Stepping Outside the Grade-Level Box

Written by contributor Sarah Small of SmallWorld at Home

A note from Jamie: As we begin to contemplate and plan for fall, it’s good to keep in mind that we’re not bound by grade levels like traditional schools are! Enjoy this repost from Sarah, which originally published on July 1, 2011.

Ask a homeschooled kid the innocuous “What grade are you in?” and you’ll often get a furrowed brow and an answer with a question mark at the end.


This response can be alarming to grandparents, non-homeschooling friends, and the cashier at Walmart. Their raised eyebrows ask, “He doesn’t know what grade he’s in?”

Well, no. Not exactly. That hallmark of traditional schooling—the passing from grade to grade—isn’t of utmost importance in homeschooling. The age/grade correlation just isn’t necessarily present.

If your nine-year-old is reading at a post-college level, does that make him 23? Who decided, after all, that picture books are for preK-3rd grade, that pre-algebra is done in middle school, and that high school takes four years?

Who came up with all this stuff? I don’t know the answer to that.

What I do know is that homeschooling allows us to provide learning opportunities for our children at their own pace.

This might mean that:


  • your nine-year-old is reading at a 10th-grade level but has the fine motor skills of a kindergartener;
  • or your 13-year-old daughter writes astounding stories but still doesn’t know all her multiplication facts;
  • or your son finished high school at 16, but your daughter plans to take a leisurely five years and graduate at 19.

This can be tough for those of us who went through the traditional education system. By nature most homeschooling parents are outside-the-box thinkers, but we still tend to second-guess our choices every now and then, as if some public school administrator is peering over our shoulders and wagging his finger at us.

I balk when I hear parents ask “Where can I find out where my child should be for his grade level?”

The beauty of homeschooling is that it just doesn’t matter. Our kids don’t have to be boxed into a grade.

I remember a story my brother told me once about his daughter, then in first grade in public school. The teacher called him and his wife in for a conference. “I need you to stop teaching her things at home,” she said to them. “She is reading too far ahead and doing math that we don’t learn until the third grade.” My brother and his wife explained that they weren’t teaching her at home, but that they weren’t going to stop her from figuring things out on her own.
Shoe Tying

Last year I made the decision to skip over the next math textbook for my son. I compared the two consecutive years and realized that few new concepts were introduced in the 4th grade book. The question for this particular child became: Why spend an entire year doing the same old thing? We moved into and through the 5th grade book easily, and then I looked at the 6th grade book and saw a whole year of the same old thing, again. But skipping another book would mean going into pre-algebra.

Somehow I couldn’t wrap my brain around my 10-year-old doing pre-algebra already, especially since my 13-year-old just finished the curriculum. But, well, he can. “Move him up,” my husband said simply and sensibly.

My youngest guy likes math. He’s excited about it, figures it out quickly, and is thrilled to be moving on to pre-algebra. On the other hand, he still reverses the letters “b” and “d” every now and then, and he’s never written more than a paragraph on his own.

Is he in seventh grade or second grade?

Grade levels are necessary for the structure of traditional school, certainly, and they are generally necessary for things like clubs, sports, camps, and church activities. I think we should all teach our kids a basic grade-level answer (i.e., “I’m in fourth grade”), without feeling the need to explain to the general public that she’s doing 7th grade math, 5th grade science, and reading at a 9th grade level. But in our own homes, shedding our mental checklist of “what your child should know in each grade” can be liberating—and tremendously beneficial to our kids.

Homeschooling is all about finding the heartbeat of your family and following that pace—not your neighbor’s, not your best homeschooling buddy’s, and not the grade level expectations for your child’s age.

What’s your philosophy on grades? What do your kids say when asked what grades they are in?

About SarahS

Sarah has graduated one child from homeschooling and is happy to have miles left on the journey with her 11 and 15 year old children. With a master’s degree in English/creative writing, Sarah enjoys teaching writing and literature classes at her co-op and blogs about learning at SmallWorld at Home.


  1. I so agree with this.

    My son gets especially confused because we school year round, starting our ‘new year’ in late October. So although most kids this time of year are upping their grade level to what they are entering in the fall, my son still has a few months left before we take a break and then start anew.

