Tag Archives: ungraded classrooms

JOURNALING CHAOS 4: “Las Preguntas”


The “I Ching” teaches that “Before there can be great brilliance… there must be chaos.”

This is PART 4 in a series of blog posts that document our research, strategic thinking, observations and debates as we take on one of the last vestiges of the industrial revolution: the practice in schools of organizing kids into grade levels according to their chronological age.  

There are often more questions than answers.

If we group our students according to their level of mastery and not by grade or chronological age;

If we defy all standard practice and industry norms and cultural mores and the hallowed “way we do things here”;  

If we defy American tradition itself and simply assign children to classroom groupings according to what they are ready to learn next… 

We must prepare to answer the questions.  So we started by asking them ourselves:

question mrkMaureen asked:  “Is it LEGAL to group kids for instruction– and eventually assign them a standardized test– according to their proficiency levels?” and “Is it ethical?”

Melinda asked: “If all kids take the California Standards Test according to their mastery level… and all kids end up scoring Proficient… won’t that look like we are cheating?”

Ryan asked: “A lot of our students are at different levels of proficiency for different subjects.  Some are proficient in math but not language arts.  So the state would have to provide our students with two different tests– two different grade levels.  Are they going to be able to do that?”

Lowell asked: “So you are talking about ‘dummying down’ the rigor just so you get higher test scores?”

Anthony asked: “Isn’t this just a sneaky way of avoiding accountability as a charter school?”

The Wizard asked:  “If we are labeling and re-labeling students by something other than a traditional grade level…  won’t that effect our funding from the state?”

Ivonne asked:  “If kids are grouped by mastery levels… and they don’t move to the next level until they demonstrate mastery of the level they are on… what happens to the kid that never demonstrates mastery?  Are we going to have 19 year-olds on our K-8 campus now?”

Kira said: “It sounds like your plan takes a lot of pressure off the teachers with those AYP goal and other requirements by the state of California.”  Then Kira asked:  “But if you do that, and now kids move to the next level only after they score Proficient on the CST… haven’t you now transferred the pressure from the teachers to the students?  What if you have students whojust aren’t good test takers? Are they stuck in elementary school forever?”

Conchita asked: “If you establish an age limit at El Milagro, and declare that you can’t stay here after the age of , say 14… but they still haven’t demonstrated mastery of the 8th Grade Test,  are you just going to socially promote them to high school?”

And “How is that any different than what we do now?”

Maria asked: “What about students transferring in during the school year from traditional graded schools?  If their child is a 5th grader, they are going to want them placed in the 5th grade!”

The Wizard is entitled to two questions so he asked: “How might our technology infrastructure play a role in helping students advance?”

pk asked: “Do you trust the California Standards Test… let alone the state standards… to serve as the benchmark for mastery before students can advance?”

Ricky asked: “Is this a protest against NCLB and the state’s accountability system… or a legitimate response to what the data tells us?”

celloJonathan noted: “There are a lot of ways to demonstrate mastery of state standards other than by a standardized test.  Are you giving the CST too much credibility as the main determiner of students moving forward? Are there other ways kids can demonstrate mastery of the state standards?”

RT asked: “Isn’t this a return to tracking?  Not that I see a conspiracy in every new idea, but we have been down this road before.  Isn’t this just another systemic guarantee that the same kids that always get left behind will still get left behind?”

Annie asked: “Can’t you achieve the same thing within the existing system of grade level groupings?”  

And since we are married she asked:  “You just aren’t happy until you are on the verge of getting fired, are you?”

Questions reflect the depth of the chaos. Or predict it.



Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, public education, standardized testing, technology in schools, Un-graded schools


There are schools all across America where 100% of the students are performing at their “grade level” as they always have… and always will. They don’t have to wait until 2014 or whenever NCLB shames every school into compliance or dire consequence. Your school could have every child at grade level too. By this Friday! 

The schools are academies for Tae Kwon Do that employ a fifty year old curriculum consistent with the Jhoon Rhee System. Students are at their level because in Tae Kwon Do the instructors are not bound by NCLB or the arbitrary practice of grouping students according to their age. Rather, each student earns a color belt that represents the level, along a continuum of learning, which they have earned through through their effort and performance. When they are ready to move to the next belt– the next level- they demonstrate their mastery of forms, fundamentals and fighting techniques that are required for promotion. Some students move faster than others. But most are motivated to test and advance toward the highest possible level– the black belt. The role of the teacher in this system, is to differentiate instruction and provide each individual student with the knowledge, skills and support they need to make continuous progress.

If our schools were organized like the schools in Tae Kwon Do, our students would not be grouped by their age. Their age would be irrelevant. Instead we would ask: What have they learned? What are they ready to learn next? How can teachers accelerate students and provide authentic opportunities for them to achieve mastery?

The grade level system that we inherited from the Industrial Revolution has been in place for nearly 150 years. There have been plenty of studies to challenge the wisdom of grouping kids by age rather than achievement. Those studies are often used to provide a rationale for multiage and ungraded classrooms. And while there may have been some momentum behind the transition to multiage classrooms in the previous three decades, that momentum has dissipated mightily in this era of accountability. Too bad.  

In California (and, I suspect, in your state, too) the year-end, summative assessments are designed to be administered to children according to their grade. Our data comes back organized by grade level trends. We learn that 61% of our 5th graders scored at grade level in math while 46% of our English learners in 3rd grade were proficient in language arts. You can compare our 6th graders with your 6th graders and this years’ 7th graders with how they performed as 5th graders. It all tells us something but I wonder if our kids are really learning to the extent that they are capable of learning.  

At the end of this school year we will promote a few hundred kids to the next grade level even though they haven’t demonstrated mastery of their current grade level. We will  promote them because it is June and all their classmates are being promoted and the research on retention is so daunting that it forces us to choose our poison. In Tae Kwon Do if you promote a student who has not mastered the competencies of the curriculum, they will be thrown in with advanced students with whom they can not compete. One day they will catch a flying heel kick on the side of the head and it will remind them that earning a black belt is not a race.

We flirted, just for a moment, with the idea of grouping our K-8 school of 1000 students by their academic proficiency level instead of their age. We are a charter school so we can do it if we want to. We use MAPS for formative assessments and have a high degree of confidence in its alignment with California’s content standards. We’d get them grouped right. And every student would be instantly at grade level because they would be at the grade level that they are ready to master next. There would be multiple age groups in a classroom but the curriculum standards wouldn’t change. We differentiate instruction anyway… so children would still be treated as individuals.  

Then we realized that if 100% of our students were suddenly at grade level, there would be no need for the threats and sanctions of NCLB. We would never miss AYP target goals. Our Academic Performance Index would be the highest in the state. There would be some logistical challenges but none as formidable as the challenge of convincing the state of California that we were not just gaming the system. So we decided against it. We still have our students out in classrooms according to their age. And though thousands of new schools will fall into Program Improvement each year as the AYP threshold rises, we will keep forcing the grade level system that makes little sense when it comes to teaching or learning. Or testing. 

Innovations, like revolutions, are often inspired by the desperate needs of organizations that can no longer thrive in antiquated systems. Assuming that the provisions of NCLB remain unchanged, should we continue to force schools to fit a timeline of achievement… or use that timeline as the motivation for fundamental change in how we organize our schools?  

And here is an Epilogue (of sorts):

I broke a bunch of boards when I tested for my black belt.  By the end of the day my hands were swollen and I needed some ice.  In Tae Kwon Do there are no social promotions.


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