Too many school districts forgo acceleration and leave bright students behind

Josh Dwyer and Carolyn E. Welch, J.D.

A recent High Flyer post made a strong case for how acceleration can benefit high-ability students and help administrators and teachers more effectively address the individual needs of their unique learners. It echoes findings in dozens of previous studies that show that acceleration works.

Despite mountains of evidence demonstrating its benefits, most decisions about acceleration policies are made locally. According to a recent report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, forty-one states either do not have acceleration policies or permit school districts to decide whether to institute them.

Using Illinois as a case-study, the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project recently published a report that sought to determine whether districts step up to the plate in terms of establishing acceleration policies to support their high achievers in the absence of a state requirement. Unfortunately, the report’s findings are disappointing. Among Illinois school districts, large percentages lack policies that permit students to do the following:

  • Enter kindergarten early: 56 percent
  • Enter first grade early: 55 percent
  • Take classes above grade-level: 46 percent
  • Skip a grade: 90 percent
  • Graduate early: 41 percent

These troubling statistics are compounded by the fact that 33 percent of Illinois students already meet or exceed grade-level proficiency on the state exam, with 36 percent proficient or higher in English language arts and 31 percent proficient or higher in math. When a state does not provide for high-ability students in education policy, attention and resources can get directed largely to students below the proficiency bar, resulting in the dismantling of enrichment and gifted programming. Since No Child Left Behind and the end of state funding for gifted programs in 2003, the number of Illinois districts providing gifted programming has plummeted from over 80 percent in 2003 to only 27 percent in 2016. 

While more affluent families may be able to switch districts or provide supplemental enrichment outside of school in the absence of gifted programming and appropriate opportunities for acceleration, parents of high-ability low-income students often lack those options. They depend on public schools to identify and cultivate their children's talent, and this should be a priority of our education system as well.

Soon, members of the Illinois Senate Education Committee will have an opportunity to decide whether students throughout the state have access to proven acceleration practices. They will be considering Senate Bill 1223—the Accelerated Placement Act—which would establish a statewide acceleration policy grounded in best practices in Illinois.

It mirrors Ohio’s law, which requires each district to have an acceleration policy, form an acceleration committee to ensure that one gatekeeper cannot prevent students from being accelerated, and use a peer-reviewed assessment mechanism to determine whether a student should be accelerated.

Gifted education advocates take note. If you live in one of the twenty-two states without acceleration policies or one of the nineteen states that, like Illinois, allow the existence of these policies to be determined at the local level, it is likely that many students in your school district are not getting the education they deserve.

Consider pushing for a statewide acceleration policy. Acceleration is a well-researched and cost-effective way for schools to provide students with the level of challenge needed to reach their potential, and it is the least a state can do for its high-ability students whose educational needs are so often overlooked.

Josh Dwyer is the Policy Director for the Untapped Potential Project. Carolyn E. Welch, J.D., is an education attorney, Officer and Trustee of the Midwest Center for the Gifted, Board member of pilotED schools, and a member of the Parent Editorial Content Advisory Board of the National Association for Gifted Children and the State Initiatives Committee of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.