How Many Ability Levels Can One Teacher Juggle? The Case for Differentiated Instruction

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

One of the first steps of advocating for academically talented students is identifying that their educational needs aren’t being met in the classroom. Obviously, there are numerous ways this can be done. One compelling way was recently reported in a recent Gifted Child Quarterly article that showed the range of reading scores of elementary school students. The study measured the number of words students could read in a minute (commonly referred to as oral reading fluency). For example, some fourth grade students read as few as 17 words per minute while others read as many as 221 words per minute—a factor of 13! For context, this is like an Olympic sprinter running the 100 meter dash (usually under 10 seconds) against a person who takes over two minutes. The authors also show that the reading range in fourth grade classrooms represents a reading comprehension grade level equivalent ranging from 1.3 (first grade, third month) to 12.6 (twelfth grade, sixth month), or over 11 grade levels!

The Gifted Child Quarterly article focuses on performance differences at the level of a single classroom. But what if we expanded it to the nation as a whole? Using national data based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the Nations’ Report Card, a broad comparison of student performance across grade levels can be made. For example, 2009 NAEP data reveal that the top 10 percent of fourth grade students score roughly the same as the average eighth grade student. This is not a small number of students. The top 10 percent of fourth graders represents 370,000 students, which means that all of those students earn higher test scores than over 1.8 million eighth grade students. Similarly, that same group of fourth grade students also performs better than nearly one in four high school seniors in the country! With such large numbers, it is increasingly unrealistic to claim that there are too few students with special needs to merit special programming.

Having information like this (or asking for it) can help provide reinforcement for advocating for academically talented students. Why would a student scoring at the eighth grade level not be given eighth grade material? However, not all schools have such information. If they don’t, shouldn’t they?

Such large reading performance differences across grades can lead to the question of how teachers could possibly be expected to teach such a wide range of readers simultaneously. Yes, differentiation should be an important part of any classroom, but expecting teachers to juggle upwards of 10 different grade levels of reading is an awfully large undertaking. With practice, many individuals can learn to juggle three or four tasks at once. But it takes an awfully talented individual to juggle 10 tasks at once. Expecting every classroom teacher to be able to do this with little or no assistance is probably not a realistic or fair expectation.

The three big take home messages here are:

  • There is a vast range of ability within each grade level.
  • An enormous number of students are a part of this range.
  • Expecting teachers to be able to simultaneously juggle such a huge range of students may be too tall a task.

This article was originally published in Gifted Today and is used with permission.

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