Monday, January 18, 2010


I am concerned about grade level expectations which are enforced without any true understanding of when children are actually ready to acquire the skills being covered...

When I asked for your learning concerns, Andrea answered. So today, let's talk about grade level expectations.

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, "A grade-level expectation (GLE) is a statement that defines what all students should know and be able to do at the end of a given grade level."

What concerns Andrea (and many others) is the "all" in that sentence. ALL children in Louisiana Public Schools, for instance, are expected to "decode simple one-syllable words" and "read books with predictable, repetitive text and simple illustrations" by the end of kindergarten. But what if child is not biologically ready to read by the end of kindergarten?

Well-established research has shown that different areas of the brain mature at different times in males and females. The part of the brain that handles language typically matures earlier in girls than in boys -- so much so, in fact, that the language area of the brain of a five-year-old boy is comparable to that of a three-and-a-half year old girl. Is it fair, then, to place five-year-old boys in classrooms with five-year-old girls and expect both sexes to read by the end of the year?

At age five, boys are also typically more impulsive and active than five-year-old girls -- characteristics that don't exactly bode well for a study of the written word.

And yet, some boys read by the end of kindergarten. Some girls don't. At what cost? Do we truly know the benefits or harms of pushing a child to achieve skills before he is naturally ready? We do know this: any early advantages gained in kindergarten tend to even out around 4th grade. In other words, it makes no difference whether a child learns to read "early" or "late."

Thirty years ago, American kindergartens were focused on play, not literacy. We learned to read in 1st grade, not kindergarten. Even that, in hindsight, seems rather arbitrary. Who decided, years ago, that children should know how to read by age 6? Why? (For the record, I'm going to do some digging. Hopefully, I'll report back soon with answers.)

What do you think of grade level expectations? Do you feel they help or hamper students? If you homeschool, do you worry more about grade level expectations or the readiness of the individual child?


  1. This hit on many of my worries about my son going to Kindergarten next year. And I am a teacher who knows the system and the expectations -- they scare me to death and are unfairly rigorous on all children, not just boys. We test more than we teach because we need to do assessments to show how well we are doing our jobs. This is all to the detriment of the students who may or may not learn on the schedule that the state has set. I am a public school teacher and supporter, but I would really like to see a change in our thinking about how we teach our kids, boys especially.

  2. Have you read Nurture Shock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman? Chapter five, The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten, deals with gifted programs and their admission policies. Since children grow and learn at different rates, the admission tests are not accurately predicting future performance. Here are two small tidbits from that chapter:

    "To give you a hit of the scale of the problem -- if you picked 100 kindergartners as the 'gifted,' i.e. the smartest, by third grade only 27 of them would still deserve that categorization. You would have wrongly locked out 73 other deserving students."

    "The problem is that young kids' brains just aren't done yet."

  3. Nancy, Do we really TEACH our children to read, or do they acquire the skills that allow them to read when they are darn good and ready? I can pretend I am teaching my kids, but really, they tune out in about 7-8 minutes if I am really trying. They may sit there and be kind while I ramble on, but are they learning?

    I happen to be a physical therapist, and all this makes me think of children acquiring the ability to walk. The norm (and for this, there are studies!) is between 9-18 months! And we all know 6 monthers, and possibly some 2 year olds who fall ouside this norm. Thank goodness they haven't hit public school yet, those poor late walkers would be getting 30 minutes of walking instrucion everyday, and gosh darn it, they would be TAUGHT to walk! Or perhaps they would just get up and walk when they were physically and mentally ready : )

  4. Nancy,
    When you say you'd like to see a change in our thinking about how we teach our kids, what do you have in mind? I'd love to hear some of your ideas.

    Sounds like an intriguing book. I'm going to have to check that one out.

    Great analogy!

  5. A hundred years ago boys learned more through apprenticeships than sitting in a school room. Today they are in a classroom reading and writing about skills that they will never get to practice. I would love to see students leave the classroom and the textbooks behind more, even in elementary school, and be able to explore their strengths and talents in a real world setting. Instead of spending the prescribed amount of time on a topic in science or math or whatever, it would be wonderful to be able to have the freedom to allow the students to design a real-world solution to a real-world problem that would connect them to their community and provide them with concrete skills and authentic experiences. There is a lot of talk about things like this right now as we focus more on what it means to be a 21st century learner. Some schools and even school districts are realizing that we need to rethink how we teach the current generation of students, but the majority of institutions cling to the testing model rather than seeking more organic means of assessments.

  6. Oh Nancy, you sound a lot like a future homeschooler! Best wishes.

  7. Grade level expectations are unfair. Those children who just aren't ready yet wind up feeling like failures. We need to start treating children like individuals and not like carbon copies of each other.