This article is from a Young Scholar seminar hosted by Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik. She answers a number of questions that often arise in regards to acceleration options for students in 8th grade and younger.
Author: Lupkowski-Shoplik, A.
Organization: Davidson Institute for Talent Development
What are some of the signs a student is ready for acceleration?
You might start researching the possibility of acceleration for your child if you experience some of the following:
- Your child complains a lot about being bored in school.
- Your child has no homework, or all homework is completed on the bus.
- Your child has no need to study, but still gets good grades on tests.
- Your child demonstrates high standardized achievement and aptitude test scores.
- Although the teacher might provide some enrichment, you have a real sense that the lessons are not challenging enough.
- Your child prefers to spend time with older friends.
One of the challenging things about considering acceleration is if a student isn’t getting top grades in the “age-appropriate” class and/or doesn’t exhibit perfect behavior. Is the lack of high grades or the poor behavior due to the lack of challenge in the current grade? Will accelerating the student help the situation or make it worse? In addition, some students are so well-behaved that it’s not obvious they need more challenge. They get along well with others, do what the teacher asks, get their homework done, and earn good grades. Sometimes we neglect to consider acceleration as a possibility, even though they might benefit from the challenge.
How do we know when our child is ready for acceleration?
Before jumping into advocating for a grade skip or other type of acceleration, think first about gathering specific evidence that documents that acceleration or some other type of change might be needed. First, a good assessment of the student’s abilities (above-level testing plus curriculum-based assessment) is needed. What do the results tell us? Is she ready academically for a grade skip? Does he have significant gaps in one subject, indicating that subject-matter acceleration might make more sense?
If your child has already been accelerated, it’s still possible that more acceleration might be needed. That’s sometimes difficult to explain to a teacher or principal. They might think, “We already did that. One grade skip and we’re done.” Some children require multiple grade skips or they might require other types of accommodations even if they have already skipped one or two grades.
Where do we start with our school if we are considering a grade-skip or other type of acceleration?
If your child is already enrolled in school, talk to the child’s current teacher and ask for help with the process. The gifted coordinator or gifted teacher may be another good advocate, since he or she should know the research regarding acceleration and may have some positive experiences to share with other decision-makers. The principal, who often makes the final decision about acceleration, should be included in the discussions as well. Be well-prepared when attending meetings with school personnel. Document your requests in writing, provide relevant test results, and offer detailed explanations.
Take the “we’re on the same team” approach with school personnel. You will find it is easier to gain the cooperation of a school if you and the administrators have a positive working relationship, rather than if you always feel like you’re forcing them to make accommodations for your child. Be a positive presence as much as you can.
Educate yourself. Take advantage of information available online (for example, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development website has lots of articles about acceleration that you can share with school personnel). Read A Nation Empowered. You may need to educate some of the decision-makers at your school about the research on acceleration. This is a well-researched area of gifted education, yet acceleration is not implemented very often by schools because school personnel simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn about the research. It is not typically taught in colleges of education (unfortunately!), although the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa offers an entire graduate course on the topic.
Get involved in your local gifted organization. These groups are often affiliated with state gifted organizations and/or the National Association for Gifted Children. By attending local affiliate group meetings, you’ll meet other families who are dealing with similar situations. Those families may offer helpful tips. Additionally, by combining forces with several other families in similar situations, you will have a better chance of making an impact on the local school system. Although school system changes take a long time, future families will be grateful for your efforts.
Gathering specific information
Although it’s helpful to tell school personnel stories about your child’s development, it’s best to have objective information. An educational assessment including ability, aptitude, and achievement testing, will give you solid information about your child’s abilities. Sharing test scores that demonstrate that a student has already learned the current grade’s material and is ready to learn more is essential. Curriculum-based assessment (tied to the specific curriculum offered in your school) is extremely useful.
The Iowa Acceleration Scale is a helpful tool in talking with school personnel. It was designed to help school personnel and parents consider the important factors in acceleration, including:
- School and academic factors (school attendance, student’s motivation, attitude toward learning, etc.)
- Developmental factors (physical size, motor coordination)
- Interpersonal skills (relationships with peers and teachers, outside-of-school activities)
- Attitude and support (student’s attitude toward acceleration, parents’ attitude, school system attitude and support, planning for the future).
The goal of the Iowa Acceleration Scale is to help guide the conversation so that individuals involved consider all of the important aspects of a grade-skip. When we start thinking about all of these ideas in an organized way, we get away from the conversations focused on “but she’ll be too young to drive” or “he’ll miss the high school prom.” Instead, the conversation is a real discussion of the pros and cons of acceleration based on the facts, not on opinions or selective recall of one negative experience.
Motor skills should be considered, especially for younger children. These include both small motor skills (writing, drawing, cutting) and large motor skills (running, skipping).
