Forget grade levels: Schools try something new

Schools in Kansas City, Mo., will begin to group students by ability as opposed to age this fall.
Schools in Kansas City, Mo., will begin to group students by ability as opposed to age this fall.

As Kansas City, Mo., students return to their age-assigned classrooms this fall, they will begin to take assessments in math and reading—tests that will determine their mastery of specific skill sets and, ultimately, where they will be placed.

Instead of simply moving kids from one grade to the next as they get older, Kansas City schools will begin grouping students by ability. Once they master a subject, they’ll move up a level. This practice has been around for decades, but was generally used on a smaller scale—in individual grades, subjects, or schools. Kansas City is believed to be the largest U.S. school system to try grouping by ability.

It’s the latest effort to transform the struggling Kansas City school system. Starting this fall, officials will begin introducing 17,000 students to the new system to turn around lagging schools and increase abysmal tests scores.

“The current system of public education in this country is not working,” said Kansas City Schools Superintendent John Covington. “It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair, rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.”

During the first two weeks of school, pre-K to sixth grade students in five schools will take reading and math assessments to determine their mastery level. The students then will be leveled and moved into groups according to their abilities, said Mary Esselman, assistant superintendent of professional development, assessment, and accountability.

“We’ll … incorporate technology through common assessments and alignment to state standards—and national and international standards as well,” Esselman said. “We’re pretty excited about it. We spent the bulk of the summer leveling curriculum and identifying learning targets.”

Esselman said the students will use Pearson’s Developmental Reading Assessment 2 (DRA2) to test their reading abilities.

“We adopted a new reading program because we were looking for a robust reading assessment that isolated individual skills … such as fluency or comprehension,” she said. “DRA2 gave us a level that we didn’t have already in the assessment we previously used.”

The district will select a math assessment program in the next week, Esselman said. The leveling process with expand to other subjects next year and eventually will be implemented all the way through 12th grade.

How the reform works

Students, often of varying ages, will work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still will instruct students as a group if needed, but often students will be working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a class learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems, because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

But backers acknowledge that implementation is tricky, and the change is so drastic it can take time to explain to parents, teachers, and students. If the community isn’t sold on the effort, it will bomb, said Richard DeLorenzo, co-founder of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, which coaches schools on implementing the reform.

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