Opinion
Education Opinion

Subject Acceleration

By Tamara Fisher — September 30, 2009 10 min read

“I think subject acceleration helps a lot. It challenges us and gives us what we need. I’d rather be challenged to where I’m learning - even if it means I don’t always get straight A’s. I think moving me up in Math was a really smart decision on the school’s part.”

“It’s a way to be myself and get ahead and actually do what I want to instead of staying behind and reviewing. I actually get stressed out if I’m NOT accelerated. This way I get to learn. I’m more stressed when it’s too easy because it’s the same review over and over.”

The above quotations are from two of my middle school students whom we have subject accelerated in math. Despite the overwhelming evidence of acceleration’s positive effects for kids who are ready for it, many schools still shy away from providing these kids with what they need educationally. Why? Some worry that the kids really can’t handle it, some worry that it will create social problems for them (“look what became of Ted Kaczynski, after all!”), some worry that removing those students from the class will remove the “sparks” that get discussions going, some think the advanced kids have to be in the regular classroom to provide a model for struggling students, some think giving them extra work (in addition to the regular work) in the regular classroom will fill their need for challenge, some don’t think any kids should ever be “singled out” (except, of course, the kids on the Varsity team), and some worry about life event issues, like all the other kids getting to drive sooner than the accelerated child. (Ah, yes, in the grand scheme of school priorities, getting to drive at the same time as everyone else at school is so much more important than learning at school...)

Subject acceleration is the process of providing students advanced content in a given subject. This is typically accomplished by moving the student ahead a grade in that subject (sending a 2nd grader to a 3rd grade class for math, for example) or by providing advanced groups within the grade level that significantly accelerate the pace and content.

Subject acceleration is one of many forms of acceleration. Others include:
1. Early Admission to Kindergarten (i.e. starting K at age 4 instead of age 5)
2. Early Admission to First Grade
3. Whole-Grade Acceleration (a.k.a. “Grade-Skipping”)
4. Continuous Progress (being allowed to “move on” when material is mastered, even if the rest of the class isn’t ready to move on)
5. Self-Paced Instruction (independent study, independent projects, self-taught subjects)
6. Combined Classes (for example, a 2/3 combo class)
7. Curriculum Compacting
9. Telescoping Curriculum (condensing content into a shorter time-frame ... i.e. learning two semesters of material in one semester, or learning three years of material in two years, etc.)
10. Mentoring (learning from an “expert”)
11. Extracurricular Programs
12. Correspondence Courses
13. Early Graduation
14. Concurrent/Dual Enrollment (i.e. being dually enrolled in middle school and high school or in high school and college)
15. AP (Advanced Placement) or IB (International Baccalaureate) classes
16. Credit by Examination (i.e. taking a test to prove mastery... Colleges more typically offer this, where someone can “test out” of a class)
17. Acceleration in College
18. Early Entrance into Middle School, High School, or College

We have been providing subject acceleration in our schools here for a number of years, some of it through advanced-level groups within a grade level and some of it through above-grade placement in a subject. Most of our cases of above-grade placement have been in math.

So how does it work? Well, these details can give you an idea of one way subject acceleration can work. Feel free to share your own ideas and strategies in the comments section.

First, it’s important to note that acceleration is not necessarily right for all gifted kids, or even for the same gifted kid in multiple subjects. It is a case-by-case determination. That said, though, acceleration (in its various forms) has been shown by oodles of research to offer a multitude of benefits for kids who are ready for it. The links at the bottom of this post will take you to further information on the topic.

I began the long road of bringing subject acceleration to my district about a decade ago, with one student who was an exceptional math student and whom I knew otherwise would only be getting grade-level content in math. I honestly don’t remember how I did it, but I somehow convinced the principal and teachers involved that this student needed to go down the hall to a 6th grade math class when the 5th grade was doing math. They agreed to the arrangement, although made me promise that it could be “undone” if the student floundered or was teased. No worries - He thrived, and even outshone every 6th grader in the class. The initial surprise from some of the teachers caused me to shake my head in wonderment a time or two, but it wasn’t long before the teachers involved became believers that not only were there some kids out there who could do this, but that we should be doing more of it. (!) Each year since, we have fine-tuned the process, and each year since, we have increased the number of kids being subject-accelerated. This year, for example, we have determined that 15 of our 5th graders were ready for 6th grade math. They LOVE it. More specifically, they love being challenged at a level they’re ready for.

How do we decide which ones are ready? I seek recommendations from the 4th grade teachers (in particular from the teacher for our advanced 4th grade class) and I check every single 5th grader’s score on the math portion of our state tests that they took in 4th grade and 3rd grade. Kids with the highest test scores and/or the highest teacher recommendations are selected for further screening (in most cases, they have both high scores and a teacher recommendation, although there is the occasional kid who only has one or the other). We give the kids a beginning-of-6th-grade assessment from our curriculum which targets the main skills the 6th grade teachers expect the incoming 6th graders to more or less have a good handle on. Any of the tested 5th graders who do well on the test (80% correct is a good target, although we always discuss each case and factor in work habits, desire for challenge, previous track record in math classes, etc.) is then placed into 6th grade math (which takes place at the same time as 5th grade math). So they leave their 5th grade classroom during math and walk down the hall to the 6th grade classroom for math.