    My son often times will tell people “I’m in the 2nd grade [looking at me questioningly to make sure he got the right grade] but can read at a 6th grade level!”

    I’ve given up on most ‘scope & sequences’ for specific grade levels as they all differ. Who says when a kid should know something? My 2nd grader knows almost nothing about American history, but could talk your ear off about Ancient History. Does that make him behind or ahead? Who CARES! :) He’ll get it all when he’s ready for it!
    Diana’s latest post: Wetlands!

  2. We never have that problem, our church is very much about the school grade system. So my boys go by that when asked. The problem comes when they start telling friends what they are studying. When your 6th grader tells every one he’s doing algebra people really begin to wonder.
    Eileen Leacock’s latest post: I am sad to be downsizing

  3. Great article and very much how we are working – I occasionally check what stage other kids our son’s age would be doing, but more to make sure we are not too far behind. He reads what highschool kids would be reading at times, is learning Latin and is doing beginning algebra (he is seven next month) but there are other things he is a little ‘behind’ what his ‘peers’ would be expected to do at school.

    The only problem we might have is if he goes to school for his highschool years – he will probably be very advanced in some subjects compared to his supposed grade level. Not sure what we are going to do then – probably look for a school that is willing to accommodate him doing work at different grade levels at the same time, if we can!
    Natalia’s latest post: Visiting the Great Buddha – Nara, Japan

    • Natalia – Why send him to high school? I know many, many homeschoolers who were home-educated through high school, and they are employed, productive, happy adults! I highly recommend a book called “College Without Compromise” to help parents chart a course that is workable, exciting, and far beyond adequate.

      • Hi Mae

        Firstly, my husband and I agreed that while home education is very ‘doable’ for primary school, we would seriously consider it for highschool. Seeing as he is being very supportive of my choice to homeschool now, I respect my husband’s view as well so am thinking ahead to highschool. Yes, I have met people who were homeschooled through the highschool years, and I know it is possible. Who knows, we may end up down that route. But probably not.
        Also, as Kika says, some kids want to attend highschool, and we have to be prepared for that possibility. I hope that if we end up with our son at highschool we have the flexibility she enjoys.
        Natalia’s latest post: Visiting the Great Buddha – Nara, Japan

    • Some kids do want to attend a high-school, though, at some point for various reasons and this isn’t necessarily bad. My son will attend next year and is advanced so while he is registered in grade 10, he’ll also be completing certain grade 11/12 courses. It isn’t a big deal. I guess it helps that the principal of this highschool is a homeschool father so he understands us.

  4. My kids recently joined Friday night club at church and did that confuse them!!! The first week all my kids went their separate age appropriate ways. Not one of my kids had a clue what grade they were in!!! One is doing college English and surviving middle school math, one can not right a readable paragraph but is streaks ahead in critical thinking and anything auditory, everyone reads at least like a highschooler, and so they go down the line. My grade 1 kidlet was appalled that they kept them busy with play-do and coloring he was all eager for debating!!! At home they pretty much learn all together just at their own levels… The following week a well seasoned leader said, “This “grade thing” isn’t going to work, would you mind if all your kids went into one class?” And that’s how its been. The teen is with the teens, and speaks a completely different language (English that has spent years in the classics) to his peers – but he loves going!!! All the rest: a range from age 6 to 12 are in the top of the primary school class having the time of their lives… So no the “grade thing” doesn’t always work!!!
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  5. Sarah, i agree with your saying – the age/grade is not important at all! we make our kids to beleive that those numbers are necessary while they are not!
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  6. Yes, excellent tips! But it makes me think of a conversation highlighting the darker side of grade-level labeling I had with the children’s librarian at my local library this week. She said many parents come in requesting books of a certain age level for their children–and that these parents wouldn’t let their children check out anything that didn’t meet that minimum level.

    As a homeschooling family, I love how we’re not bound by somebody else’s idea of what my child should be doing at a certain age. But to brag that your child exceeds grade level because of pride–that’s another thing entirely!

