The Problem With Grade Levels

The Problem With Grade Levels // Homeschool Mom Talk //

This morning, we’re starting our 2015-16 school year. In our homeschool this year, we have 8th, 6th, 4th, and 2nd graders (and a kindergartner). Phew! Just writing that makes me tired.

But let’s talk about grade levels.

When people ask my kids what grades they’re in, my homeschooled kids (mostly) know what to tell them… yes, they’re “socialized” enough to do that. And yet, to be honest, whatever answer they give doesn’t really tell anyone anything in regard to school work.

When a 7th grader is reading a college level text about world history, it doesn’t make him a college student. If a 2nd grader is struggling with reading, but by 5th grade has caught up to, or even surpassed, his peers, it doesn’t make him “behind” or “ahead” of anything except an arbitrary standard that applies when looking at data– not human beings.

Because the truth is, each child is a unique blend of skills.

Sure, “they” have a testable skill set we’ve now been culturally trained to look for, but that doesn’t mean that each child should, or does, sit there on the “average” line. Grade levels are helpful for educating children en masse, but not always helpful in educating each individual child according to his/her abilities.

Brains often develop like the world around us does– making almost no progress at all through winter, and then suddenly, bursting into growth all at once when it is spring.

It can look like they’re just not getting it, and then all of a sudden you begin to see sprouts– “buds” of growth. You see it in your toddler who suddenly starts repeating everything you ever say, whereas just a month prior, he had no interest in talking whatsoever. You see it in the child who suddenly “gets” potty training or bike riding or jumping off of the ground with both feet.

And yes, you see it in school-aged children, with reading and math.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, reading is actually a GREAT DEAL like potty training. You can push it through at first, which becomes torturous for both mom and child and is burdensome on mom because she has to keep it going… OR you can wait for readiness, and it will happen VERY quickly.

In his book, Better Late Than Early, Dr. Raymond Moore showed that it’s actually BETTER for development of curiosity and overall, long-term academic strength for children to WAIT on academics. When academic abilities develop in partnership with a child’s natural curiosity— to WANT to know what’s written on the paper, to WANT to understand how to figure baseball averages, to WANT to understand how magnets work– there is a natural “want to” that propels REAL (rather than forced) learning.

But (perhaps more importantly for me), when academics are pushed too early, there is a natural demotivation. Reading becomes toil rather than the unraveling of mysteries. Math becomes drillwork rather than the foundation for understanding the world around us. Science becomes “boring” and “homework” rather than the answer to our curiosity and pursuits.

This has been a central idea to the philosophy of our homeschool.

I watch our children for interest and curiosity, and then jump in, and they learn so much more quickly, and it sticks.

(Note: this is not the same as “unschooling,”)

I love this bit from Understood Betsy: (In this quote, Betsy, who was accustomed to a large town school, is interacting with her teacher at her first day at a small, country school.)

“After the lesson the teacher said, smiling, “Well, Betsy, you were right about arithmetic. I guess you’d better recite with Eliza for a while. She’s doing second-grade work. I shouldn’t be surprised if, after a good review with her, you’d be able to go on with the third-grade work.”

Elizabeth Ann fell back on the bench with her mouth open. She felt really dizzy. What crazy things the teacher said! She felt as though she was being pulled limb from limb.

“What’s the matter?” asked the teacher, seeing her bewildered face.

“Why—why,” said Elizabeth Ann, “I don’t know what I am at all. If I’m second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third-grade spelling, what grade AM I?”

The teacher laughed at the turn of her phrase. “YOU aren’t any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You’re just yourself, aren’t you? What difference does it make what grade you’re in! And what’s the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don’t know your multiplication table?”

“Well, for goodness’ sakes!” ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head.

“Why, what’s the matter?” asked the teacher again.

This time Elizabeth Ann didn’t answer, because she herself didn’t know what the matter was. But I do, and I’ll tell you. The matter was that never before had she known what she was doing in school. She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another, and she was ever so startled to get a glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn how to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind, so she could take care of herself when she came to be grown up. Of course, she didn’t really know that till she did come to be grown up, but she had her first dim notion of it in that moment, and it made her feel the way you do when you’re learning to skate and somebody pulls away the chair you’ve been leaning on and says, “Now, go it alone!”

