to plan to send their children to a traditional school in the future. They also may wish to equip their children to answer the inevitable “what grade are you in?” question. How do homeschooling families determine grade level when their children may perform at different levels in different subjects? The easiest way is probably to choose whichever grade level is the average for each child but take note of the subjects where they may excel or need a little more time to work through. For example, if a child uses a grade 3 English book, grade 4 for reading, English, and history, and grade 5 for math, then the average grade level would be grade 4. Some tests can be used for grade-level placement. Ultimately, it is up to the family and the students to determine this.
Homeschooled students can break free from stereotypes and averages and be allowed to be the best versions of themselves. Homeschooling allows children the flexibility to do and be their best because they are not confined to one grade level as determined by their age. Instead, grade level is simply a tool for measuring progress and, ultimately, success. It is up to the parents to decide how that tool should be used to meet their unique children’s needs. When the focus is on mastery instead of competency, the sky is the limit.