Nongraded instruction in the elementary years can have a positive effect on student achievement, reports Robert Gutierrez and Robert E. Slavin, Johns Hopkins University. In a recent review of results from 30 years of research studies, Gutierrez and Slavin conclude that simple forms of cross-grade grouping show consistent positive achievement effects when compared to traditional school organization. More complex forms of nongraded schooling involving extensive use of individualized instruction and independent seatwork show less positive results.
Nongraded elementary programs in which grade-level distinctions are eliminated, allow students to be flexibly grouped according to performance rather than age, and to proceed through the elementary years at their own rate. The actual organization of nongraded elementary schools varies greatly. Nongraded schools were common in the 1960’s and early 1970’s and are reappearing in the 1990’s.
The earliest forms of nongraded programs involved changes in grouping patterns in a single subject, usually reading. Later, nongraded grouping spread to other subjects. Programs in the 1970’s included much more radical changes in curriculum and instruction, with increased use of team teaching, individualized instruction, learning stations, learning activity packets, peer tutoring and cooperative learning.
The most common form of nongraded schools reappearing today is the nongraded primary school (kindergarten through third grade). Typically, children in nongraded primary classes must reach a certain level of academic performance before entering fourth grade. Instruction in today’s nongraded programs tends to be more integrated across subject areas, more thematic and less academically structured than in traditional, hierarchically-organized schools.
The movement towards nongrading has been fueled, in part, by an increase in retention rates, a result of the increased demand for accountability in the last decade. This, despite the fact that research shows unequivocally that retention is harmful to students and does not increase their achievement. Since schools will continue to be held accountable for student achievement, a return to widespread social promotion is unlikely. These authors write that during the primary years when children’s development varies greatly, nongraded programs offer a less stigmatizing and more instructionally sensible way to provide students with developmentally appropriate education.
Gutierrez and Slavin also report that nongrading can be an improvement on both between-class ability grouping (high, middle and low self-contained second grades) and within-class grouping (reading groups). These researchers argue that such traditional grouping practices stigmatize the lowest groups and do not reduce heterogeneity to an instructionally meaningful level. Separating children into truly homogeneous skill groups is impractical because the number of groups would be so high that a teacher could not spent sufficient time with each of the many groups. Students’ time would thus have to be spent on independent follow-up activities that are less valuable than teacher-directed instruction.
Review of research
Gutierrez and Slavin endeavored to locate all the research on nongraded instructional programs (nongraded, ungraded, multi-age or Individually Guided Instruction in grades K-6) that met clearly defined criteria of methodological adequacy and that reported outcomes in terms of effect sizes (the difference between the experimental and control group means divided by the control group’s standard deviation). Since grades were determined to be too subjective, achievement comparisons were based on standardized test scores. Comparability between control and experimental groups was established either through random assignment of students or through matching of schools, classes or individual students. All but two nongraded programs were at least a year in duration. In total, 57 studies met the inclusion standards.
While 20 of the 57 studies analyzed showed significantly positive achievement results for nongraded programs, only three studies favored graded programs. Gutierrez and Slavin emphasize, however, that the type of nongraded program significantly affected results. The strongest and most consistent positive effects occurred when the nongraded program focused on grouping children rather than on providing individualized instruction. The median effect sizes were largest for programs that grouped according to performance across grade levels in one or more subjects. Importantly, the best-designed studies showed the most positive effects. Effects for highly individualized programs, including Individually Guided Instruction, were very inconsistent and on average have a negligible effect on student achievement.
Gutierrez and Slavin conclude that the achievement differences between nongraded programs are due to the amount of direct teacher instruction children receive as opposed to the amount of time spent working independently on seatwork. Grouping across age and grade lines apparently allows teachers to reduce the number of within-class groups they teach at any given time. This, in turn, reduces the amount of time students spend on seatwork and increases the amount of direct teacher contact. Cross-age groupings can totally eliminate within-class grouping, enabling teachers to spend the entire reading period working with the whole class on developmentally appropriate activities. The effectiveness of simpler forms of nongraded programs appears to be due to increased direct instruction at each student’s precise instruction level. However, Gutierrez and Slavin call for analysis of specific elements in current forms of nongraded instruction that help increase achievement.
Although nongraded programs allow students to progress at their own pace through developmentally appropriate material, these programs do not appear to alter the amount of time students spend in the primary grades. Students tend to complete the primary grades in the normal time.
However, nongrading seems to allow those students who might normally fall behind in traditional classes to receive extra help at an appropriate level without being stigmatized. Over a three- or four-year period, almost all children are able to make adequate progress and enter fourth grade at the normal time. In other words, given appropriate instruction in a nongraded program, a student who is not reading at the end of his first year in school stands a good chance of reading at the end of his school year if he does not suffer the humiliation of repeating first grade.
“Achievement Effects of the Nongraded Elementary School: A Best Evidence Synthesis”, Review of Educational Research, Volume 62, Number 4, pp. 333-376.
Published in ERN March/April 1993, Volume 6, Number 2.