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Acceleration: What we do vs. what we know

Gifted Research

This article by Karen Rogers and Richard Kimpston is a review of studies that indicate gifted young people really do benefit from being academically challenged. It states that providing a challenging learning environment will only help these children, not harm them in social or psychological ways. They include short descriptions of 11 practices fro challenging these students.

Author: Rogers, K. B., Kimpston, R. D.
Publications: Educational Leadership, pp. 58-61
Publisher: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
Year: October 1992

A review of studies suggests that bright students benefit academically from a more challenging learning environment and that, contrary to popular opinion, they are not harmed socially or psychologically.

Scenario: Robin, a 2nd grader reading at the 6th grade level, has problems paying attention while her classmates stumble over new vocabulary in the basal reader. Ms. T. recalls a similar situation with Sam five years ago. Sam was sent to the 6th grade classroom for his reading, but, as the year progressed, he became increasingly self-conscious, withdrawn, and unwilling to participate in the 6th grade reading discussions. Based on this recollection, Ms. T. decides to keep Robin in her class and to make her a peer tutor for those who are having trouble reading.


Educational acceleration as a curricular option has been a divisive issue among educators since its first documented use in the St. Louis, Missouri, schools in 1862. As recently as 1988, Dorothy Sisk argued that acceleration may be the one practice that most directly circumvents boredom and underachievement. Despite little research to back up his contention, David Elkind, in a point-counterpoint debate with Sisk, took exception to the term acceleration itself, alluding to potential social and dislocation problems that may occur when adults attempt to speed up a child’s development (see Elkind 1988, Sisk 1988).

In an earlier debate, Joyce Van Tassel-Baska (1986) contended that the research-supported advantages of acceleration are widely ignored because the practice: (1) goes against the current organizational and philosophical structure of American schools; (2) challenges the democratic purpose of schools by allowing some learners to get ahead; and (3) as a strategy, is usually implemented as grade skipping, thereby allowing for the possibility that material will be excluded and skill gaps created.

Although previous reviews of the outcomes of acceleration have been markedly positive, perceptions of its efficacy have been markedly negative among teachers and administrators. Our analysis of the research has been an effort to understand why such differences of opinion exist (Rogers 1991).

Synopsis of the Study
In our meta-evaluation of 19 major research syntheses-from the first formal review (Witty and Wilkins 1933) to the most recent (Van Tassel-Baska 1986), only one (Halliwell 1966) concluded that there were disadvantages to early entrance to 1st grade. This review, however, had several flaws: (1) studies primarily reviewed early entrance for average and below-average students; (2) no systematic search of all early entrance studies had been conducted; (3) no attention was paid to the quality of study design or sample size; and (4) the author did not explain how he drew his conclusions or selected the studies.

Of major interest was the fact that of the 19 reviews, only 2 addressed either social or emotional outcomes of acceleration (Holahan and Brounstein 1986, Kulik and Kulik 1984). Further, Kulik and Kulik concluded that there was scant research on these affective issues.

Despite the long history of this practice in U.S. schools, no one has conducted a thorough search of the studies on all forms of acceleration. In the studies we reviewed, acceleration was generally-perceived as grade skipping, rather than as any program adaptation that shortens the time gifted students must remain in a grade- progressive educational setting or advances the level of curriculum attained in a given time (Rogers 1991). Given this definition, acceleration would include any of the 11 options defined in Figure 1.

We next conducted a search of computerized data bases to locate all research studies of the11 forms of acceleration from 1965 to the present. “Branching” from the reference lists of these studies and the 19 reviews of research rounded out the collection. In all, 314 quantitative or qualitative studies were accumulated. We conducted separate analyses for each form of acceleration using Glass’s procedure of meta-analysis (1976). Each study was reduced to the metric of “effect size.” separately calculated for reported academic, socialization, and psychological adjustment outcomes. A mean effect size was calculated by averaging study outcomes with similar category outcomes for other studies of each form of acceleration.1

Implications of the study
Several implications appear plausible from the results of the analysis. First, with so great a number of studies as the research base for acceleration, one would assume that the academic, socialization, and psychological outcomes of at least the most widely practiced forms would have been established. Such was not the case. For academic outcomes, the picture is fairly clear and very positive, but for socialization and psychological adjustment, much is still needed before we have the whole picture. Second, practitioners often reject acceleration on social or emotional grounds, when, in fact, such outcomes have been scantily researched.

If nothing else, our study laid to rest two misconceptions about acceleration: (1) all forms can be reduced to grade skipping, and (2) acceleration may have negative social and emotional consequences for gifted learners. Each form of acceleration had a very different pattern of academic, social, and psychological outcomes for students. Hence, individual decisions about accelerating a gifted child must continue to be the norm. However, more attention may be placed on matching the child to the forms of acceleration that reflect his or her learning, social, and psychological characteristics and needs.

