Age grouping is obsolete

These days, many classes combine students with wildly varying levels of achievement and English fluency; several may have disabilities that affect their learning. Teachers are supposed to reach everyone. If they don’t, the kids who didn’t learn will be passed on anyhow.

Social promotion is caused by an out-of-date allegiance to grouping students by age, writes Dennis Doyle in the LA Times. Better to group students by performance, he writes.

The child who is held back feels diminished and unsuccessful, but the child promoted beyond his ability is sure to be more frustrated than ever. Both sides of the social promotion debate are losers because they take for granted the antique process of age grouping.

As it is, a full chronological year separates the youngest from the oldest student in each grade, and the developmental difference is often much greater. Nothing is more frustrating to both teachers and students than trying to bridge a huge achievement gap within a single classroom.

The solution is genuinely performance-based instructional grouping, a format that schools must master in the 21st century. In performance-based schools, students would be held to high academic standards and would work to achieve them for as long — or as little time — as it took. Indeed, that is the de facto model in high school and college. A student takes Spanish 1 until it’s mastered, then moves on to Spanish 2.

One of the strengths of the Success for All reading program is that students are grouped by their reading performance, not by their age. I visited a school that created a beginning reading group made up of fourth and fifth graders who’d been promoted without learning to read.

Update: In today’s New York Times, Michael Winerip writes about an improving school that groups student by performance for reading classes.

(Principal Eileen) Castle is constantly adjusting to make her school better. She created a 90-minute morning reading period with children assigned to classes by reading ability, rather than by grade. So Vicki Pellegrino’s third-grade reading level class has second, third, fourth and fifth graders. It means a teacher can spend the entire 90 minutes working on the same material with everyone, rather than break her class into three reading ability groups and give each group just 30 minutes of her time.

It’s less common to group students by performance in math, but I know a multi-ethnic school that does that with great success. The principal lives in fear he’ll be accused of tracking students.

About Joanne


  1. Methinks that a performance-based program would have been better for me than having gone through primary school as a lumped group.

    When I have kids, homeschool may be my choice.

  2. Yes!

    End Age-Based Apartheid!

    This solves both “holding back” neuroses (why shouldn’t Johnny stay in Bluebird Math if he can’t hack Redwing Blackbird Math yet?) and some of the myths of socialization.

  3. It’s nice to see someone telling the truth about age-based grouping– in particular, that there is an actual age difference between students in the same age cohort. You would not believe how many well-meaning but obviously ignorant people told me I shouldn’t put my soon-to-be-6-year-old in first grade because she would be a whole year younger than every other student in her class, as if they all shared one monolithic birthday. When I tried to point out that she’d only be a full year younger than about 1/4 of her class, they started going on about how all her friends would be driving when they turn 16, but she wouldn’t be old enough to drive, which is an even more ignorant position because not everyone is allowed to drive at 16.

  4. Fuzzy Rider says:

    They can probably get away with it if they avoid the ‘t’ word- tracking!

  5. Walter Wallis says:

    Sanity surfacing?
    Years from now, what term will they apply to the last quarter of the last century – the crazy years?

  6. Funny how all that is old becomes new again. If you read books about life in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, such as the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the single room schools taught kids by skill level instead of by age.

    It would also seem more honest if a certain grade level indicated a mastery of that level’s material. As indicated by today’s column by Walter Williams, a high school education is not a standard indication of performance.

  7. This problem occurs because of the OUTDATED idea that students need to stay with their classmates based on age (utter nonsense).

    Everyone knows that kids learn at different rates, so if a kid can finish 1st grade in 1/2 the time it takes another kid a whole year, should we hold back the one who finishes faster, no, put that kid into 2nd grade, so he or she won’t get bored.

    We got rid of social promotion in our district at the high school level. Students are NOW assigned a grade level based on the number of credits earned (1 credit = 1 class passed for a school year), when the report cards came out for some 12th graders (by age), they were shocked to be re-classified as 10th graders (based on earned credits).

    That’s the way schools should be done, students who achieve more, should get the rewards of faster promotion (aka grade skipping).

  8. Joe Zwers says:

    Not every school adopts that type of lockstep approach to promoting students. My son went to one that for the past twenty years has used the system of moving people to the next grade when they have met the full requirements for that grade, and not according to the calendar. The system works great. The graduates I have seen run ranged from 15 to 20 years old, but by the end of the program they have all passed the standards for the school.