    I love the recommendation that kids be taught a rote answer to the “what grade are you in?” question. It simplifies things so much–because really, when people ask my kids that, they just want to know about how old they are.
    Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy’s latest post: This Post Brought to You by Your Friendly Public Library

  7. LAWallner says:

    I just have my kids tell the person questioning them, “I am XXX years old.” and leave it at that.

  8. I absolutely abhor the question about grades–especially when it comes from our own homeschool group! Generally I answer it with which math book the boys are in but that sometimes poses some problems because we do not do a lot of book work in our schooling and most years never even finish a book. If someone persists, I will tell them that we do not keep grades and explain our “child-led learning” approach.
    Thanks for this post. It is so refreshing to think there are others that think the way I do.
    Carol J. Alexander’s latest post: Connect With Your Teens without Spending Much Money

  9. This goes right to the heart of my desire to homeschool my children-thank you.

  10. I found what you had to say about the fourth and sixth-grade math books interesting. Most of my teaching experience is in middle school, but for the few years I taught 4-7 grades, I heard from numerous elementary peers that the odd grades are about moving through new concepts while the even are for working with those already established on a deeper level.

    Looks like what you’re noticing fits with this pattern!
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  11. My kids are just five, but I’ve been telling them to just say they’re five. I hate the “aren’t you so excited to be going to kindergarten and learn how to read?” My daughter can already read long chapter books, and my son could care less about reading now. It’s wierd for both of them. My kids also have the tendency to blurt out, “We’re not going to school.” This is because we’re interest-led learners, but it doesn’t sound that way to others!
    Christina Pilkington’s latest post: 10 Unusual Ways to Explore Science

  12. Yes! Exactly right. One of the main reasons I am homeschooling is so that we can use our own methods and work at our own pace. Honestly I am really losing sight of what my son ‘would’ be doing if he were in school, I’m so focused on our own process and learning as a family. I do say to people what grade he would be in if he were in school, he sort of is vaguely aware but not really and I won’t burden him with a category that isn’t relevant so I just answer for him. He happily tells people we are homeschooling and that is that really!
    Emmalina’s latest post: Strawberry Fields Forever

  13. LOVE THIS!
    Tracy’s latest post: Welcoming you “home”

  14. Sarah, This is a fantastic article about the grade level dilema. That was such a huge hurtle for me when I first started homeschooling. I know you will encourage many new homeschool families with this article.
    xo Jana
    Jana Miller’s latest post: Getting Crazy With Summer Science

  15. Being able to go at my children’s own pace is a primary reason I want to homeschool as well. I remember being bored to tears with the book choices in school, having read most of them years ago, while continuing to fall further and further behind in math each year. I’m totally ready to embrace different “grade levels” for different subjects!
    Sarah G’s latest post: Caleb’s 1st Birthday Party

  16. Some homeschoolers get upset at this usually-well-intentioned question, but I don’t see a reason to take offense. Not wanting to confuse the sweet elderly lady at the library, or the friendly foreign waitress at the restaurant, I’ve taught them all to say whatever grade they would be in if we were institutionally schooled. When in Rome, yada yada. It’s such a deeply ingrained part of the vernacular, I don’t feel I need to try to reform their institutional perspective.

    The last thing I would want to do is imply that they are in a higher grade level. I’d rather exceed other people’s lower expectations, than fail to measure up to their higher ones.

    • I agree, no need to take offense, as I don’t believe any is intended by the question. It’s just a programmed, safe question to ask when meeting someone for the first time. My son tells people he’s homeschooled and that usually brings a smile to the questioner’s face.

      Though one time I had just been thru an ordeal with him because to him, “going to school” is “going to play” as his only frame of reference was a year at preschool a couple of days a week. We’d had a talk about what real school was like and how he’d be stuck at a desk all day and there wasn’t much time for playing and he had to hold still and be quiet and on and on. The woman that asked probably thought she was doing the right thing but she totally undermined what I’d just told him by saying how much fun kindergarten is and her whole take on it. It was maddening at the time, but her words didn’t last long in his brain!
      Kelly’s latest post: HomeSchool

    • “It’s such a deeply ingrained part of the vernacular, I don’t feel I need to try to reform their institutional perspective.” Exactly. If they ask for details, I give as true interest level indicates.
      Sarah at SmallWorld’s latest post: Stepping Outside the Grade-Level Box (Simple Homeschool)

  17. I do as Mae relates – my kids answer with the grade they would be in if they’d gone to school with their age peers in kindergarten. My son is actually registered a year below that – “legally” (for lack of a better term) he is a rising 8th grader but by age he’d be going into 9th.

