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Age-based curriculum in United States leaves millions of students unchallenged

Millions of students across the United States are not challenged enough by an American educational system that overemphasizes age-based curriculum, according to a new study published online by the Institute for Education Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

The study is co-authored by Jonathan Plucker, the professor of talent development and renowned education policy expert. He has joint appointments in JHU's School of Education and Center for Talented Youth.

The researchers conclude that the United States likely wastes tens of billions of dollars each year in efforts to teach students content they already know.

The researchers assert that America's children are currently placed in grade levels based primarily on age and then taught to meet certain grade-based benchmarks. Getting students to test at grade level has long been a focus of U.S. educational policy, but less attention has been devoted to students who have already achieved this proficiency.

"If a mere 2 percent of students perform above grade level, the present obsession with grade-level proficiency might make sense," write the authors. "But what if it were a far larger proportion? If one in every five students has surpassed that criterion before the school year even starts, policymakers would need to re-think the merits of an age-based, grade-level focus."

The authors looked at both nationwide and state-specific testing data, estimating that between 20 and 40 percent of elementary and middle school students perform at least one grade level above their current grade in reading, and 11 to 30 percent score at least one grade level above in math.

The researchers conclude that the United States likely wastes tens of billions of dollars each year in efforts to teach students content they already know. The authors argue that based on their findings, schools should be taking much more frequent advantage of academic acceleration, where students are placed in grades higher than their age-level peers. Whether whole-grade level or single subject, acceleration is especially beneficial for students who go into professional careers or those that require more substantial academic preparation.

The study's other co-authors are Scott Peters of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Matthew Makel of Duke University, Michael Matthews of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Karen Rambo-Hernandez of West Virginia University.

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