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The Myth of Grade Level Standards

(July 2015) More Information

Take the same exam ...

Excitedly waving a piece of paper above my head, I run down the block and into the house. My mother is knee deep in a renovation binge, sanding paint off the brick portion of the kitchen wall, her face half-covered with a scarf against the dust. She pauses the electric sander as I jump up and down in the kitchen doorway, shaking the paper and shouting. “Guess what! I’m reading at the ninth grade level!”

My mother eyes me with a sober stare. “No, you’re not!” she says sternly. Immediately I am still, stunned by her reply. She continues, aiming her words pointedly. “You’re not reading at the ninth grade level. You’re reading at the fourth grade level for you.”

Frozen in my tracks, I am suddenly lost in the idea of grade level. Five years from now, I wonder silently, when I’m actually in 9th grade, what level will I be reading at then? And years later, in college, what level then? The answer came in a flash. Why, my own level, of course!

In that light bulb moment, my triumph at scoring high on a test had been replaced with awareness and inner confidence. I no longer needed to know what my level was. My “level” would always be with me, always changing, always my own.

These days I warn parents that grade level is a slippery slope. Once you start believing that such a thing really exists, levels where a certain age is supposed to function, then every learning experience is viewed in that way. We ask: “Is she ahead?” “Is he falling behind?” “Am I doing okay for this time in my life?” Yet true learning defies “level,” and some learning experiences are interesting at every age.

I encourage parents to ignore what the Dept. of Education and other authorities claim grade level knowledge should be. It is ridiculous, for example, to think that a kindergarten aged child must be able to write a complete sentence when a generation ago kindergarten was all about playing, as if waiting for a year or two means that they will never master the paragraph. The truth is that we are at varying levels all the time. Sometimes we reach ahead of our comfort zone, especially when we are strongly motivated, and we stretch our abilities. I have seen young children absorbed in an encyclopedia of archeology because that was their interest. Similarly, we often relax our standards. I might choose a magazine or easy fiction for my vacation reading and put off that classic novel for another time. Does it really matter if we are ahead or behind, accelerated or delayed, when we are naturally all these things, and changing all the time?

Instead of using misplaced standards as guidelines, consider the unique point of view of each child. Instead of comparing the student to others his or her age, examine what the child is actually doing. Listen to what they ask for and look at what they want to try next. As parents and teachers we are assessing and evaluating all the time. Encouraging a child to reach for that next step is all we need to do.

Educating for Human Greatness , by Lynn Stoddard, explains why curriculum is never the true objective. Stoddard coined the real goals as the Seven I's: Identity, Inquiry, Interaction, Initiative, Imagination, Intuition and Integrity. He explains each of the seven I’s in detail as profound, universal goals, essential life skills, the real goals in every child’s education. Curriculum is obviously the means to achieve these goals, but curriculum is not a goal by itself.

This view frees us not only from standardized goals, but also from standardized curriculum. It does not matter which period of history or area of science a student studies if the goals and results are: to pursue a line of inquiry, initiate a learning process, and clearly communicate ideas. The real achievement is in the Seven I’s.

On an autumn Friday morning I am sipping tea in the Hungarian Pastry Shop, with a bevy of other homeschooling moms. Our children are playing chess, flitting from table to table while we nibble cookies and cake. I watch my 11-year-old son, an avid fan of the game, play one child after another. Most of the children are younger than he is, and when he pauses at my table to say hello I gesture to two who appear to be close to his age, maybe 11 and 12.

"Why don’t you play with them?” I ask.

“Aw, Mom, “ he replies with patient frustration, “they’re just beginners. He’s the kid I want to play,” and he points at one of the youngest children in the room, around age 7. “He’s the best player here.” My son makes a bee-line for this child’s table and the two of them spend the rest of the morning with their heads tilted at the board and towards each other, mesmerized by the game.

In that moment I had another flash of understanding, an insight into my own prejudice. Even with my revelation at age eight or nine about grade and age level, here I was, an adult and parent, assuming that a certain age implied a level of proficiency. No one could say what my son’s level was other than himself. My 11-year-old had found his equal in a worthy opponent four years younger.

In an ideal world there is no testing. Children and learning are not viewed as standardized. Various ages and diverse backgrounds work and learn together with respect. People are not compared, ranked, and assigned a level. Instead they are each, simply, themselves.

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang best."
Henry Van Dyke, 1852-1933, American author, educator, and clergyman

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