    My kids have no idea what grade level they read, or do math, or are learning history. They don’t need to know that, and they don’t really care.
    Margaret’s latest post: Feels like coming home

  18. Amen to that! I have also taught my children to say with confidence, “I am in Grade 5” or whatever the age appropriate response may be – it satisfies casual questions and leaves me the freedom to follow their development. Took me a while to catch on, though! Thanks for a great post. So needed.
    Corli’s latest post: finisterre island

    • I like that- “it satisfies casual questions and leaves me the freedom to follow their development”. This is right on! Most people asking I think are just wanting to make conversation and figure out how old the child is, strike common ground (ie. they have a child that age or a grandchild) etc. I think they asked a simple question and need a simple answer, and it just complicates things to explain it further…also, I think it confuses the person who asked the question by giving them a complicated answer since they aren’t in that mindset. It really doesn’t matter what others think, although sometimes we can feel like it matters to us. It just matters that we feel we are doing the right thing.

  19. Great post! My son started reading at 4, so I skipped doing “pre-k” and we started doing Kindergarten stuff, but ended up touching on 1st and 2nd grade stuff just ’cause he was interested/wanted to learn it! So, he’s all over the board. Where the school system is concerned, he would just be going into K this Fall, but we’re so beyond that. However, I don’t want him to get too far ahead because emotionally I don’t feel he’s ready to “compete” with higher grade levels. If that makes sense. I want him to be a young kid for as long as possible!
    Jade =)’s latest post: Homeschool Mother’s Journal, July 1st, 2011

  20. This was a great read. We are already getting the “what grade are you entering in the fall” question (my daughter is 5). Our answer is always a little complicated and I have to figure out a way to simplify it. I feel relief now that we have decided to homeschool because she won’t be boxed into a certain grade and we can tailor her learning to her.
    Jennifer @ kidoing!’s latest post: Savoring Summer: Zucchini Pasta

  21. When that dreaded question comes, my children look at me and say “Tell them Mom.” I smile and say, “We homeschool; which grade they are in would depend upon the subject.” I typically get an odd expression in return and we smile and move on.
    Dana’s latest post: Printable Book Log Bookmarks

  22. Thanks for a great post! When we started homeschooling, I was very worried about what each child “should” learn each year. I searched for benchmarks to set my goals by. Then I realized something: every child is different and standard benchmarks don’t always fit. Most children, given the right guidance and support, will reach each accomplishment in a timely manner. My kiddos know what grade they are in (based on where they would be in public school) because, to them, it is just as important as how old they are. Also they are very encouraged to know “you’ve almost finished your kindergarten reader, then you can start your 1st grade reader!” That inspires them to work hard at the end of the school year! If I have them doing things that are above or below their grade, I don’t think it is necessary to point that out…to my kiddos or to anyone else but that is just me.

  23. We struggle with this already and our son is just 5! People ask if he’s in kindergarten and I know they are just being polite/friendly and this is generally a safe question to ask, but certain situations need some sort of answer. I enrolled him at another church’s VBS and didn’t know how to answer the question for grade level. He can’t read yet, but he does better when he’s with a group of 5-7 year olds than he does with 4-6. Our own church automatically advances kids to the next level in June every year and although the kindergartener’s meet together with the first grader’s, I wouldn’t consider him 1st grade. Oh well, if that’s the worst of it so far, I can deal with that!
    Kelly’s latest post: HomeSchool

  24. I. Love. This.

  25. Our “School Year” goes from June 1 to May 31. At least for now. I’ve taught my kids to say what grade they are in by how it would be for our school. My 7 year old is in 2nd grade and my 5 year old is in 1st grade and my 3 year old is in Pre-K. It doesn’t matter that in certain subjects they may be ahead or behind the public school system. They will catch up, slow down or stay ahead as they progress over the next several years. I shouldn’t have to be bothered to explain that to anyone asking what grade my kids are in. As for right now my kids don’t care that they might be doing other work than other kids their age might be doing.
    Suanna’s latest post: 2 Weeks Old!

