Many homeschoolers have trouble with the typical grade level system in schools. Maybe you can identify with some of these scenarios:
"So what grade are you in, honey?" the nice grocery store clerk asks your eight-year-old, upon finding out that your family homeschools. Your child looks up at you with a confused look, bewildered at this common question. Turns out your family is one of many that just doesn't really think about grade levels, and your child never knows what to say in this situation.
"Am I in third grade, Mommy?" she says, tugging at your skirt a bit plaintively.
By now the grocery clerk is confused along with the child. It seems so . . . well, American to immediately know what school grade you are in. Something must be wrong with your child, or with this homeschooling idea, if your child doesn't even know this.
You answer something noncommittal and continue through the line, irritated at the nosiness of check-out people.
Or maybe your child was a late bloomer, getting off to a nice relaxed start with reading at age nine (that is, a nice, relaxed start in retrospect; you were a nervous wreck until he finally caught on). So you decide to call him a first-grader (or perhaps "non-graded primary") for longer than usual, and gradually he does fine, until he's now pushing 15, and only in 7th grade. Now he begins to complain about the lower grade placement - he wants to be up with his age-mates, and you begin to realize just how old he will be when he graduates from high school at home. Will he stick it out? Can you now boost him ahead and skip a grade or two? Did you make a big mistake to hold him back?
Or possibly you have two children close in age and you teach them together, using the older one's textbooks. The younger one takes part easily in all studies, and seems to be doing fine. Shouldn't he get "credit" for doing fifth-grade work like his sister? Shouldn't you call him a fifth-grader also? Maybe his test scores as a fifth-grader aren't so hot, and his handwriting is pretty atrocious, but, gee, he is doing that fifth-grade level work.
Or this: your child is a very bright student, always has been. Learned to read early and effortlessly, catches on to new ideas readily and quickly, is an eager learner in many fields. But you don't want to appear to be saying that your kid is better than anyone else, so you have always just kept your child at her age level grade-wise. On top of that, your child's birthday is in early November, which means that she is actually one of the very oldest at her grade level. She has always aced achievement tests, and has always been above grade level in the actual work being accomplished. Now that she's hit junior high you are wondering about skipping a grade. Can you? Should you? What about socialization questions, what about future chances of scholarships, what about other possibilities?
And then there is this variation: you've read about this family with 10 kids in Practical Homeschooling. These kids accelerated their schooling by several years, completing high school typically by age 12 or so. Why shouldn't you? You start doing one and a half years in one year, then skip a grade, then jump ahead another year, until you now have a 13-year-old ready to graduate next year. So far, so good. Then perhaps doubts start arising. Your daughter isn't so eager for this after all. She may not want to be faced at the young age of fourteen with the types of decisions kids need to make after graduation. She certainly doesn't want to leave home for college that early, and might not really be ready even for college-level correspondence work. She took the PSAT and earned only mediocre scores - are scholarships lost? Maybe this plan just won't work for you. You and your daughter realize there is still lots more to learn about, and after all she never was that hot in mathematics even though she'd always been a super reader. Can you slow down at this point without making your child feel she has been "failed?" And what will colleges think of a "5th" or "6th" year of high school?
Are there advantages to letting kids be kids and not pushing them beyond what's typical and reasonable for their actual ages?
Over the many years that I've been talking with and counseling homeschool parents, I've encountered all of these situations, and many other variations on the theme. This is a tough area for homeschoolers to make decisions, and hearing a variety of points of view will help all of us see what's right for our own families.
I've also dealt with many of these questions in our own family, and made different decisions based on each child. Maybe I should start here, to give you all some perspective on where I'm coming from.
Jesse is now 23 and in grad school (married too, first baby due this coming winter). He got off to a relaxed start in some areas back when we started homeschooling, while being way ahead in other areas. As a 6-year-old first grader (my kids all have summer birthdays, so they are all among the youngest students in their grade), he scored in the lowest 2 percent on a standardized test of reading ability. I actually thought to myself that if I were putting him in a regular school, I might have held him back a year, in part because he had a late birthday . . . and that reading score. However, I realized that at home grade level distinctions didn't really make much difference, and I strongly felt he'd do fine as he went along. He did do fine, and I was very glad that I hadn't kept him back. But strong a student as he was all through his homeschooling (once he got the hang of how to read!), I was never tempted to skip a grade with him. By the end of high school he was clearly ready for college level work, but instead of early admission we did a college correspondence course through Penn State University and also helped him prepare for taking four different Advanced Placement exams. He went into the University of Pittsburgh Honors College with 18 college credits. This cushion of extra credits enabled him to really broaden his studies in college - he was not eager to finish college early, just eager to try out as many fields as possible while he was there for four years. He ended up with a double major in history and political science, along with an honors degree for completing a major senior research project, and had time to travel around the world on the Semester at Sea program also.
