In “The Outsiders,” S.E. Hinton’s classic midcentury novel for young people, the narrator, Ponyboy, starts high school a year earlier than his peers. He skipped a grade because he was smart.
Grade skipping, also known as “green-shirting,” used to be standard practice before other enriched academic options, such as gifted programs, became commonplace.
Skipping a grade and starting school early are both forms of grade acceleration, where high-achieving students advance a grade ahead of their peers in order to be challenged academically.
“There were no gifted programs, and kids were just grade skipped. It wasn’t done very carefully or conscientiously,” says Sylvia Rimm, a gifted education specialist at Menlo Park Academy in Cleveland and Director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Ohio.
Gifted and accelerated programs became popular in the post-Sputnik era, when the Russian space program seemed to be more advanced than our own. The early emphasis in gifted academics was on math and science and then swung over to creativity and critical thinking. Still, even with enrichment programs, some kids are better served by going up a grade.
“It’s a very small group of children who need that kind of accelerating,” says Rimm.
Many states and school districts have very specific policies on acceleration. Green-shirting candidates are often given IQ tests. Their achievement scores are evaluated to see if they are still well above average compared to students in the next grade.
Maturity and an ability to fit in with older peers are important as well. Typically, an independent educational program (IEP) will be put in place for the student in question. Grade skipping needs parent, teacher, and student support. It is often done on a trial basis, and all involved monitor the situation more closely than in years past. “We do a lot of checking in,” said one father of an accelerated student.
“They adjust. It takes a little time,” says Rimm. “We try to arrange for a child to be a buddy in the new class.”
Green-shirting is the opposite of red-shirting, where parents hold a child back, typically a boy, so that he has more advantages (particularly in athletics) as one of the older peers in his grade.
“‘Green-shirting,’ that is, allowing kids to accelerate, is also happening, probably more than it used to,” wrote Laurie Croft in an email, noting how this educational option is coming into vogue again. Croft is the Associate Director at the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa. In 2007, the Center published a two-volume report called “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students,” that was critical of the lack of accelerated opportunities for U.S. students. In April, it will publish an updated version, “A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students.”
Sports and gym are concerns for families, as well. Rimm says it is one of the questions she asks of families considering grade skipping. “There are going to be some tradeoffs … If you are hoping that your son is going to be a professional baseball player, grade skipping might not be the best choice.”
There will be challenges socially. Younger than their peers, green-shirted students may not run with the popular set of kids, whom Rimm suggested are typically the most mature students in a class.
“The kids that we usually choose to skip are highly gifted kids. And those kids often have a few more problems getting along than regular smart kids,” she said. “It’s pretty rare that we find a grade skipped kid who is having more problems after grade skipping.”
Subject acceleration is more common than full-fledged grade skipping. Math, which is a longitudinal subject, is the most typical subject for acceleration. “It feels boring to them to keep doing what they already know how to do,” said Rimm. Reading and writing can allow more room for increasing difficulty within a grade level.
One family with a bright second-grader chose not to have their son skip a grade, although school officials recommended it. They had moved around a lot, and once in a new town, they started their son in kindergarten.
“He was really happy even if he wasn’t challenged, and we didn’t want to mess that up,” said David, the father. “Most kids aren’t as happy in school. He is really happy.” He credited the school with helping coordinate teaching schedules so that his son could cut out to third grade for accelerated learning but still be a part of his class.
“Kids like him becomes discipline problems when they are bored. It ended up being in everyone’s interest to give him something to do,” said David. After testing and evaluations, their son was given an independent education plan that served his unique academic requirements.
“We had worried it out, whether he would be picked on, or wouldn’t fit in in either group,” he said. But as it turns out, his son has friends in both classes.
Another family wanted their son tested for learning differences and decided to test their daughter as well. She was the youngest in her class, but she wasn’t enjoying school. The mother, Patricia, would ask her daughter about school only to hear that it was “boring” and she’d done “nothing” in school. Her daughter wasn’t thriving academically.
“She would do the bare minimum for her, and then she would check out,” said Patricia. Although meeting the basic performance standards for second grade, she was not engaged in school. Yet, once the tests came back showing her to be extremely bright, the option was to pull her out for certain subjects or skip a grade.
They decided that she should skip third grade and go straight to fourth grade. They felt she was emotionally mature and wanted her to feel settled and a part of her class without worrying about schedules.
More than half a year later, it seems to be working out academically. Socially, it is probably not the best fit. Patricia’s daughter has a friend and is conforming herself to the fourth grade, but “her natural inclinations are to continue her friendships with her third grade peers.”
“You can tell from the subjects she chooses that she is an eight-year-old who still wants to read about rainbows and unicorns, and her peers have moved on to more mature topics,” said Patricia. She worries that, as her daughter becomes a teenager, many of her peers will be so much more mature, driving and having romantic relationships well before it is a consideration for her daughter.
“It is better for a child who is bored in school to be challenged, so that she doesn’t lose interest in learning. There were caveats about the developmental differences,” Patricia said. “I felt like we could support her in her social and emotional development.”
Experts agree that children need to be challenged. Not skipping a grade has consequences, too, according to Rimm. Such children become used to things being effortless and will later lack a strong work ethic. For others, extreme boredom at school turns them off to academics altogether.
“The risk of not doing it is that children will go for many years not being challenged,” she said. “For many, being smart means that things are easy.”