  26. I just wanted to say that I am LOVING the virtual curriculum fair! I look forward to seeing the posts in my email every day and I am squirreling them away for the future (my children are 3 years and 10 months). Thank you to Simple Homeschool and to all the contributors!!
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  27. My kids give their legal grade level. They don’t know that they’re working on G7 grammar in 4th grade.

  28. Excellent post, thank you so much!
    We’ve struggled with the grade-level thing, as well.
    Now that they are in “grades” 8, 5, & 4, (or would be in public school), they usually remember what to tell someone who asks them. Now it is my turn to look like a deer caught in headlights as I try to remember which grade who should be in 😉 !

    Catherine’s latest post: Summer Thoughts

  29. This question doesn’t bother me at all. My kids know what “grade” they’re in but that doesn’t hinder us from tailoring their education to their specific needs/interests. It is not a big deal nor offensive to me in the least. Young people are regularly grouped into sports and other community clubs/events according to either age or school grade. Of course kids within each group will vary in ability, maturity and so forth. The important thing to remember is that, as homeschoolers, we do have the freedom to respect our children’s unique needs. I also don’t think it is bad for some homeschoolers to want to know what kids of a particular grade level in public school would be learning – it is probably to assure themselves that they’re not ‘behind’ and as they grow in confidence they may no longer feel the need to compare?!

  30. Samantha Post says:

    We taught our daughter from the very start of homeschooling, at about age 5, “Chronologically, I would be in x grade, but I am homeschooled and we don’t follow the same paradigm.” That usually brought a raised eyebrow. (Of course, we also taught her what it meant, so she could answer a question about it.)

  31. Very well said. Grade levels are Ok for saying to strangers who ask your children what grade they are in, but aren’t necessary when planning what to choose for homeschool books and curriculum.
    Heidi’s latest post: Switched On Schoolhouse Spanish

  32. I just tell my kids a grade level that they should say……whether or not we vary the grade levels in their curriculum!
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  33. Love it! My “2nd grader”, when asked what grade he’s in, usually replies, “Well, I’m technically in 2nd grade, but I do 3rd grade math and I read on a 7th grade level,” or something like that. It is pretty funny to watch people’s reactions to these comments. :)
    Beverly’s latest post: Technical Difficulties… Sorta.

  34. I’m glad to know that it’s not just my daughter who wrinkles her brow and tries to remember what grade she’s “supposed” to be in. We just don’t think that way, and I know that it must seem strange to non-homeschooling people, but that’s just how it is.

  35. I’m a middle school teacher at a fairly progressive charter school, and you have just made an incredible case for dropping high stakes testing. Even in my “eighth grade” class I have kids who fall in a wide range within my content area (English) and other content areas. I feel fortunate that my school honors individual kids’ growth over test scores, but often parents get hung up on the numbers.

    With the politicians’ fingers in education, the testing culture demands all kids be at the same place at the same time. It’s repulsive, and it completely ignores everything I’ve learned about human growth and development.

    To honor our beliefs about kids, we’re transitioning to a multiage model next year. I’ll be teaching middle school humanities with a mixture of 6-8th graders. Some of our work will be done in small groups, and lots will happen in conferences with me. I’m thrilled our K-8 school is moving to a model where grade levels will never be used.

  36. I agree totally, and this is one major reason why I would like to continue homeschooling my daughter, who is at many different “Grade levels” with each subject. I honestly think it would kill her love for learning to be forced to stay several levels below her skills just because that is what is “supposed” to be taught that year. I also remember being in public school and being bored when I was at a higher level than the class, and extremely frustrated when the class moved on without me (math for me) and I never really got it. Honestly I still have issues with simple math, I just skimmed by in high school but really could have benefited from more time spent on learning those basic skills before being forced to move on to the next thing. Because my other skills were all at “higher levels” I got moved on to the next grade level when really I should have remained at the lower math level until I mastered it.

