Grade Level What?

Jim Goodell

At a recent holiday gathering I witnessed an interesting exchange between my son Benjamin and a relative who hadn’t seen him in a while. My relative asked, “What grade are you in now?” There was a long pause… I smiled. I could see the wheels turning as he thought about how to respond. What would have been an easy answer for me when I was Benjamin’s age is more complicated now. He could have given several different correct answers.

My son is an example of how “grade level” is becoming an outdated concept. In his public virtual high school he was enrolled this year as a sophomore, but his classes include a dual-enrollment writing class at a local college, and high schools classes usually taken by “9th” and “11th” graders. He also self-enrolled in self-paced guitar lessons via an iOS app and he is supplementing his French class with the DuoLingo app. From middle school to high school he jumped ahead and back in “grade-level” when changing schools, first after 7th grade and then changing high schools between “9th grade” and “10th grade”. So, he was never technically enrolled in 8th grade, but he took classes that sufficiently covered 8th grade learning standards.

Benjamin’s case is not unusual. He has friends that are home schooled and taking college classes as 15 years olds, and others enrolled in WPI’s Mass Academy, a public school in Massachusetts whose students attend a private university full-time as seniors in high school. According to ECS:

Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have statute and/or regulations governing one or more common statewide dual enrollment policies,” and “three states leave dual enrollment policies to the discretion of local districts and postsecondary institutions/systems.

It’s not new that high schools determine a student’s grade level based on credits earned rather than age or cohort. What is new is the growth in options that allow student to advance at their own pace and earn college credit while in high school. Students that used to depend on the capacity of the local high school to offer an advanced placement class can now take advantage of AP or college-level online courses.

With dual-enrollment the lines are blurring between K-12 and postsecondary education, even as the institutions and public policy remains deeply rooted in the cultural inertia of separate domains.

With school choice and course choice, lines are also blurring between school districts. A student’s education is no longer fated to be on the same course and pace as everyone else that happens to be in the same zip code and age grouping. Students are benefiting as the factory model of education erodes and more student-centered options emerge. Benefits include greater potential for success and reduced costs for college and career training.

As a parent, I’m encouraged that my children have and will have options for lifelong learning that were not available when I was their age. I also see that they have new responsibilities as 21st century learners. They will need to take more ownership of their own learning. I grew up in an age of spoon-fed, one-size-fits all, everyone-moves-at-the-same-pace schooling. To take full advantage of emerging student-centered options, students today need to learn a new set of mindsets and dispositions.

As a parent, I also have a responsibility to encourage and guide my kids in those attitudes and dispositions. So I need to keep learning. Resources like Smart Parents and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success are helpful. I can also help by learning about course choice options as they become available and learning how to evaluate what is a good fit for each of my children.  (I also have a child that is thriving in a traditional brick-and-mortar school.) By doing all this learning myself, I am modeling what it means to be a lifelong learner. Someone once told me that children learn more from what their parents do than what they say.

So, my son had multiple right answers when asked, “What grade are you in?” He could have said “I haven’t yet completed 8th grade,” or “I’m in 10th grade,” or “I’m in college.” I think he ended up saying something like “based on the courses I’m taking, I’m mostly in 11th grade.” Someday we will stop asking, “What grade are you in?” With the shift to lifelong student-centered learning, a more relevant and more interesting question (for all ages) can be “what have you been learning?”

Jim Goodell is a Senior Analyst at Quality Information Partners, Inc. (QIP). Follow Jim on Twitter, @jgoodell2.

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Diana Welsh

My daughter often answers... "Technically I'm in 7th grade, but I'm taking 9th grade math, a college level science course, and a customized history course."

Sometimes though she has to ask me what her 'grade level' is, because realy, she's on her own grade level, not someone else's standards.


That's all well and good as long as a child ends up with the skills they need to be a functioning adult sometime around the time they become legal adults. Its even better when they have the skills to do what they want in their life by that time (college, military, trade school, and etc.) However, once kids start falling 3 or 4 years behind the odds of them catching up by adulthood start to get slim. We need to take into account children's ages because its important that they learn the skills they need before they turn 18-19. Adulthood is not going to wait 4-5 years for them to catch up.


It is much more likely that these children will be ahead , not behind. Children fall behind mainly for two reasons. School is boring (usually the lock step of public school) or they have a disability. If you are working with your child and detect a disability, it is important to investigate it early. There are many ways to work with a differently abled child and have a successful outcome.

D. Dean

Speaking as one of those kids who skipped a grade (first semester 4th to second semester 5th) and managed enough credits to leave high school with a diploma right after summer school following junior year, I was NOT emoitionally nor socially equipped to handle the real world at 16 years old. The only recourse then (late 1960's) was to go on to junior college and fake until I could make it.

When my kids were old enough to bug me to let them skip over their senior year of high school, I adamantly refused to let them. They both needed the social component that comes with completing the rituals of senior year (if not necessarily the cirriculum.)

Gayle Craun

He could have given a full answer: in 10th grade, taking college courses, doing French and music classes on line, and receiving a great education...thank you for asking". I hope your son is as smart and accomplished as you think he is.


It's a cheaper and logistically friendlier approach to dumbing our children down. Technology is a good thing when the teacher uses it to supplement their instruction in creative and engaging ways. It is also encumbers a youngster's natural curiosity and reduces their
attention span because it distracts them in a number of ways. They will get very good at video games but never develop any depth in critical reasoning skills. To put it simply, it is worse than home-schooling because there is not a responsible adult guiding them, watching over their shoulder, interacting with them in meaningful discourse that forces them to think. I would suggest sending Benjamin to France for a summer course if you are serious about him learning French instead of a silly ap. (I've seen it).

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