    The school has a strong reading program. By the time the kids have finished first grade they have read over 100 books and before graduation they have read Plato’s Republic, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and similar writings.

    In addition they also have to show that they can hold a position of trust in an organization. For example, one student who was interested in education started a tutoring program, including lining up corporate funding, the location and personnnel. Another, who was intereted in politics, interned in the mayor’s office. Someone who was interested in computers interned at a local software company and then went to work there after graduation. My babysitter, who was interested in interior design, worked with a famous interior designer on decorating rooms to be photographed for an upcoming book. A student who was interested in becoming a doctor got his emergency medical technician certification from a local community college and started working for an ambulance company. All of this is done before they can graduate.

    It is a tough program, but when these kids graduate they are well-educated, competent and ready for college or working in the real world. They don’t wind up flipping burgers.

  9. I’m in total agreement with the criticism of social promotion. I have strong memories of helping 4th graders learn how to read. Passing them on did NOT help their self esteem.
    As far as classes based on ability, could this lead to some type of sex-segregation? From my experience, about middle-school time, girls start to outshine the boys in classes like english and social studies. Of course, the older boys may be grouped with the younger girls . . .

  10. Ability grouping is all fine and good until your 11 or 12 year old daughter is sitting next to the 17 year old guy (Who by the way thinks she’s cute and wants a date).

    I don’t necessarily agree with social promotion but you have to send some of the older kids on to something else. If a student is 17 and still in the 5th or 6th grade you’ve got to do something different.

  11. Roy W. Wright says:

    How about expulsion?

  12. The older boys who fail to progress in standard educational subjects clearly need to be switched to a vocational track. I doubt there will be many 12 year old girls in the auto body shop.

  13. Joe Zwers, what school is that?

  14. I have two cousins in a Montessori charter school in Colorado. I don’t know much about the Montessori method, but I did learn about one facet of it when my older cousin gave me a weird look and a strange answer when I asked what grade she was in. Her parents explained to me that they group all students in something like the normal equivalent of three grades together and let the kids work based on their competence. So as I understand it, you would have the equivalent of third through fifth grades working together. Again, I don’t know much about it except that my aunt and uncle think it’s fantastic for their two girls.

  15. Yay, single sex education! Solves that nasty-boy problem until after 3 p.m…..

  16. Walter,

    That’s exactly what Heinlein called the latter half of the 20th century/first half of the 21st century in his Future History books: the crazy years–where people were rude, the “lesbian mafia” ruled, and children graduated high school without basic competency levels in reading, writing or math. Brr. Chills.

  17. Like anything else in education, it’s not the all-or-nothing proposition that people would like it to be. Strict age grouping obviously has its problems, but so does strict ability grouping. A 15-year-old might be working on a 6th grade level, but is he at the same level of motivation as the 3rd grader working at that level? Obviously not. What sounds good at first blush might not work out so well in practice. I’m not saying ability grouping is wrong, but there are advantages and disadvantages. Here’s something really novel: let’s take into account the advantages and disadvantages and try to come up with a system that addresses them intelligently!

  18. Richard Heddleson says:

    A multi-ethinc school? Do you know of any uni-ethnic schools?

  19. I taught for several years in a private gifted school where ‘mastery learning’ was the norm. Admission decisions and group placements (grade levels) were made based on subject-specific testing (math, reading, and writing skills.) Except on an exceptional basis, we did not accept students who were performing below traditional age/grade-level. Students were placed according to ‘achievement level’ (never mentioning the word ‘ability’) in groups whose composition varied depending on the performance level of the individual student. We didn’t use traditional ‘grade’ levels (1rst, 2nd, etc.) Student age was not an issue; our groups were all mixed ages. Most students were working at grade levels that varied by subject; for example, a 12 year-old student (generally a 7th grader) might be in 8th grade English, and 10th grade math. We used a high-school style scheduling system in which students, K-12, traveled to different classrooms and different teachers for various subjects. Some grouping/tracking occurred within the classroom. The lower school used two teachers for reading instruction: one worked with the full class while the second pulled out students (grouped by mastery level) for instruction tailored to the reading level of that particular group.

