Ditching Grade Level Mentality for Authentic Learning

two girls stand against a blackboard wall, measuring their height

“What grade are you in?”

I cannot tell you how many times my daughter has been asked this question in the last couple of years. She responds with an ease I admire, “I don’t do school.” 

After the confused or alarmed looks, I explain that we homeschool.

The question of grade level is one of those cultural things we’ve all been programmed to expect, but what really is the purpose of placing children in grade levels?

As a former teacher, I firmly believe grade levels are teacher- and test-centered and not at all centered around what is best for children. There is no evidence that children perform better when they are sitting in a room where all of the other children are their age and they’re all learning the same thing—"on grade level." However, there is a lot of evidence that shows that children learn more when they are leading their own learning and when they work with people of varying ages and skills.

When you first embark on your homeschool journey, you may be wondering what grade your child is in or should be in. I know I did, even though as a former teacher, I also know that grade levels are arbitrary and mean little regarding a child’s academic success.

What It Means to Be in First Grade

What's the definition of a first grader? It's a child who 

  • is between the ages of 6-7

  • can write her name

  • can identify and probably use numbers 1-10

  • is able to read short sentences

Of course there are outliers, and those children, too, can also be in first grade. So what does it mean to be in first grade? To put it in short: not much.

Ditching Grade Level Mentality for Authentic Learning

Why Schools Use Grade Levels

  • Grade levels make it easier to assess children in the cheapest way possible.

  • Assigning a grade level based on age is less time-consuming than assessing a child's abilities subject by subject.

  • Standardized tests are designed to measure standards that the system decided should be learned in that year. These standards change and are therefore arbitrary in nature. Note: not all standards are actually assessed, and many schools focus only on teaching the standards that are measured on the test. 

As homeschoolers, we can take the time to communicate with our children and identify when our children do and don’t grasp a concept. From there, we can support our children so that they can master each skill. When we ditch the notion that a child must advance to the next grade level in ten months, we have the honor of fostering progress in a genuine, lasting way. We don't have to force growth across the board in all subjects according to an outside time table. We also don't have to hold back a child who is far beyond what's considered grade level subject matter

We can create a learning environment that fits the child instead of adhering to what grade levels prescribe.


As a homeschooler, it's important to shift your thinking from grade levels to your own child.

Focus on your child’s learning rather than age-to-grade labels. I know this can be hard, especially if you are a product of the educational system, as I am. I admit I struggled with this for a while. The public school in my district requires that we write a letter and state what grade our child is in. I’m a stickler for details, and I really wanted to feel secure in writing the “appropriate grade level.” I chose the grade that public school would assign her if she attended and let it go, because that’s their system. It has nothing to do with my child.

We homeschool. We have freedoms many in education would love to have. One of those freedoms is to not have our children’s education dictated by an arbitrary grade level.

Here's an example. My daughter was working with a Saxon Math exercise where she had to fill in a box to solve for ten. When she was finished, I showed her how those equations were just like what she’ll see later when she learns algebra. Instead of a box, she’ll get a variable.

I showed her 1+x=10 and asked her to solve for x.She thought this was really neat. She’s six years old. While she’s not ready to do algebra at this age, letting her see what’s coming later hurts nothing. In public school, on grade level, she’d not even be introduced to this for many years, and not because she’s not ready to see it, but because the tests don’t assess for it at that grade level.

How BookShark Can Help

The beauty of BookShark’s levels is they are for age ranges. This system provides ample flexibility for families to move at their child’s pace.

Grade level doesn’t matter; age doesn’t even matter.

Competency and mastery are the goals here. By keeping those in mind, we leave the arbitrary nature of grade levels at the door and open the way to authentic learning.

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About the Author

Resa BrandenburgResa Brandenburg is a former teacher who is now passionate about unschooling her daughter. She lives with her husband in an old farmhouse by the river in Kentucky. Her favorite thing to do is spend the afternoon with her family, including her grown sons and two grandchildren. Her hobbies include traveling, reading, and quilting.