As far as negative consequences for gifted learners, we found minimal social and emotional effects for the majority of the accelerative options, very positive socialization effects for grade skipping, and a small negative socialization effect (based on one study) for credit by examination. Little has been established about the socialization effects of nongraded classrooms, Advanced Placement programs, and mentorship, or about the psychological effects of curriculum compacting, concurrent enrollment, subject acceleration, and advanced placement.

Early entrance to school appears to be a relatively safe accelerative option for bright children. Social and psychological adjustment were neither enhanced nor threatened by this practice. If this were the only option offered a gifted child, it would capitalize on a child’s natural intelligence as early as possible and would allow the child to establish a peer group early. As a result, the challenge of making new friends would be encountered only once, instead of with each decision to accelerate. Psychologically, it makes sense that gifted children who are being cognitively challenged from the beginning of their school careers would encounter fewer adjustment problems than those who encounter such challenges after years of little effort required.

Grade skipping for bright children also appears to be very beneficial. Its greatest research-supported academic and social effects appear to be in grades 3-6.

Bright students in a nongraded or multigrade classroom environment showed substantial, positive academic gains at the elementary grade levels. Although no research on social outcomes could be located, it seems likely that bright children who can move through the curriculum at a comfortable but accelerated pace would not find social rejection so readily as when they stand out as significantly different at one grade level.

Curriculum compacting-whereby the student begins each school year at his or her actual level of performance in each subject-results in significantly positive academic effects, especially in mathematics. The single study of social outcomes suggested no differences in socialization, and the psychological impact of this option was unclear.

Another implication from our analysis is that allowing children to progress through three years’ curriculum in two years’ time-grade telescoping-showed very positive academic outcomes for both junior and senior high students. The option neither enhanced nor harmed socialization or psychological adjustment. Most of the studies looked at small groups of gifted children who were telescoped together, which might suggest that initial social interactions and emotional sets would remain constant just as the peer group did. What might prove problematic, however, is a decision to grade-telescope a single student. Would he or she make a wider circle of friends because of different contacts from subject to subject, or make no friends because of a lack of extended time with any set of peers?

The research on concurrent enrollment suggests no general improvement in academic achievement or social adjustment, despite substantial gains in psychological adjustment. The lack of a significant academic effect at first did not make sense, since the participants had been exposed in every case to advanced subject matter at an earlier than expected age. The lack may be due to measurement concerns more than anything else. In these studies, the concurrent enrollment students were compared with either same-age students who did not enroll in advanced courses, or with older-age students in the advanced classes with them. In the former, the achievement measure may not have covered the specific advanced course content or may have had a “ceiling” on achievement, so that the true level for students concurrently enrolled was not measured. No difference in achievement when these students were compared with their advanced classmates might be considered a positive academic outcome, even if the effect size is “0.”

Subject acceleration in mathematics resulted in significant positive academic increases for both elementary and secondary students. Socialization was neither harmed nor enhanced; the psychological effects were unclear. It seems logical that since this form of acceleration accounts for only a small time change in the regular routine, no significant differences in emotional and social well-being would be noted.

The research on Advanced Placement did not support significant outcome changes for students once they entered college full time. Social and psychological outcomes were unclear. This does not mean, however, that Advanced Placement is not a viable accelerative option for bright high school students. If nothing else, the research clarifies that participants are not harmed at the college level by having been credited for some courses. Also worth mentioning are the potential, positive effects of students having been adequately challenged and having been given more time to enroll in courses better suited to their interests and ability levels.

That mentorship showed only small positive academic and adjustment benefits for bright high school students reflects, perhaps, how, measurement may influence outcomes, rather than reflect actual academic differences. When a student is matched to someone with more knowledge and equal levels of interest in a specific topic, it makes sense that there will be positive outcomes for that student. But when a study is setup, the performance of mentored students will be compared to that of non-mentored students more likely on some general subject area test, rather than on the specific topic the mentored students explored. Likewise, the student’s increased knowledge on a specific topic may not flow over into measurable psychological changes with so complex a construct as self-concept. That there was even a small positive improvement was quite surprising.

There appeared to be a strong relationship between testing, out of college courses (credit by examination) and subsequent college performance in those subject areas. Although socialization was reported as slightly negative, the evidence consisted of one rather weak case study.

Allowing bright students to bypass at least one year of high school to enter college full-time resulted in significantly positive academic outcomes. Socialization and psychological adjustment showed no change. There has to be some concern, however, for the high school student who opts for early admission, not completing a high school diploma. Financial constraints, poor health, family crises, or any combination of circumstances could keep the student from completing college, in which case he or she has no educational certification.