Jacob, now 20 and heading into his junior year at Carnegie Mellon University studying computer science, also had a July birthday, and also got off to a bit of a slow start in reading. Again, I decided against holding him back, and again that panned out as a good decision. Jacob early on showed a marked ability in mathematics and computer programming, and by mid-fourth grade was working with his older brother Jesse on high school algebra. He completed high-school-level geometry in 7th grade, then went right on to calculus in 8th and 9th grade. He was a very bright kid, but not necessarily in all areas. Again, I was never tempted to skip grades with Jacob, and again I'm pleased with this decision. Jacob had the time to really develop his strong interests, take part in many special accelerated academic programs in the summer and throughout the year, and build up his somewhat weaker areas. He could finally spell a bit better, his French was even coming along OK, and he'd listened to some Jane Austen novels read aloud even if he refused to read them independently. He was also more mature (read this to mean that he was a better sport when he lost a chess game . . . or other things more important than chess). There really is a lot to be said for just plain growing a bit older. I felt he was ready to go on to college when he turned 18, and indeed he's done super. He also used the AP program to validate the college-level work he did in high school, and ended up taking a college-credit distance learning course in multi-variate calculus (don't ask me exactly what that is . . . but it's the next step beyond the two different AP Calculus courses that he'd already passed) through Stanford University's EPGY program (Educational Program for Gifted Youth). And he also got to be my tech man in my online AP US History course, as well as a course participant - in short, there was plenty for him to do at home those last couple of years. I'm glad he had that time.
Molly, not quite 17, is another story. While riding in our car right before her fifth birthday (and she has an early August birthday, making her very young even for her proper grade level) she began reading aloud fluently from the loved book Charlotte's Web. She had started beginning reading very early, and caught on very quickly. She also seemed socially very mature and competent. She also did reasonably well in math understandings. It just didn't seem quite correct to call her a kindergartner at that point. Early on we let our local school district know that because she was advanced overall, she was boosted ahead a grade. She did third grade testing (required in PA) as a very young 7-year-old, and did very well (math computation was average, but concepts were at the top of the chart, and she had a perfect score in reading). I've never regretted my decision of skipping a grade with her. This is a kid who read Jane Eyre for the first time when in sixth grade (and remember, that meant young fifth-grade age for her), who picked up Shakespeare plays to read independently for fun, and who took on major challenges like entering the "Written and Illustrated by . . ." competition two times. She's also a pretty good pianist, is an incredible artist, has now taken eight AP exams, is a National Merit Finalist, went to France twice during her high school years, and more and more. She's heading off to the University of Pittsburgh Honors College this fall, with a full-ride academic scholarship - tuition plus room and board all paid for four years. Seems like the right decision for her to have skipped a grade - it's all worked out even better than we might have hoped.
Jacob and Jesse every now and then used to point out that they thought that it was a mistake to have boosted Molly ahead though - thinking mainly of the various academic competitions our family enjoys taking part in. Being a grade ahead meant she lost out on being in Math Olympiad for one more year, or the Geography Bee for one more year, or MathCounts for one more year, and more, as most of these competitions have grade level guidelines. I firmly believe that homeschoolers can't play it both ways - that is, can't be one grade for some purposes, but another grade for other purposes, especially when it comes to academic competitions. If there is a grade level designation, you need to be consistent with what you've decided your child is - you can't waffle around and try to have your proverbial cake while eating it too. Molly and I actually discussed this whole issue together quite a few times, and realized that because she's been a grade level ahead, that's how we've viewed her - our expectations were raised because of it. If she'd been at the lower grade level most likely we would never have encouraged work at the level she was actually very able to meet. It's hard to even explain why I feel so comfortable with skipping Molly ahead a year, when I never considered it with either of the boys, or with Hannah, our youngest. But I've also never considered skipping any more grades with Molly - she was after all just barely a teenager when officially entering high school at home, and she had plenty of growing up to do before being thrown in with much older students at college. One year of skipping was plenty.
Hannah is now 12, and properly just finished with seventh grade, although again with her very late summer birthday she is young for the grade. It seems perfect for her - she's excelling at this level, has plenty of fun challenges through her work with Mathcounts and the National French Exam and the Mythology Exam, but is not thrown in over her head. She's able to be a really nice bright 7th-grader. Skipping grades never entered my head with her.