    My daughter doesn’t know what to say when people ask her what grade she is in, even though I have told her. She actually tells some people she is not in school. Then they really are puzzled. I try to teach her to say what level she is in doing school at home with me but I think she finds that confusing.

  37. I so agree! And great thoughts and comments. No matter what curriculum or education philosophy one follows, each child is different and progress in unique stages as they mature – even in public schools!

    My own children want to know what grade they’re in! It is difficult to know exactly because I combine all ages on the same core at times and spread their 1 year curriculum over 18 months, so I’m never quite sure. My main measure is their maths and reading levels. Sometimes it helps to tell them what skills they should be able to master in a grade so that they can see where “they fit”. Now my wannabe grade 7 middle schooler knows what I expect her to accomplish in this grade and she can stretch there if she wants to.

    It really doesn’t matter much in the lower and middle school grades. But by high school, this issue becomes mandatory with grading and external exams as they approach their graduation. My grade 10 high schooler copes well on her grade now, but her first graded high school year was tough.
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  38. “My youngest guy likes math. He’s excited about it, figures it out quickly, and is thrilled to be moving on to pre-algebra. On the other hand, he still reverses the letters “b” and “d” every now and then, and he’s never written more than a paragraph on his own.”

    I think we may have exactly the same child.
    Fatcat’s latest post: We interupt….

  39. Melissa Pickert says:

    I find this interesting. I went to a traditional Montessori school till I was 10 and we really didn’t have grade levels either. Since we were student led you maybe worked harder on math at one time and reading another time.
    Though we all did kind of know in the back of our heads what grade we would be if we were at the public school.

  40. Seems like you did what most teachers wish they could do. Skip around and ahead or go back to meet the needs of the students in their classrooms. Kudos to you!

  41. Your so right on home schooled children are 1-2 years ahead in learning than public schooling. My cousin’s children have been home schooled and I was amazed at the reading an comprehension levels they showed. My cousin actually was home school and is a pharmacist,so that old saying you cant get good education from home schooling certainly doesn’t hold weight. My wife and I are preparing to home school our daughter and are in the research phase and know this is such a good decision.
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  42. I love this. My girls are 3 and people ask what preschool they go to, when I say they are not enrolled in a preschool I usually get a look that indicates I am depriving my kids of a “head start” The next comment though is usually “wow they have quite the vocabulary!” ….. now that’s a “head start” for you!

  43. My kids laugh when asked this question. Then they generally say…depends what subject you mean!

    When the adult looks at me for clarification, I usually say, my kids work at ability level per subject, not a certain set grade level. They seem to get that…

  44. Thanks for this blog post! I have just been wondering what on earth to do with my daughter who looks like she will be finishing her current math book with six months left of our (Australian) school year!
    Now I have my answer – just keep on going!! Thanks for the boost of confidence :)

  45. Perfectly said! I watch my 4yo compare “knowledge” with her 6-7yo friends, and I wonder how on earth an elementary teacher can work with 20+ kids at a time, put together in a group by age alone, when there is such a vast difference in mastery in every subject. I don’t envy their job, and this is the very reason I’ve chosen to homeschool – so we can move at my daughter’s pace…
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  46. Great post! My son is 4, he’ll be 5 mid-August, we have already started him on K curriculum, he is more than half way through K Math, can read at an almost 1st grade level, but only knows how to write a handful of capital letters. He can spell, but can’t write….oddly enough if I were to enroll him in K this year, he would be in the young K class with all the kids that aren’t 5 by Aug 1st, but will be by the end of Dec. Next year they are changing the cutoff date, and if the new rules had been applied this year he would not have even been able to start K!! Craziness! All the more reasons why we homeschool!

  47. Excellent piece. I have a 20 year old with an AA and a BA. He graduated at 16, and had his AA at 17 (we used our local community college starting at age 14). Our next child, 19, will be a sophomore in college this coming fall. Do you think anyone notices this now? Not so much! Even when they all started attending college, people didn’t realize they were going to class with teenagers. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that question posed to my child and they would look at me with a questioning face and say, “mom?…” Grade levels for homeschoolers are crazy, but I think if I was starting over, I would have informed my children of what “grade” to use for a particular year. I imagine it reduces the number of questions.