So, in a large-classroom setting, while your child is in a season of “winter,” frozen solid before her brain begins letting, say, the concept of long division settle down into her brain and take root there, the rest of the class is moving on to something else, and she’s getting further and further behind. All the while, her brain is working as it’s meant to… stopping, sorting things out, and trying to cling to ideas without moving on to new ones before understanding the old ones.

In our home, the way that same scenario looks is this: we tackle long division. We park there as long as necessary for the child to really “get” it… then we move on to the next logical step/math function. We can hurry along if she retains it easily, and we can also pause and let it ruminate longer if it takes longer. 

The pace we travel at is her own, rather than the fastest, slowest, or most “average” student in the class. 

Our children are neither put in a position of feeling like they can zone out and still breeze through school (I’m guilty as charged on that one), nor of feeling like they will never catch up and are the dumbest person in the room. Instead, they get to progress at the pace that their skills and abilities allow. 

The problem with grade levels is that they’re not really made for the child… they’re made for schools to be able to classify and assess students, but children don’t always progress in that systematic way. Nor do they all progress simultaneously, in every subject, at the same rate as their peers.

Children progress, like the rest of us, in huge leaps in some areas (in areas where God has uniquely gifted them in ability and interest), at a slower pace in others (where God has not particularly gifted them), and, perhaps, every now and then, exactly on average in some areas.

Knowing the grade level can help us, sometimes, to know in general what’s expected of our students by the surrounding world, but they don’t really tell us what *our* child should be doing this year. For that, I consider:

  • the child’s strengths and weaknesses
  • the way God has built this particular child… what is his/her likely path?
  • what opportunities, curriculum, and resources are available to us this year?
  • what Doug and I are noticing in this particular child (good? bad? ugly?– what needs correction?)
  • what direction the Holy Spirit is leading us in, in regard to this particular child or season
  • if there are any known deficiencies that we need to shore up

Though it’s the first question most people ask our children, the truth is, grade levels aren’t particularly relevant for us as homeschoolers, or useful for me as a homeschooling mother.


What about you? How do you assess grade levels in your home school? Do you work according to a particular scope and sequence, or pace things according to your child, or…???

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast ( I write and wrangle kids.

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11 Responses

  1. Erin H. says:

    Thanks for the reminder Jess. We started back to homeschool last week. I was feeling guilty and worried because my twin 1st graders cannot read. My older two could read before kindergarten. I felt like I must be doing something wrong – teaching poorly (since I never had to “teach” the first two to read at all), not giving them enough focused attention, not spending enough time reading stories together, etc. The other side of this is, while they can’t read, they can add, subtract and multiply. So their brains are picking up mathematics first. That’s totally ok! We are trying to focus on learning to read right now, but you reminded me not to push too hard. They WILL get it in time. Beyond that, I have a 6th grader doing 8th grade math, a 4th grader doing 7th grade spelling, each of them well above reading level, and everything other than math and language (history, science, etc.) we do as a group – there is no grade level!

  2. Shannon says:

    I totally agree with you. This year we are using a boxed curriculum. And I am thankful for the plan. But I’ve also made changes to make it work for us. Because I’m a believer in making a curriculum work for you not the other way around.

    But I have a question. How do you handle family members who insist your child should be in a certain grade based on age above where they are actually capable of functioning (in Sunday School or Wednesday night church activities)?

    • Jess Connell says:

      You know, for that last part, I would just explain to the family member something like, “we have our own reasons but for this year, this is the level we feel he/she should be at. I appreciate you thinking about them. We want them to thrive and feel this is the best decision. Thanks for your input!”

  3. Betsy says:

    I am a reluctant homeschooler, doing it because I think my public schools are not meeting the needs of my children, along with the price of private school. So my perspective always seems a bit different.

    Teaching my children grade levels is one of the places where I can teach them to go along with the crowd, to understand that most people are just trying to start polite conversation, and that the grade levels and details of what and how they are learning are not of interest to most people outside their immediate family. It is a polite question, much like “how are you?” and to answer otherwise allows them to continue on in their quirkiness (as in a previous blog post). So, yes, to us, grade level is important, and we emphasize what year/grade they are working on.