So how can a family make these types of decisions regarding grade level? What questions do you need to ask yourself? What factors should be considered? I think families need to look at this issue very carefully. In many ways skipping a grade means very little in homeschooling, as we can always do whatever level of work we feel is appropriate for a given child, no matter what the grade level. A fourth-grader does not have to be stuck plodding through a fourth-grade reader when he's ready for meatier stuff. At the far end of the scale, if a student does feel very ready for going on with college attendance early, but didn't skip a grade earlier on, he can still go to college ahead of time. He just goes right after 11th grade, using the college's early admission policy. If he can demonstrate a very strong record, strong SAT or ACT scores, and the maturity to handle college life, most colleges are more than happy to have a student who would otherwise be a senior in high school. Several students in the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers diploma program have done this with no problem (they then receive their diploma from PHAA after completing their freshman year in college, which is the standard procedure with most public or private high schools also).
In the scenario mentioned above, of the child who needed a longer starting-out time to gain basic academic abilities, though, I feel it's very reasonable and probably very desirable to skip the child ahead a grade at some point, even if the child would only be considered barely average according to test scores at the upper grade level. There is a wide variation found within any grade level, and sometimes it can be very motivating to a child to realize that now is the time to step on the gas and zoom ahead a bit to catch up with his age-mates. Some kids can get very discouraged by realizing they have been held back and now are significantly behind grade-wise - they feel no reason to even try to do their best, because after all, they must be pretty stupid since they were once kept back a year or two. You might set very concrete goals with a student in this situation: if you can complete this level math work, read this many books, and write this many compositions next year, and take the 8th grade level test and do at least OK on it, we'll consider next year as covering both 7th and 8th grades, putting you where you should be age-wise. This generally gets a very positive response from the student, encouraging hard work and effort and real concrete gains. The parents then have a real goal to help their kids meet. Everybody wins.
It gets trickier for the me when I talk with families who want to skip ahead nice, normal bright kids. I often ask what the rush is; is there some specific plan ahead, some goal that requires double promotion? Test scores I think can be very useful here - if a kid takes an achievement test at the upper grade level and still scores in the superior range (that is, 90th percentile or above), I feel skipping a grade might be a good idea. If a student scores very well at the current grade level, but is only mildly above average when taking a test at the next grade level, I'd stop thinking about skipping grades, even if a child is officially using books from the upper grade level. There is frankly not that much difference between books at, say, the fourth- and the fifth-grade level - using the upper-level books does not really mean your child should be skipped. An elementary school principal once said to me, "What's the point in boosting a kid ahead to be average? Why not let him stay a nice bright kid at his grade level?" Much as some of us might not like to admit that any school principal knows anything, I think the man made a good point here.
Then there are some parents who are faced with a child who really feels it's important to get things moving along faster. Often this is a junior-high student, and he may have realized that at least in some diploma programs he might not be allowed to skip a grade during the high-school years. If it's going to be done, the time is now. These kids have plans, they have goals, they are ready for upper level work and they know it. Test scores are superior, the child is strong overall in many subject areas, and everyone is just beginning to feel that the current grade level description just isn't even, well, honest. Often, though not necessarily, these are kids with birthdays that put them at the older end of their current grade level. They are the kids who I always thought were a grade ahead of what was listed on paper. The homeschooling families I know who have had a child skip a grade for reasons like this are generally very pleased - the decision took a long time coming, and it's often finally a relief to just decide. The kids usually rise to the occasion, and really achieve strongly.
On the other hand, I'm also meeting families that are feeling under some type of pressure to skip a child, when no one in the family really wants to - a sort of peer pressure to accelerate. This decision should always be a family one, and I hope people don't feel that they should accelerate just because some others find it works for them. Every family is going to have its own unique reasons for doing what it's doing, and this should be respected.
What if you did accelerate, and now part way through high school at home you want to cool things down and call your child a lower grade level? What will colleges think? It is in general easiest to just rewrite a transcript to reflect the new, and lower, grade levels and not tack on a fifth or sixth year of high school - unless you are ready for doing some real justifying. Not that it can't be explained well - in fact I know a couple of terrific homeschooling families in PA that opted for naming this extra year a fifth year of high school, and all went just fine with college admissions. Maybe as homeschoolers we just have gotten really good at explaining the sometimes odd ways we do things.
Now we can answer the question we started with. What about that little kid at the grocery store who doesn't know what grade she's in?
This is only my personal opinion, but I feel our kids should be given the security of being able to answer that question quickly and confidently. This is a question that gets fired at kids all the time by well-meaning folks at church and in the community and within the extended family, and I just think you, the parent, should decide what grade level designation you are going by.
If you want to go into the long answer, feel free to (you know, "Well, actually we don't go by grade levels, you see we don't believe in it and after all she needed a bit more time to learn to read, you see, and well, she's ahead in some areas, but just needs more time here . . ." and on and on . . .).
But I think it really simplifies life to just be able to have your confident child look the clerk in the eye, smile, and say unequivocally, "I'm in third grade at home."
And if you want to change that designation later for valid reasons, do so.