Wednesday, May 30, 2012

on the subject of grade level

“Is she at grade level?”

I looked at the nurse blankly. She was running through a list of entrance level assessment questions—a routine part of the new patient process—and I had no idea how to answer her.

At previous appointments, I had answered the same questions for the older children. For the oldest I probably said something like “more or less” and for the next to oldest I said, “In some things, yes. In others, no.”

But for the eight-year-old, I was stymied. We have yet to begin any (or much) formal education, so of course she’s not at grade level. She’s not even in a grade, really.

“No,” I finally said, and the nurse moved on to the next question without batting an eye.

That evening I told my friend, another homeschooling mom, about the grade level question. “How would you have answered that?” I asked.

“What exactly does ‘grade level’ mean?” she countered. “And how many kids in the schools are at grade level anyway? I suppose you could just say, ‘I don’t know,’ but then you run the risk of looking like a clueless homeschooling mom.”

And that’s the problem. I do know enough about the school system (I’m a product of it, after all) to know that my daughter is not at grade level. But how do I explain that’s not important to us without sounding like an irresponsible mother? How can I communicate that our choices—choices which are so different from the mainstream—are actually thoughtful, rational, and viable?  Not being in school, let alone shunning grades, is so far out of people’s paradigms that bridging the gap feels almost impossible.

But then the other week when I filled out our bios for the play’s program, I realized that grade level is more important to me than I let on. In my son’s bio, I wrote that he’s “homeschooled.” I intentionally kept it vague because it doesn’t really matter and I didn’t want to pin him into that box, but I felt like I should say he’s a “homeschooled sixth grader.” Though I’m not sure why. Maybe to soften the blow? He’s a homeschooler. BUT DON’T FREAK OUT! He’s in sixth grade, so see? HE’S NORMAL.

That I had the urge to label him a 6th grader, as though that were an important distinction, surprised me. And then when I successfully resisted the urge (it was astonishingly strong), I felt liberated and victorious and that surprised me even more. I didn’t realize that purposefully avoiding the grade level box was something I hadn’t done before.

A couple days ago my friend sent me a link to another blog post: grade level ain't nothin' but a number. In it, the author points out that as homeschooling parents we are quite comfortable talking about the areas that are kids are excelling at, but we don’t like to talk about the areas they are behind in. She’s right on. Why is it so hard to talk about our kids as people, not pupils?

The urge to label and compare, rank and box is strong. Far too often, I see my children through the evaluator’s eye. I continually have to refocus and see my children for who they are—themselves. It’s a process, but I’m learning. I hope I get an A.

This same time, years previous: the saturation point, the ways we play, rhubarb tart and rhubarb tea


  1. Many years ago, my husband taught in the upper grade room of a two room school house. So many of his 4th, 5th and 6th grade students had skills that were well below standardized levels. For many reasons, most importantly to make the kids feel better about themselves, he proposed going to an ungraded classroom and doing much more work himself than he would have had to in order to give each child individualized attention. You would not have believed the outrage put forth by parents and administration. No way did parents want their child being taught 4th grade materials when he was a sixth grader! (Said child may well have actually been functioning below a fourth grade level, but that didn't seem to matter.)

    It seems to me that it matters not what letter grade or classroom rank or placement you give a child, education should come first and foremost all the while keeping in mind each individual child's needs and capabilities. Homeschooling allows you to do that. It doesn't happen much in an organized school system.

  2. You know, even in my kids classes (in school, not homeschool) the kids are on different levels for math and reading. I know this for certain. It's not a big deal to the teachers, they just swap the kids to different classes, so they can learn with other kids on a similar level. I think the Grade # is just a number, a way to push them through.

  3. I appreciate having to test my kids each year (via an evaluator or standardized test) and seeing where they come out. Not to compare them with others, but to see their progression. Sure, I see it throughout the year, but I'm one of those homeschool moms that likes to have it on paper. It helps me know we're headed in the right direction with curriculum choice, etc.

  4. I teach 11th & 12 grade science. Most of my students read at a 3rd-6th grade level, and they struggle with 5th grade math. I often wonder how they were promoted, even though they can't solve 3x=9. I'm beginning to believe that it is a status/ego thing for students to be in a certain grade, even though they have not mastered the previous material.

  5. This is terrific food for thought. I took my kids from school when I decided I had no other choice in September. For whatever reason, homeschooling in my province right now runs the gamut from opting to teach from strict curriculum to "unschooling" to the point where an 18 year old who wants to enter university has found herself unable because her parents made the "political" choice to not teach her a lick of math. She can't approach the entrance exams.