Physical development has an important impact on a child’s self-esteem. If he/she is constantly comparing him/herself to others who are physically more developed (just because they are older), the child might feel inadequate or less capable. It doesn’t have to be a big issue, but it is one more thing to be aware of when planning an acceleration. It might be very helpful to have the student participate in one outside-of-school activity (for example, soccer) that groups children by age rather than by grade. If a child has less-developed motor skills than the children in the new grade, it isn’t a good reason to stop thinking about acceleration. It’s easy to make accommodations for the student: allow the student more time to complete an activity, cut out something ahead of time for the student, allow him/her to dictate a story rather than require writing it down. However, this requires awareness and flexibility on the teacher’s part. These small motor issues become less of a problem as the student gets older.
How do we prepare our child for acceleration?
Be sure to talk with your child about any of his or her concerns about acceleration. Consider role playing a bit. “What questions do you think the other kids might ask? How will you answer them?” Be matter-of-fact and brief with the answers: “We decided that this would be the best fit for me.” “Third grade wasn’t the right level for me.” You as the parent will want to plan your answers to other parents’ questions, too.
The receiving teacher is really important in this transition and should be supportive of your child’s acceleration. If your child is starting on the first day with all of the other kids, there is no reason to call attention to the fact that he or she is younger. The teacher can treat your child like any other new student in the class. If your child is accelerating in the middle of a school year, ask the receiving teacher, the principal or gifted coordinator to talk with the other students ahead of time.
Making the transition
It is often easier if students accelerate at the beginning of the school year, so they don’t stand out in the new class as accelerated students; they look like just another one of the new kids. In addition, transitions are easier if your child already knows some of the other students. It’s helpful if you can arrange some ‘play dates’ before school starts. Some schools assign a buddy (another student) to students who have moved into the district. This might be helpful for an accelerated student as well.
Meet with the receiving teacher ahead of time. Explain any concerns you have, and keep the lines of communication open. When you are considering acceleration, no matter who is in favor of it, if the receiving teacher (the one who will actually teach your child after the grade skip) is not in favor, things may be very difficult for your child.
Before the acceleration occurs, establish a back-up plan. What will we do if it doesn’t go well? Set a trial period of about six weeks. Schedule a follow-up meeting with the teacher for about two weeks after the acceleration occurs so you can find out how things are going from the teacher’s perspective. Have another meeting about six weeks into the acceleration for the interested parties to check in with each other.
The academic work should be harder now, so your child might need some help with study skills: how to study for a test, improve organizational strategies, etc. Your child’s teacher may have some good suggestions about this. Be prepared for lower grades during the initial phase of acceleration, while the student is adjusting to the demands of the new grade.
What is the best time to skip a grade?
When thinking about the social aspects of acceleration, earlier is better. As students get older, it can be more difficult to skip a grade since they have become more involved in activities and find it harder to leave established friendships. Most students who wait until high school to skip a grade do it successfully, however.
Researchers at the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa have found that the best time to skip a grade is in the first grade in a new building. For example, these researchers found skipping 9th grade was better than skipping 8th grade, because 8th grade is a transition year during which teachers offer many activities designed to help students prepare for the move to high school.
What about early entrance to kindergarten?
Early entrance to kindergarten is a special case. On the one hand, it’s the “easiest” time to accelerate. A student simply enters the school system earlier than age-mates. There aren’t a lot of concerns about gaps in the student’s background, since he or she won’t be skipping over any of the school curriculum. Additionally, it is an easier time to skip in terms of social development, because social groups in school haven’t really been established yet. At the same time, it can be very challenging to make a decision about acceleration for a four-year-old. We have very little information about the child (since he or she has been around for only a few years!) and we are extremely nervous about making a mistake at this young age. See the Acceleration Institute website for a more complete discussion of these issues.
Once the decision to accelerate has been made, there are a number of administrative questions that need to be addressed. The ones specific to subject-matter acceleration include: How are grades and credit assigned? What transportation is needed? What are the financial considerations? (For example, who pays for AP exams or distance learning courses?) Questions for students who skip an entire grade would include: Are there any gaps in knowledge that should be addressed before school starts? Who else needs to be involved in the conversation to make the transition to the new grade as smooth as possible?
If there is a concern that there might be “gaps” in the student’s background, the Diagnostic Testing->Prescriptive Instruction (DT->PI) process is very useful. Students are tested to determine exactly what they already know and what they have yet to learn. Follow-up instruction is focused on the gaps in their knowledge. Not only is time saved by tailoring instruction this way, but also we can reassure ourselves that an accelerated student is truly ready to move on to the next level if we identify and fill in the gaps. Julian Stanley originally developed this process for mathematically gifted students, and it is described in detail in Assouline and Lupkowski-Shoplik (2011).
Students, schools, and summer programs have used the DT-PI process in different ways, both short-term and long-term. For example, one young student had already learned quite a bit of algebra on her own and she wanted to start the school year in Algebra II rather than in Algebra I. She was tested to see what topics in Algebra I she already knew. She demonstrated that she did know a lot of algebra, but there were still a few holes in her background. A mentor worked with her for about 2 weeks in August on the topics she had not understood completely. By the time school started, she was ready to start Algebra II with the rest of the class. The DT-PI process has been used extensively in mathematics, but it can be applied in other subject areas.
