Despite a preponderance of evidence showing that skipping a grade is overwhelmingly beneficial for very bright and capable students, when done for the right reasons and within a supportive school, this once-common practice has very much fallen out of fashion in the U.S. over the last few decades. Why might that be?
Many schools now have a much better range of options for gifted students. Whereas once the answer to a precocious kid who was felt bored and unchallenged was to skip her or him ahead a grade or two, now teachers and administrators are more likely to:
1. Switch the student to a gifted track. These students are all the same grade level, but much more advanced than the rest of their peers.
2. Provide different or extra assignments, like longer and more detailed research papers or additional, more complicated math problems.
3. Group students according to ability, interest, and strength. Not to the creepy extreme of Sudbury’s “age-mixing magic,” but within maybe a range of two to four years.
4. Make small groups within the class, so students of similar abilities and talents can work together.
5. Enroll the student in classes at a local college.
6. Provide enrichment programs; i.e., extracurricular activities, classes with advanced study, tutoring, and/or the ability to pursue hobbies and special interests.
7. Enroll the student in AP classes (in the U.S. and Canada). Some students take so many APs, they’re able to enter university with sophomore standing.
8. Recommend another school with more options for gifted students, like a college prep school or a progressive school where students have great leeway in choosing their own course of study and assignments.
9. Skipping a grade level in certain subjects. I went right to English 8 Honors in junior high and was always in an English class with peers of the same grade. In other schools, advanced students can take classes with a higher grade in those subjects.
Alas, not all schools offer or know about those kinds of options, and advanced students are left feeling bored and unchallenged. Many people were punished for being too advanced, like using cursive before they were supposed to know it and reading several grade levels up; got in trouble for reading or working on extra math problems after finishing an assignment way ahead of time; and had teachers and principals who refused to believe they could possibly be more advanced than their age.
But when these very bright students are skipped ahead, and have the maturity to match their intellect, they shine, and feel challenged and productive for the first time ever.
However, in other cases, students may not benefit from skipping, or there are more cons than pros in this particular case. Why might a bright student choose to remain at age-matched grade level?
1. Being very close with a friend group. Moving up a grade or two means separation and moving in different worlds. It’s natural to want to stay together with close friends, particularly if they’ve been together for years.
2. Being lucky enough to attend a great school with lots of options for gifted students, or where everyone is taught in a more advanced way.
3. The risk of missing out on very important foundational skills or entire classes. E.g., maybe the school offers a year or two of Esperanto for its proven benefits in acquiring other languages, or the grade skipped includes long division, cursive, the first year of foreign language, or geometry.
4. Not wanting to miss the experience of a popular and/or renowned teacher in that grade.
5. Being involved with an extracurricular you don’t want to say goodbye to even one year earlier than you have to.
6. Having a special love for certain subjects you want as many years as possible with.
7. Just wanting to enjoy the experience of childhood and going to school without being compelled into the adult world early.
8. Going from being the smartest kid in class to struggling with unfamiliar material.
9. Being bullied by or feeling ostracized from older peers.
10. Not being advanced in every subject. I was initially taking earth science, a high school-level course, in eighth grade, but had to be switched into physical science fairly quickly because I was failing so badly. Meanwhile I was taking English 9 Honors without a problem.
11. Not being able to handle an increased workload. This can be particularly challenging if the student missed the year when homework began to be assigned or gradually became more rigorous and frequent.
Skipping seems to work best in elementary school, when the knowledge gaps are smaller and easier to catch up. Many experts also recommend starting kindergarten a year early, going right into first grade, or skipping at the start of a new school level (e.g., seventh or ninth grade) to avoid being seen as the odd one out in an established peer group.
Ultimately, it all comes down to what feels right for this particular child in those particular circumstances. It’s not a one size fits all issue.