Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Grade Level?

When I was a classroom teacher one of the most common questions I heard was, "Is my child doing grade level work?" Often a parent would be more specific asking questions such as, "Is my child reading on grade level?"

I understand the reason for these questions because when my child was young I remember comparing his work to the other work posted in halls and bulletin boards. Most standardized tests also include a grade level score which compares children to others in the state or nation. So what influences a grade level expectation? When you think about grade levels remember:
  • Although we think of grades being synonymous with age, in the U.S. a first grade class may have children ranging in age from 5 - 8.  How does that happen? Birthday cut off dates are determined by the states, and people move. Some parents talk a school into letting a child in early. Other children must repeat first grade or kindergarten so they are at the high end of the age range. 
  • A child's classmates often influence the instruction level in the class. While it is true that teachers follow curriculum, the behavior and academic ability of the children always influences what is being taught and how it is presented. A child who goes from kindergarten to 5th with a disorderly group of children who entered school already behind in basic skills, receives a different education than one who takes classes with mannerly, well-prepared classmates. 
  • The U.S. does not have a national curriculum. Moving to another state, or even another district may mean your child is ahead or behind her classmates.
  • Teachers hate to define the grade level of most children. They may have experienced two extreme reactions from parents. One reaction is absolute denial and excuses. The other reaction is extreme activity to correct the situation: various therapies, tutors, requests for more homework, etc. These reactions tend to make many teachers tread lightly.
  • Teachers tend to be optimistic about the gains a child may make during the year. Often a verbal child is rated higher than his or her test scores indicate. Teachers may feel sympathy for the sweet child who tries to do well in class.  Sometimes a teacher is aware that a child is anxious (due to a home situation) which influences scores. A new teacher may not have the experience to really say what an  "average" child should be able to do. A long term teacher may have had too many good surprises from supposedly poor students to want to label a child too early.
  • The term "grade level" ultimately means a child is able to function in a specific grade. This is different than subject matter competence. A child may be able to read fairly well, or do math very well, but is unable to function very well in the group environment that is public school.
So should parents ignore the idea of grade level competency? Of course not! A child functions best if he is correctly placed. Parents also need to be aware that their child is making progress and, if not, need to question what can be done.

Many children are pretty competitive in our society and most children at a certain point pick up the fact that they can't do something that their friends can do. I have seen six  year old children who have become anxious because they can't read. While it would be wonderful if this didn't happen, and we can work for a change in education, the reality is that the change probably won't come in time for your child. Parents should look at their child's progress with the following mindset:
  • Young children do not develop lockstep with other children and there may very well be a large variations in the ages of children in the elementary grades. 
  • The younger the child the more a parent needs to consider physical needs - children don't know if they need glasses, or tubes in their ears, or even if they are grumpy because they didn't get enough sleep. 
  • School continues to be a group activity. Some children need modifications in the learning environment due to learning differences. Some children need a slower pace. But. . . parents need to be realistic about what a school can provide.
  • Parents should be aware of the quality of the school their child attends. 
  • Questions about specific skills give more answers than grade level questions. How is my child's reading fluency? Is she having problems with sight words? Is he usually the first or the last to complete his work in class? 
  • Teachers seldom compare students when talking to parents but classwork is often on display somewhere in the classroom. This is where, if you want to, you can discretely check out your child's work compared to her classmates. Is your child's work messier, shorter, longer, or is he following the prescribed presentation method- title centered, etc.? 
  • Finally, if you are concerned about grade level expectations, here is a link to hear children in the U.S. reading at first grade level  The Internet has various sites to check out grade level expectations.

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