The impact of acceleration on social development
Research tells us that, as a group, accelerated gifted students do just fine socially. Some accelerated students are rather shy, most demonstrate ‘average’ social skills, and others are real leaders. Concerns about accelerated students include dating, driving and encountering challenging social situations. Most accelerated students tell us that these inconveniences are temporary; accelerated students usually report that the inconveniences were worth it in terms of the time saved and the more challenging curriculum and other opportunities. Although these inconveniences are temporary, they are still issues at the time! It is most helpful if the parents make decisions about these types of situations ahead of time and prepare themselves as well as the student. Decide when you think it’s appropriate for your child to date or to go to the mall or the movies with a group of friends and stick to it. Clearly explain to your child what he or she is allowed to do and what he or she will have to wait to do.
Some students who accelerated comment later about feeling lucky to have ‘saved’ some time. They feel they have an advantage in their life plan; they can take a year off to travel or do some other enriching activity, or they can use that extra time to pursue a higher degree. However, the story with acceleration is not 100% positive for every student. In the various studies, there were a few students who were not satisfied with their experience. They might blame their difficulties on the fact that they accelerated, or they might feel that they would have had some difficulties whether or not they had skipped a grade. Parents should be reassured, however: Research shows that, as a group, gifted students who accelerate are successful socially, both in the short term and in the long term.
Some of the negative aspects of acceleration
Although there are many positive results of a grade-skip, parents and students need to be aware that there may be tradeoffs. For example, young accelerated students might not have opportunities such as high school internships due to child labor laws or other age-related rules. They might not be permitted to live in a college dorm if they are much younger than typical freshmen. Accelerated students might earn lower grades or lower test scores than they would if they had waited to take the class or the test until they were older. All of these things must be weighed against the opportunity for additional challenge and appropriate placement for the student.
What are the alternatives to a grade skip?
For whatever reasons, if your student does not skip a grade in school, other alternatives for devising a challenging educational program should be considered. These include: subject-matter acceleration, enrichment with the regular classroom, enrichment provided by a pull-out teacher (perhaps the gifted teacher) or a mentor, completing independent projects, participating in competitions or clubs, or taking a class via a distance learning program. Summer programs, such as the ones offered by the university-based talent searches can also provide appropriate challenges while enabling students to remain with their age peers. Concurrent enrollment (where a student takes some classes with older students and other classes with age-peers) and individually paced instruction in the area of strength are other options to consider.
Early entrance to college
Students should complete as many of the challenging courses their high school offers as possible before going off to college. College admissions officers prefer to see that students have taken the most rigorous courses available in high school. That’s an argument for accelerating at a younger age or for careful planning for the high school years, so the student is able to complete the challenging courses before entering college. Some students may elect to take college courses while still in high school (called “dual enrollment”), in order to be adequately challenged in a particular subject.
If your student is ready to leave high school early, consider investigating the formal programs designed specifically for early entrants to college, such as PEG at Mary Baldwin College, the Texas Academy of Math and Science at the University of North Texas, the Early Entrance Program at the University of Washington, and others (see http://www.accelerationinstitute.org/Resources/early_college.aspx). Participants benefit from the support network these special programs provide while they are able to take full advantage of the academic opportunities at college.
How does the decision to accelerate affect the student’s chances at getting into a good college and/or receiving college scholarships?
If the student skips a grade at an early age, acceleration shouldn’t have much of an effect. The student will be younger than other students in 12th grade, but that student would have had the benefit of four years of high school to take challenging courses and participate in extracurricular activities.
Students should certainly take all the challenging courses they can in their schools before applying to college. In other words, it wouldn’t be seen as appropriate for a student to skip the last two years of high school if he/she hasn’t yet taken all of the high-level math and English classes the high school offers.
If the student skips one of the last years of high school, will the student miss out on opportunities for scholarships? The best thing to do is to discuss that with college admissions and financial aid personnel for the colleges you are considering. They can give you more information about factors that are important for their decisions.
- Assouline, S. G., Colangelo, N., Lupkowski-Shoplik, A., Lipscomb, J., & Forstadt, L. (2009). The Iowa Acceleration Scale, 3rd edition: Manual. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
- Assouline, S. G., Colangelo, N., VanTassel-Baska, J., & Lupkowski-Shoplik, A. (2015). A Nation Deceived: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students (two volume set). www.nationempowered.org For updates, follow @BelinBlank and @AnnShoplik on Twitter and see the hashtag, #nationempowered
- Assouline, S. G., & Lupkowski-Shoplik, A. (2011). Developing Math Talent: A Comprehensive Guide to Math Education for Gifted Students in Elmentary and Middle School (2nd ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
- Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. M. (2004). A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students. Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Iowa City, IA: The University of Iowa. www.nationdeceived.org.
- Rogers, K. (2002). Re-forming gifted education: Matching the program to the child. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
- The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC, see www.nagc.org) has published a position statement on acceleration. See http://www.nagc.org/about-nagc/nagc-position-statements-white-papers?id=383.
- Website: www.accelerationinstitute.org