    I taught middle-upper school Latin – generally mixed levels in a single classroom. Even in the case of beginners, by the end of the year, individualized rates of progress resulted in a classroom in which some students were halfway through Latin I, while others were well into Latin II. I used smaller groups within a single class to provide instruction. (And yes, small class size helps here, as does, critically, well-behaved, motivated students.)

    For students having difficulty, we recommended tutoring, both peer and professional. Students who were really unable to meet minimum standards were ‘held back’ in that particular class, and required to repeat it, or substitute a dual enrollment college course at our local state university/community college. (10th – 12th grade students were permitted to take college level classes in subjects of personal interest.) On rare occasions, we did have students who were quite simply incapable of achieving mastery in one subject or another; depending on the extent of the difficulty (ie, the number of subject areas involved), we lowered our expectations or asked the student to leave.

  20. Tim from Texas says:

    Yes, Rita, I agree wholeheartedly. It would mean a fair and level playing field for all. However, that would mean education would no longer be a comodity as it is now. It could and would develop the reality that a good number of children coming from,”the other side of the tracks”, would do very well to much better leaving fewer slots for the affuent parents’ children. This has always been the battle ground,especially in this country, but in other countries as well. We have one of the poorest records, if not the worst, in trying to overcome this weakness in our “public education”.

  21. Joe Zwers says:

    Hi Lindenen,

    He went to Delphi Academy in Los Angeles ( They also have schools in several other areas including the Bay Area, San Diego and Boston.

  22. Benson, your idea of switching kids who are doing bad to vocational tracks is a good idea, but the only problem with that is vocational education is no where what it was like 25 years ago.

    Auto Technicians (don’t call ’em mechanics anymore) on average need to have 2 years of education beyond high school (most community colleges offer a 2 or 4 year program for automotive repair), in addition, most shops won’t hire persons anymore without ASE certifications (which are NOT easy to get, or maintain).

    If the student isn’t motivated enough to learn the basic core classes in traditional education, I seriously doubt they would be able to achieve in a modern vocational education program.

  23. “A multi-ethinc school? Do you know of any uni-ethnic schools?”

    There are several schools in my city whose student population is 100% black.

  24. I had a friend who was “gifted” in math as a child. For that reason, it was decided that he was thus great in every other scholastic skill. It made him miserable.

    I’m all for letting students advance in different skills at different rates. Boredom stunts the quick while falling behind pushes the slow. Sure there will be self-esteem issues, but those can be dealt with the old-fashioned way: with work.

  25. oliviacw says:

    KimJ – mixed-grade level classrooms were part of my experience in a Montessori school during the 1970s. My school usually mixed two or three grade levels, and each classroom had multiple math and reading groups based on ability, so students worked together according to ability, not age. I spent 5 years there, and I think I was in an all-kindergarden class, then mixed 1-2 (one year), 2-3-4 (one year), 4-5-6 (two years). Then I left and went into a different school as a sixth grader (when they started middle school), so somewhere in there I “skipped a grade”. (I usually claim it was third grade, for no good reason).

  26. Ceilig says:

    The more I learn about schools these days, the more I appreciate mine, and my parents for finding me good ones. My school did mostly group by age — but they also grouped kids the same age by ability. So there were 5 math classes per grade, for example, from smart to average to not-so smart. In addition, some students just went to classes with a different grade. In kindergarten I went to a first grade reading class, in 2nd-4th I went to math and english classes a grade ahead. I finally just skipped the 5th grade. 😛

    Sure, it wasn’t always perfect to be a different age. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have fit in too very well no matter what age the other kids were. At least my brain got a little more challenge and I got to move on to college sooner!

  27. Ceilig says:

    Roux — I was the 12 year old sitting next to the 17 year old. (Actually 13 and 19, but hey).

    He asked me out. I said no. It’s not like he couldn’t have asked me out if we weren’t in a class together. Sure, it’s more likely he’d meet me, but I don’t think that crippling my education is worth it. I handled it and learned calculus to boot.

    But, hey, I’ve always gotten along better with people older than me. If not, I doubt my parents would have let me skip a grade.

    When I started college at 16, I wanted to date a 20 year old. My parents weren’t happy with it at first, but I pointed out that it was hard to meet other 16 year olds at college. 😉 We got married after I graduated.

  28. Can you be in the 8th grade and get a faster promotoin to the 9th grade ?


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