"Mom, What Grade Am I In?" (And Why It Doesn't Matter)

It’s always interesting when I tell people I’m homeschooling. One of the first questions I often hear is “What grade are your kids in?” The answer isn’t very straightforward. Well, we’re using math at a 4th grade level. And there are the 6th grade level reading books. And I’m not sure what grade you’d call history and science because the curriculum isn’t leveled. It’s somewhat humorous when they ask the kids what grade they’re in, and the kids look up at me with a questioning expression.To keep the kids from getting confused, we’ve always told them what grade they’d be if they were in school. But otherwise the grade number doesn’t mean much to our family.

I know some homeschool moms reading might be nodding with a “Right on!” But others might be disagreeing vehemently. Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve learned about grade levels as an education major, as a classroom teacher, and now teaching my own kids.

Grades in homeschooling
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The Original Purpose of “Grade Levels”

Grade levels are a very random way of grouping kids for the purpose of education. The idea is that children who are of a similar age will be at a similar level developmentally. And so to have a way of grouping children into smaller numbers for the purpose of traditional schools, they are grouped by their age. This grouping didn’t happen in traditional schooling historically. In the days of the one room schoolhouse, students sat in groups by ability. They progressed as their ability progressed, not as their age progressed. As public education grew, however, a need arose to divide children up into classroom groups. The decision was made, over time, to group kids by age into grade levels.

Problems With the Model

It’s pretty easy to find flaws in this system. If you have more than one child or if your child is ever around other kids, you know that no two kids ever develop at the same rate. I have one child who was an avid reader by the time she was five. I have another who still couldn’t recognize all her letters and sounds at the beginning of 2nd grade but who took off during that year and read fluently by the end of the year. The first would have been frustrated and discouraged in a classroom of age peers because she would have been so far ahead. The second would have been frustrated and discouraged (and probably considered “behind”) had she been in a classroom of peers.
The other problem with this random age separation is the question of where to make the cutoff. Different states do this differently. In our state, the age cutoff for school is September 1st. My oldest has a July birthday. She would only make the cutoff by a little over a month. So kids in her class could be almost one year older. On the other hand, she has a good friend who is three months younger with an early October birthday. That friend wouldn’t make the cutoff. But developmentally she’s much closer to the three month younger friend than the almost one year older peers she would have in school.
So, although I see why there has to be some method of sorting children into groups if you have a huge school with hundreds of kids being processed through, I also know that this method is pretty flawed. As an education major in college, we studied child development. A key idea in the study of child development is that you can’t force a child into a level of development before he or she is ready. Take abstract thinking. You can try all you want to explain an abstract math problem to a five year old. But most five year olds aren’t developmentally capable of abstract thinking. So no matter how long you talk or how many visuals you use or how much encouragement you give, they won’t get it.
But as a classroom teacher I saw it happen all the time. A child was stuck in my second grade class because he was seven. Developmentally he wasn’t ready for reading. Unfortunately the “average” 2nd grader was supposed to have reached a certain level of reading fluency. The child who wasn’t ready now had a problem. He made failing grades. In second grade he was failing classes. Or he needed a reading tutor because he was behind. Or he needed to be tested for a reading disability. Now this child- who might have just been a boy who needed to be at home playing games and Legos and building tree houses- has a label. And it will stick with him.
Now. Please don’t think I’m saying that children never need academic testing if you as a parent feel that something just isn’t right. I have a special education degree as well as an elementary degree, and I know for a fact that there are genuine learning needs and that it is good to diagnose these and have special interventions and methods so that kids can learn. But too often when kids are forced in an artificial grade level, they are mistakenly assumed to have a problem because they don’t do what’s “average” for that grade level.

How We Handle Grade Levels in Our Homeschool

So what has this meant for our homeschool family? From early on I’ve told the kids that the grade number on something doesn’t really mean anything for them. I choose material that fits them and where they are. Sometimes the grade number on it might be high for their “average” age, and sometimes the grade number might be lower. It doesn’t matter. It is more important to have material that is relevant and that they can learn effectively than to have a constant struggle through material that isn’t developmentally appropriate.
Homeschooling and grade levels
As they have approached high school (two of them), I’ve talked to them about material needing to be at a certain level to be considered for a high school credit. I’m still not stressing about the grade number, but they (and I) realize that there will have to be enough credits of material at a high enough level in order to graduate with a transcript. I do have friends who have decided not to go the diploma route but instead to allow their kids to take a high school equivalency exam instead. We’re going the transcript route so that we leave their options open if God leads them to college. (But that’s a whole nother post!)
Grades in homeschooling
If you’re new to this homeschool gig, consider it. Do you need to put your children in grade levels? Or would they thrive and learn better without that constriction? If you’ve done this for a while but feel frustrated because your child is “behind” consider why you’re using grade levels at all. Why compare him to other kids based on age? Does it really matter? I think it’s important that we, as homeschoolers, use the freedom and flexibility we have to make good choices for our kids instead of just falling into the patterns- and grade levels- of traditional schools.
I’d love to hear your opinions. Do your kids have a grade level? Do you use material that is leveled by grade?

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