SHOULD GIFTED STUDENTS BE ALLOWED TO SKIP GRADES?

Accelerating students refers to the concept of having gifted students skip a grade. This idea used to be very popular. However, it has since waned in popularity over recent decades, with most school boards banning the practice. Allowing students to skip grades permits gifted students the opportunity to learn a more appropriately challenging curriculum. However, acceleration does come with several potential risks. Parents and educators often worry that accelerating students would lead to gifted students feeling socially isolated and/or stunt their social growth, by removing them from their natural social peers. Educators also worry that removing the gifted students from a class lowers the quality of the overall educational fabric that exists within a classroom. After all, gifted students often share insights with their peers, help their classmates learn, and raise the overall classroom expectations.

Personally, I have to admit I have a little bit of bias in favor of acceleration. I have long advocated for the idea of not teaching students curriculum, which they already know. As teachers, we are often encouraged to teach to the mean of the class. By doing this, we often continue to review material, which gifted students have already mastered and move on from material that struggling students have not yet learned. This is why I have personally advocated for teaching in a way that students work on learning goals and individually graduate from these learning goals once mastered. I believe in this method of teaching specifically, because gifted students can often learn curriculum at a far more rapid pace than their peers. Personally, I think there is something unethical about forcing gifted students to continuously review the same redundant curriculum or to force academically challenged students to move on from curriculum before they are ready. That all being said, ultimately, having students work on individualized curriculum and accelerating gifted students has a similar effect. Both strategies allow gifted students to study more appropriately challenging curriculum.

In order to ascertain whether or not the risks of acceleration are worth it, we need to first ascertain the magnitude of the possible academic benefits for gifted students of acceleration. Steenbergen et al, did a secondary meta-analysis of this topic, in 2016 which compiled the data of 6 other meta-studies on the topic. Their meta-analysis found that accelerated students outperformed their same age gifted peers who were not accelerated by a Hedges g effect size of .70. However, this effect size compiled all students who were accelerated from K-12, and students in lower grades who were accelerated far outperformed students who were accelerated in later grades. For example, most recently in 2004 Kulik and Kulik did a meta-analysis of this topic and found a Hedges g effect size of 1.62 for elementary accelerated students, an effect size of .73 for junior high accelerated students, and an effect size of .47 for senior high school accelerated students. This would suggest that accelerating students is a high yield strategy for elementary and junior high school students, but not for senior high school students. This, of course, makes a lot of sense, when we realize how much more complicated senior high school curriculum is than primary school curriculum.


It is also interesting to note that a meta-analysis by Rogers in 2008 looked at several different types of acceleration and found that they each had vastly different effect sizes. His analysis found that the highest yield form of acceleration was not grade-skipping, but rather individualized curriculum! Indeed he found a massive Hedges g effect size of 2.35. This would mean that providing gifted students with an individualized curriculum could have the potential range of impact of tripling learning. To make these stats more easily comparable, I have graphed them below with a few high yield and low yield strategies. 

Grade Skipping IMG001.png

As we can see from this comparison, individualized curriculum and elementary acceleration offer incredibly high effect sizes for gifted students. While we could examine this question now from the perspective of allowing gifted elementary students to skip a grade increases their learning by an effect size of 1.65; however, I would prefer to think of this question from the perspective of refusing to let gifted students to accelerate lowers their learning outcomes by an effect size of negative 1.65. When we apply this logic, we clarify the fact that when we refuse to accelerate gifted students we are actively choosing to reduce those students learning outcomes and we, therefore, must establish a truly high standard of reason to make that decision. 


So let’s look at the evidence examining the possible downsides of acceleration. Kretschmann et al, conducted a study of the emotional/social impacts of grade skipping on 96 students, in 2016. In the research review section of their paper, the authors noted that the vast majority of studies on acceleration have shown positive academic benefits and that “most of the research on acceleration that has been published so far points to rather small social and emotional consequences, and the few significant differences that have been found have primarily been in favor of the accelerated students.” (Kretschmann, 2016). Kretschmann et al’s specific study showed that the majority of accelerated students strongly agreed with the statement “I feel comfortable at school.” The majority of students also strongly agreed with the statement “I have close friends in class”.

When comparing students who skipped a grade to students who did not, Kretschmann et al found a slightly negative effect size; however, the effect size was so small they concluded the effect size was not statistically significant. However, they did find a small negative effect size of -.35 to-.47 for positive peer relations, when comparing students who skipped a grade vs who did not. Overall, it does appear that there is a small but statistically significant negative social effect for students who skip a grade. 


As previously mentioned, having gifted students skip a grade does present the possibility of lowering the academic quality of the original classroom. However, there is some quantitative evidence, against this hypothesis. Kulik and Kulik conducted a meta-analysis in 1987 examining the impact of grouping students by ability. Their study showed that when students were grouped by ability level that the students in the lowest ability group actually improved by an effect size of .26. While this effect size is not terribly significant, it does suggest that any negative impact of grouping students more closely according to their ability is likely small to non-existent. Given the extremely high yield to acceleration and relatively low social/emotional detriments, I think the most ethical decision is to accelerate gifted students. If we choose not to accelerate gifted students, we are only robbing those students of their full academic potential. That being said, I do ultimately think parents and students must have the final say in acceleration. It is obviously a big decision for any family to have a student skip a grade. However, it does appear scientifically unfounded for schools on an institutional level to block all students from acceleration.

Ultimately, upon looking at this data, it does appear that the best solution is teaching students to an individualized curriculum. Teaching students to an individualized curriculum offers higher results than any other form of acceleration or ability grouping and it does not present the potential downsides that normal acceleration does. And while I personally hope that teaching students to an individualized curriculum is the future of education, I do see some potential drawbacks with this idea. Mainly in that teaching in this particular way, is very labor-intensive for teachers, more challenging than regular teaching, and difficult for administrations to enforce. Because of this, I think a large-scale switch to teaching students individualized curriculums would take considerable teacher training and institutional focus. Without an institutional focus on individualized curriculums, one teacher could teach their gifted students individualized curriculum, only for those same students to enter a totally normal classroom in the next academic year. Therefore, I feel allowing gifted students to skip a grade might be the simplest and most effective solution, overall. 


Written by, Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited 1/1/2021


References:


Steenbergen-Hu, S. (2016). What One Hundred Years of Research Says About the Effects of Ability Grouping and Acceleration on K–12 Students’ Academic Achievement. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 849–899.


Gold, M. E., & Richards, H. (2012). To Label or Not to Label: The Special Education Question for African Americans. Educational Foundations, 26(1/2), 143–156.


J, Hattie. (2018). Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Visible Learning. Retrieved from <https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/> .


Kretschmann, J. (2016). Skipping to the bigger pond: Examining gender differences in students’ psychosocial development after early acceleration. Contemporary Educational Psychology., 46, 195–207.

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