Is My Child at Grade Level?

We hear this question all the time: is my child at grade level?  How can I know?  And, if not, what can I do about it?

The question feels like an easy one.  Most children are in school, in a grade. And, so, shouldn't that child's grades reveal if he or she is at grade level? They should.  In districts  like Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), our local district, grades are numerical.  A "3" means "proficient" which is supposed to translate to "at grade level."   On that metric, "4" means above grade level and "2" or "1" means below grade level.  And yet, we find that two children with the same grades can have wildly different skills.  Different teachers grade differently.  Different schools, which can serve very different communities of students, can have very different standards (although standards are supposed to be uniform and aligned, it's hard not to give your top students top scores).  Differences also come from kids: some students remember what they learn and others don't.  So, take two students who knew a skill three months ago, one may be able to execute that skill now while the other may not.

Now, why does it matter?  If your child is doing well in school, why worry about pushing it farther? Honestly, lots of parents don't, until they have to.

When do we come up against the problem of parents and children who thought they they were doing fine, but actually aren't?  There are a few classic scenarios:

  • When students need to take an entrance exam for a new school.  In Los Angeles, many students apply to private schools in 6th, 7th, and 9th grade. Taking a rigorous admissions exam (ISEE or HSPT) can be shocking for kids who have "always done well."  Private school admissions tests test skills at and above grade level.  We take in students who score below chance on their pre-tests (getting scores lower than they would have gotten if they had just guessed randomly). They have a lot of work to do just to get to minimumally competitive levels on their entrance exams.
  • When students switch schools. Students change schools for many reasons, most frequently due to a move or a great opportunity at a new school.  When families move from a school with easier standards or a "more progressive" approach to learning, they often find that their students do not have the same skills that their new peers do.
  • When students need to take a placement exam.  Some middle schools and high schools ask students to take tests to figure out what math class to place them in, or to gain access to an "honors track."  Like standardized tests, placement tests require skills.
  • At SAT time.  Almost every student comes up against this one.  Even if a student stays in the same school or community of schools through high school, SAT can be a slap in the face when students realize that they really do need to know times tables or how to compute with fractions or negative numbers.  Many students get away with shortcuts in schools.  Some students add and subtract on their fingers in to high school. Some schools allow students to use calculators starting in 4th or 5th grade.  Students in those schools often find that, when they get to SAT (which has a math section that does not allow a calculator) that they are crippled. They can't perform simple math.  Other students, who get a lot of reading support in the form of class discussions (sometimes they students don't do much reading, relying instead on class discussion to figure out what's happening in a book) realize that their reading skills are not strong enough to muddle through the obtuse and often boring SAT passages.  Likewise, students who just learn vocabulary long enough to pass a vocab test and the promptly dump the words often find that the vocabulary on SAT is prohibitive.

At some point, all students who are behind realize it. It's never fun to realize that you're unprepared to do the work that you need to do.  But, a student who figures it out in 3rd grade has only a few skills to catch up on.  A summer's worth of tutoring or extra work might do the trick.  When students don't figure it out until 11th grade, it can change the entire course of their future.  We work with straight-A students who cannot get near the national median on the SAT.  These students turn out to be much less competitive for college than they had thought they would be. And, though they can skill learn the skills that they need -- there are more and they are cumulative.  Plus, 11th graders have a lot more on their plates than 3rd graders: remedial instruction is hard to fit in!

The lesson: figure out where your kids are.  Are they where they need to be?  If yes, great.  If not, start now: fill in some gaps, do more practice, pay more attention.  You'll be so glad that you did.