There may be a direct relationship between a national interest in finding research in gifted education and the actual research that gets done on acceleration. If acceleration has been a neglected, even despised, practice throughout most of America’s history, it becomes more favored during periods of national anxiety about educational superiority. Moreover, acceleration has not been a favored topic for research until large federal or private foundation provisions are offered. Only Julian Stanley stands apart from this pattern as a researcher who has recognized the efficacy of acceleration for highly gifted learners and pursued extensive,long-term research–guided programming utilizing these strategies (Stanley 1991).

Eleven Forms of Accelerative Practice

  1. Early Entrance to School: a gifted child who shows readiness to perform schoolwork enters kindergarten or 1st grade one to two years earlier than the usual beginning age.
  2. Grade Skipping: a learner is double promoted to bypass one or more grade levels.
  3. Nongraded Classroom: a learner is placed in a classroom undifferentiated by grade levels where he or she works through the curricular materials at a pace appropriate to individual ability and motivational level.
  4. Curriculum Compacting: the regular curriculum of any or all subjects is tailored to the specific gaps, deficiencies, and strengths of an individual student. The learner tests out or bypasses previously mastered skills and content, focusing only on mastery of deficient areas, thus moving more rapidly through the curriculum.
  5. Grade Telescoping: a student’s progress is reorganized through junior high or high school to shorten the time by one year. Hence, junior high may require two years instead of three, or high school may require three years instead of four.
  6. Concurrent Enrollment: a student attends classes in more than one building level during the school year—for example, high school for part of the day and junior high for the remainder.
  7. Subject Acceleration: a student bypasses the usual progression of skills and content mastery in one subject where great advancement or proficiency has been observed. The learner will progress at the regular instructional pace through the remaining subject areas.
  8. Advanced Placement: a student takes courses with advance or accelerated content (usually at the secondary level) in order to test out or receive credit for completion of college-level-coursework. (Although one such program is actually designated “Advanced Placement,” several such programs exist—for example, International Baccalaureate.)
  9. Mentorship: a student is placed with a subject matter expert or professional to further a specific interest or proficiency, which cannot be provided within the regular educational setting.
  10. Credit by Examination: through successful completion of tests, a student is allowed to receive a specified number of college credits upon entrance to college. (Advanced Placement and the College Level Examination Program are two examples.)
  11. Early Admission to College: a student enters college as a full-time student without completing high school.

Teachers and administrators have a research supported menu of accelerative practices to select from that result in substantial academic achievement gains for students. Very few options, however, appear to directly affect students’ social skills and self-concept. If teachers have avoided offering these practices to bright students out of a concern for the social and emotional effects, such misgivings should be laid to rest. Those who wish to enhance outcomes in affective areas for accelerated students, however, might consider the assistance of a school counselor or a support group.

With careful attention to the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of prospective accelerated students, teachers and administrators can recommend from an array of practices with the confidence that the child will not only survive but will thrive in a more challenging learning environment.

1Readers may contact Karen B. Rogers at the address below for more data about the study and a table of effect sizes.

Karen B. Rogers is Assistant Professor of Gifted Studies, University of St. Thomas, Graduate School of Education, Professional Psychology, and Social Work. Richard D. Kimpston is Professor of Curriculum Systems, Curriculum and Instruction Systems, University of Minnesota..


Elkind, D. (1988). “Point-Counterpoint Education: Mental Acceleration.” Journal for the Education of the Gifted 11, 4: 19-31, 39-40.

Glass, G. V. (1976). “Primary, Secondary, and Meta-Analysis of Research.” Educational Researcher 5, 10: 3-8.

Halliwell, J. W. (1966). “Reviewing the Reviews on Entrance Age and School Success.” The Journal of Educational Research 59, 4: 395-401.

Holahan, W., and P. J. Brounstein. (April 1986). “The Acceleration into College and Emotional Adjustment of the Academically Gifted Adolescent: A Synthesis and Critique of Recent Literature.” Paper presented at the convention of the American College Personnel Association, New Orleans.

Kulik, J. A., and Kulik, C-L. C. (1984). “Effects of Accelerated Instruction on Students.” Review of Educational Research 54, 2: 409-425.

Rogers, K. B. (1991). “A Best-Evidence Synthesis of the Research on Types of Accelerative Programs for Gifted Students: Volume One.” Doctoral diss., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Sisk. D. A. (1988). “Point-Counterpoint Education: Acceleration: The Bored and Disinterested Gifted Child: Going Through School Lockstep.” Journal for the Education of the Gifted 11, 4: 5-18, 32-38.

Stanley, J. C. (1991). “An Academic Model for Educating the Mathematically Talented.” Gifted Child Quarterly. 35, 1: 36-42.

Van Tassel-Baska. J. (1986). “Acceleration.” In Critical Issues in Gifted Education: Defensible Programs for the Gifted, edited by C. J. Maker. Rockville. Md: Aspen Publishers, Inc.

Witty, P.A., and L. W. Wilkins. (1933). “The Status of Acceleration or Grade Skipping as an Administrative Practice. Educational Administration and Supervision 19, 3: 321-346.

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