    I think I, maybe similar to you, fall somewhere in the middle. I love what you are saying about not worrying about what "grade" they are in ... it seems really healthy to me. I have to figure out what this concept (something I hadn't thought about previously, the attachment to the "grade") really means to me. Till now I've always said I want to make sure that my kids *could* enter school at anytime, so in that sense the "grade level" mattered. Sort of, as my girls are only a school year apart and pretty much are doing the same work so there's that ...

    Anyway, I'm so glad to have read this today of all days. It has really given me some food for thought. Thank you. And, btw, that's a stunning picture.

  6. I admire home-schoolers to a certain extent. However, it is not for me. I am not passionate about each subject that I would teach therefore I find it really unfair for my children if I were to homeschool.
    The problem I have about the grade-level is not the biggest issue, as long as you are not robbing them from their potential. The biggest issue I have is on the social skills, I know many families that are home-schooled and to this day I have not met one child that does not have some major social issues. Half of my student in my Sunday school are home schooled, and let me tell you IT SHOWS. From the routine, socialization, manners, and the way they touch the other students you can tell they are only with their parents.
    I say go ahead; home-school but please do not shelter them from other children. Let them play, interact and learn to act in a manner that does not put other in an uncomfortable situation. And lastly please do not criticize those of us that put our children to conventional education, we also made a choice that was right for us and as long as you teach them the ways of life and guide them accordingly the Lord will bless all families that put their trust in Him.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I find three misinformed assumptions in your comments. See if you can spot what they might be.

  7. Just a thought--sometimes all people are looking for is an idea of the age of the kid. I don't care what grade a kid is in but it is sometimes nice to know the age.

  8. I've been teaching for fifteen years at the high school and the middle school level. I've also been friends with several home schooling families during that time. It's been my experience that there are two versions of homeschooling. Some families are doing an awesome job of engaging their kids brains - either through a formal program or through purposeful unschooling. Public educators get really excited when these kinds of kids show up in our classrooms. Generally, they are articulate, polite, hard working, more widely read and often able to see more of the big picture than many of their peers who have been in public education from the beginning. Then there are the other children - the ones who have been "homeschooled". I put the quotes there on purpose. Unfortunately, there are some parents who have something to hide (often it's abuse)so they move a lot and "homeschool" their kids to keep them out of the public eye and away from social services. When these kids show up in our classrooms it is usually because they have been court ordered to attend. These kids usually can't read (I've even had a middle schooler who didn't even know all of his letter sounds, don't have basic math skills and don't have any other knowledge. The parents usually claim that they have been working on a computer program, but the reality is that those kids are home for long hours by themselves and are only watching T.V. and playing computer games - they are learning nothing. It's so unfortunate that those kinds of parents are allowed to use the same word for what they do as what deliberate homeschooling families are doing. The public often only really gets to see those kids whose parents have failed them. As a reading specialist I know that it's more accurate, and informative, to know a child's reading level - this can be simply assessed by looking to see what your kids have been reading, and understanding, on their own and then finding the level of that book. The Book Wizard on the Scholastic web site is a great resource.

    1. extremely well written, thanks so much for the balanced comment.

  9. Grade level is so tricky and not very useful. Homeschooled children are often "over" their grade level as much as "under" their grade level in different areas. That being said, not many of us would say we are "at an adult grade level" with all subjects in life! My children do enjoy being around people their own age but they also KNOW how to APPROPRIATELY interact with all age levels. This socialization comes from the exposure they have had from babysitting to volunteering with the elderly. The comments I get from friends on how well mannered my children are and how different that is sets us apart, but to me that is a compliment. Thank you for reminding me that grade level isn't so important although my kids like to be able to tell others what that level is for them.
    L in Elkton

  10. Love this. A year ago, I might've cared about measuring something like grade level. But as my kids have gotten a little older, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on what it means to get an education. For years, I was hung up on "achievement" and test scores--what did those get me? Not much, really. Sure, I learned how to read and do advanced math, but it's taken years to slough off the anxiety and creative repression.

    We're still in the process of deciding whether the kids will go to school or not because I'm terrified that school will be as unnecessarily oppressive as it was for me. My eldest will be the ultimate test for public education because she is quite the non-conformist, a quality I'd like for her to hold on to. Hopefully, our finances will allow us to have a choice in the matter.