    Now…are they working on the same grade level stuff across the board? Absolutely not. But that is no different than if they were in a (good) public school or a private school. The entire class is not working on the same level or the same things; it’s more individual than that, same as homeschool, to a lesser degree.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Oh absolutely! I’m sorry that wasn’t clear. Yes we teach them to answer respectfully the grade level that their same-aged peers are in, but this is my own personal thoughts about grade level… certainly not something I talk to the kids about too much (until they get older) and not something I’d say to a stranger in the grocery line. :)

  4. So very interesting! I’ve never heard this topic expressed in just this way before. I totally agree, by the way, with the overall idea that every child is unique and you can’t pigeon-hole them. It is helpful, though, to have some kind of a goal for each grade’s achievements and to do standardized testing from time to time (especially in upper grades), so that you have a good idea where their strengths and weaknesses are. I tend to agree with later is better. But, there are children who really want to excel earlier. There’s a saying in Spanish, “Every child is a world of his own.” May the Lord grant wisdom to Christian parents! Loved your post!

  5. Janelle says:

    I love your blog and find nearly every post helpful, challenging or encouraging. Thank you for letting Jesus use you through this means! I don’t think I’ve ever commented though because of my time restrictions, though I often have thoughts to share, like I did appreciate the video format of you last post and would enjoy that once in awhile.

    I’m a teacher and I hope to homeschool someday, so I have a special fascination when you write on this topic. Keep ’em coming! (: It helps too that I seem to agree with your views. I could imagine you not wanting to answer this one, but is there curriculum you’ve used that you’ve found helpful in facilitating your desire to help your children progress at the pace their skills and abilities allow?(Particularly with math? You’ve mentioned your appreciation of Sonlight before , I think, for reading?) Thanks!

    • Jess Connell says:

      Thanks for all the useful feedback. Doug & I are actually getting away for a (rare) date today to talk through some ideas/thoughts for this fall, so your feedback came at a good time. :)

      As far as curriculum- I’m happy to share what’s worked for us. Follow this link, and scroll down to see our favorite pics for homeschooling resources:

      I do LOVE Sonlight… problem is- for us, it hasn’t worked for being able to fan it out to a wide age range, so I’ve opted to basically self-design Sonlight-like curriculum each year to allow us to read together and discuss things together but also be able to fold in a wider group of ages than the SL cores recommend.

  6. Steph says:

    I like this article, but I still feel stuck, in a way…
    We have 7 children (6 girls, 1 boy), and this year we are starting school with a 7th, 4th, 3rd and 1st graders. In general, my first 3 are all “on track”, and progressing well. My 1st grader cannot read, and barely knows her letters and numbers. She struggles even with repeating more than 3 or 4 words at a time (as we read during family devotions), and I felt like quite a failure at the end of the last school year, as I had pretty much, as you mentioned, figured she was just not ready, as well as the fact that I didn’t want the fight, and just let her go.
    So my question is, where do I go from here?
    I ordered gr. 1 stuff for her, with still last year’s books half done. I have been planning, as we don’t start school till next week, to continue on with kindergarten, hoping things will “click” this year and we can fly through it, and then try working on gr. 1 when she finishes that.
    But if not, what then? The end of our school year pretty much has to be done in June, and it would be almost impossible to do any work during the summer, which means no catching up. I don’t mind that she’s not where many of her peers are, but her next youngest sister could likely start school this year (she’s four, and I’m not starting her), and learn at the same rate, if not faster. I’ve heard this is really difficult on the older child and want to avoid this if possible. Now, it seems like I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, I know, but I’m just wondering your (and anyone else’s) opinion on how to wrangle things when kids are actually “behind”. Any thoughts?
    I guess that’s more than 1 question, sorry! =)

  7. Lucila says:

    Totally agree, and hope this becomes more our approach as we progress in the homeschooling journey. To date, however, as a relatively newstart homeschooler with an 8 year old and 6 year old, I’ve had to employ use of grade expectations for accountability’s sake… Eg for my husband who is supportive of homeschooling but would wants to be sure that aren’t missing out on what they’d get at school. Thankfully, the Lord has allowed or children to meet average expectations to date!

  1. February 10, 2016

    […] and reclaim lost ground. So, we rank character and interpersonal relationships much higher than grade levels or academics. We believe that by doing so, they will reach higher levels of academic […]

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