We saved space for these kids in a 6th grade math class so that we could have a reasonable number of seats available for the number of 5th graders we were estimating would qualify. So some planning ahead in the schedule can be really helpful. But keep in mind, we started this here a decade ago with just one student. If what your school needs is a “test case” to “prove” to everyone that it can be done and the child CAN handle it well, then start with a test case. You can grow the process and the number of kids benefiting from it as you are able. (Yes, I agree, “but more kids need it now.” In my case, I had to concede to myself that “starting somewhere” was better than “fighting the issue everywhere.” And once we had “started somewhere,” it didn’t take long before I was no longer fighting the issue everywhere.)

Our middle school has grades 5-8, so yes, in 6th grade they walk down the hall for 7th grade math, in 7th grade they are scheduled into an 8th grade class (and by that point some of them are ready for the advanced 8th grade class), and as 8th graders they walk up the hill to our high school (it’s essentially “next door”) for either Algebra I or Geometry. And when they are full-time high school students, they continue to be placed according to their needs, which can mean an online AP Calculus course or other correspondence course or dual enrollment in a college course by the time they are seniors.

One of the most exciting outcomes of the process for me has been the enthusiasm by which (most) of the teachers view the process and the benefits for the students. They became so convinced of the need for subject acceleration for students who were ready for it that they developed their own procedures for subject accelerating kids in grades above 5th. If two weeks into the year, a 7th grader is blowing their socks off in their 7th grade math class, they assess the student and place her into an 8th grade class. When a new student comes and is assessed for placement, they put the child into whatever class he or she needs, basing their placement on what they’re ready for as a learner, not on when they were born. I still coordinate the 5th to 6th grade acceleration process, but beyond that point, the process has evolved to take care of itself. Those who were once hesitant skeptics of subject acceleration are now enthusiastic supporters.

Mostly, today, I want to leave you with the words of the kids and teachers who have been a part of this process. The student quotations below come from a sampling of my 6th-11th graders, most of whom were subject accelerated from 5th to 6th grade math and a couple others were accelerated in a later grade level. I simply asked them for their thoughts on being accelerated - good, bad, or ugly. They took it from there:

“It was really helpful. It helped me improve my grades because I was no longer drifting off in an easy class.”

“It’s just great! It helps a ton. If I hadn’t had any acceleration, I’d be at the bottom of my class because I wouldn’t have learned anything otherwise.”

“I look around to other schools and they don’t seem to do any acceleration, so I feel lucky to have it here. It helps me know that I’m getting what I need in my education.”

“You get to learn harder things. It’s fun to learn new things. It has taught me a lot that I hadn’t learned before, which is kinda the whole point!”

“The first jump was a little big, going from advanced 4th grade math right into 6th grade math, but once I adjusted I was okay. It felt like the first time I’d ever been challenged. Now I love it.”

“It’s been fun being challenged instead of just always being right the first time. It’s helped me learn more instead of just sit and be bored.”

“If you catch on to it (the material), I think you should be able to move on. Being accelerated, I’ve learned more material than I otherwise would have, and it makes me want to keep moving on.”

“It’s good because you get to learn and move on instead of do what you’ve done before. There are enough kids doing it that it doesn’t have any social impact, either.”

“It’s hard at first, but in the end it’s worth it because you don’t feel like you’re held back. You can go above and beyond.”

7th grader in advanced 8th grade class:

“I like it because it gives me a challenge. It makes me work harder to get good grades.”

“It’s helped me because I can do the work and I like to be challenged!”

“It’s not really that hard. It takes work, but it’s worth it.”

“It’s better to be challenged. I feel like I’m learning more. I’m doing better in school because I’m learning more and being challenged instead of being bored.”

Teacher who has taught accelerated students: “Students express to me the relief of not being bored and under-challenged. They love to have their brains stimulated.”

Teacher who has taught accelerated students: “The notion of keeping grades separate is a myth. I have 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in my ‘7th grade’ math class. It’s an intellectual class, not a social class. The 6th graders more than hold their own and the 8th graders tend to get it in gear when they see the 6th graders doing the work.”

Teacher who has taught accelerated students: “It would be a shame to hold them back! Let them go on! They’re usually even at the top of the class in the upper grade. They just want to learn and we need to let them.”

Parent of a subject-accelerated student: “If they’re ready for it, it allows them to take more in high school and not have to double up on classes in order to move on. My child is happier when she’s learning and not repeating or reviewing information she previously mastered.”

Homeroom 5th grade teacher who has had a few students subject-accelerated into 6th grade math: “Even if you try to accelerate in class, it’s not the same. Try as you might, you just can’t do for them what the subject grade acceleration can.”

Institute for Research and Policy on Acceleration

A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students (a summary of many decades worth of research on acceleration)

The Iowa Acceleration Scales (the most widely used method for determining acceleration placements)

Advice for parents whose kids might need acceleration

Synthesis of research on acceleration options by Dr. Karen Rogers (1999)

A statement on acceleration by Dr. David Elkind, president emeritus of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and author of The Hurried Child

More acceleration links from Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.