Subject acceleration is one way to match the curriculum to high-ability students’ needs and ensure that they are appropriately challenged. A common method of subject acceleration is moving a student from one grade to another for a particular subject in which the student has strong abilities. For example, a second grader might move to the third-grade classroom for math, then move back to their second grade classroom for all other subjects.
A number of issues are associated with subject acceleration. There is no single right answer to the questions raised by these issues, but it is important to consider them.
- Scheduling. Will the student miss a class in a different subject? Some schools have solved this issue by scheduling core subjects at the same time. For example, Northside School District schedules math at the same time for every grade across the district. Alternatively, a middle school student might begin the day early at the high school for science, then go to the middle school at the regular start time for all other classes.
- Transportation. The middle schooler in the example above might need to be bussed from one building to another. Some school districts will provide transportation; others expect the parents to drive the student.
- Gaps. If the student moves up a grade for a particular subject, how do we know whether the student has any important knowledge gaps? The simple solution is pre-testing to determine where these gaps are, and then spending some time tutoring the student on the missing information. It may take just a few short tutoring sessions to fill in gaps and ensure placement in a challenging course for the whole school year.
- Credit. Granting credit and recording that on a transcript helps prevent the student from being asked to repeat the course at a later time. There are questions related to credit, however. For example, should middle school students taking high school courses receive middle school credit, high school credit, or both? Related to that, should the middle school students have those course grades applied to their high school transcripts? This becomes an issue if the student earns a grade that would lower the high school GPA or class rank.
- “Running out of” classes. Sometimes students are prevented from subject acceleration because of concerns about running out of courses in the future. It is never appropriate to withhold medicine from a sick child because we think we might not have enough medicine for that child in 5 years. Similarly, it is not appropriate to withhold a challenging academic opportunity from a student now because we might not have the appropriate resources in our building a few years down the road. If the needed course is not available in our building, our task becomes finding ways to get the advanced content to the student. After exhausting the high school math curriculum, and advanced student might take an online or in-person college course.
- Long-term planning. Although concerns about transportation or scheduling issues several years in the future shouldn’t stop us from accelerating a talented student now, we should take the time to consider the long-term impact of this decision and use that time to communicate with administrators, future teachers, and families to be sure we are outlining a smooth path through a challenging curriculum for the student.
Talking through these questions and issues is helpful for the development of school and district policies related to academic acceleration. Devising clear and fair policies helps all students to have access these opportunities, not just those with active parent advocates. The Belin-Blank Center and the National Association for Gifted Children produced Developing Academic Acceleration Policies: Whole Grade, Early Entrance, and Single Subject to help educators, policymakers, and parents to think through these issues for their local schools. The Belin-Blank Center is also in the process of developing the new Integrated Acceleration System, which will help educators and families make informed decisions about subject acceleration, grade-skipping, and early entrance to kindergarten or college.