Thursday, July 9, 2009

My Child Isn't at Grade Level

Is your home educated child not working at grade level? You're in good company!

Homeschoolers often feel they are in competition with the public schools. There is an assumption that all fifth graders in public school are working at a fifth grade level in all subjects. This is not the reality, and it has nothing to do with the public schools' failure. It has to do with individual differences. Aren't our differences something we've learned to celebrate?

In public schools, good teachers sometimes compensate for learning variations by dividing their classes into the "Red Group" and the "Blue Group" or "Team One" and "Team Two". This is often a sensitive way of grouping students according to learning ability. (When I was a child, our classes were labeled, "Slow Learners", "Average Students", and "Advanced Class"!)

No two children ever learn to walk, talk, run, or ride a bike at exactly the same age. We usually accept these variations without difficulty. When it comes to academics, though, expectations change. If the next page in the second grade math book introduces multiplication, we consider our second grader "behind" if he can't do it . . . even if all he needs is a little more practice with addition and subtraction first.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that grade level is somewhat subjective. State regulations attempt to standardize education, but every state has a different set of standards and every school within that state has their own way of applying them. Even within the same school, teachers will not use the same curriculum in the same way.

Among homeschool programs, the scope and sequence will vary greatly. A Beka expects third graders to do complicated long division. ACE doesn't even introduce division until fourth grade. Miquon math introduces division in first grade, along with the other three operations. Your student may be behind, ahead, or right at grade level, depending on what math curriculum you choose!

Our family's core curriculum, Time4Learning, allows for a student's individuality. Students can be placed at a different level for each subject, and they may change grade levels as needed. They can even skip around among grade levels in the same subject.

For example, when my own daughter was working at the third grade level in math, she began to have difficulty when division was introduced. I realized this was because she hadn't yet mastered multiplication, and the ability to divide relies heavily on knowing the multiplication facts. I changed her to the second grade level for a couple of months, to allow more multiplication practice. When we once again attempted third grade division, she was more than ready!

The reason many of us begin homeschooling in the first place is to provide a quality education, and yet we often feel restrained by the way we assume things are done in the public schools. It's never been my goal for my child to simply "get through the workbook" or to be able to check off that a certain concept was introduced. The check marks are meaningless unless real learning has taken place.

Too much grade level awareness can also serve to hold a child back. The daughter I mentioned who was working at the third grade level in math was, at the same time, doing well in a seventh grade language program. She was technically a fifth grader, but she definitely didn't fit neatly into any typical fifth grade curriculum.

In a group of young children, there can be huge variations in learning ability, much of it developmentally related. The gaps usually narrow as students age. By the time they were teens, there was very little difference between my children who learned to read at age three and the one who couldn't read until she was eight.

Having graduated two of my six children from our home school, I think flexible programs like Time4Learning, which allow a student to progress at their own pace, are one of the keys to our family's homeschooling success. My children progress at vastly different paces, but each has concluded his homeschooling career with similar academic abilities. With a third child due to graduate next year, we've become relaxed enough to use grade levels as a general guide instead of a mandated course of study.


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