    Oh, and for those who are considering sending your homeschooled child off to high school, it is very difficult for their homeschooled friends. My kids really missed being able to spend time with kids they had known for years because their parents decided to send their kids off for high school. It changes a LOT more than you might realize. I have informed many mothers if you are looking for a “school” experience for your children, do it in the elementary grades – it is easier to change things (study habits, excitement for learning, etc.) at a young age, than it is when they are older.

    • That is great advice, Becki. While my soon-to-be high schooler is interested in public school, she couldn’t even fathom leaving all her homeschooled friends. And yes, my son began attending community college at 15 and no one ever knew he was that young (or that he was a homeschooler).
      Sarah at SmallWorld’s latest post: Caught-My-Eye Posts

  48. We have always used birthdays as when you go up a grade level, since we realized this is a truly meaningless number. In our house if you are 5, you are a kindergartner, 6 a first grader etc. This has NOTHING to do with the level they are working at, since all work at whatever level is best for them in each subject. All scope and sequences have different ideas about what material should be learned at a certain grade level. Kids being prideful about being above a grade level and announcing it, I find distasteful and bad manners. My oldest tested at a “high 10th grade level” in vocabulary on a placement test in 2nd grade (we used a virtual public school that year) – I would have been horrified if she went around announcing “I’m in second grade, but have a 10th grade vocabulary”. That just seems rude. Honestly, I don’t think we ever told her.

  49. By the way, for those who are looking at unschooling, I highly recommend you take the advise of some who mentioned using age as a grade. The years we unschooled were probably the most difficult to attach to a “grade level”. I think we covered every possibility of education style over the course of my children homeschooling and ALL were fabulous! They worked for the situations we were in and our primary goal was for them to have a great love of learning. They may not love learning every particular subject, but they all know how and they do love to learn.

  50. I can absolutely relate to this, especially the mixed subject levels. I usually just figure out what the number would be and leave it at that for most folks, or simply say, “We don’t use grades, but they are these ages.” We are so all over the place with our curriculum, such as it is.
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  51. I could teach my kids to answer with the age-associated grade, but I choose not to. Similarly, when they ask at the McDonald’s drive thru if the happy meal is for a girl or a boy, I could say “boy” and be done with it… but it’s my daughter who wants the LEGO toy. In that case, I say “We would like the LEGO toy please”… I don’t have to buy into their arbitrary paradigm of what gender should play with what toy. Some say it’s no big deal; I disagree. Not a hill I’m gonna die on, but not something I will glibly participate in either.

    With grades, we find 90% of the time people who ask are really asking the equivalent of how old the child is. My kids dodge the question by answering with their age. If the person is persistent, they say “We homeschool. I’m ungraded elementary.” (True.) If the person wants to get all up in it, I’m more than happy to explain the whole situation if they’re genuinely curious – or, now I can just link them to this excellent article! But I don’t buy into “grade levels” at all.

  52. Excellent article….wish all homechoolers could grasp this! I will be linking to this one!

  53. Thanks for this article. Our family is getting ready to start this journey and I know there will be multiple questions and furrowed brows. Your words definitely gave me a boost of confidence right when I needed it most. :)

  54. This post reaffirms what I knew. I thank you!
    Kelly K
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  55. Gwen L. says:

    Thank you for this encouragement. I was struggling this year with my son who is a young 7 about to be 8. I have always purchased curriculum that gives a general grade and an age level. Iam going to continue the “1st “grade curriculum in some things like reading and start on the “2nd” grade stuff for everything else. I was feeling like I had failed him but God’s timing is right and I know I am doing what is best for my child. So we say he is 2nd grade for church sunday school etc.

  56. I agree so much, I was JUST telling someone not to worry about the grade level, make sure the basics are covered and throw at them anything else they can take. Where they need help, help them, where they can drive on their own, give em the wheel. :) Thanks for this!

  57. Joanne Woods says:

    Your article made me laugh – only because I can so relate. My kids always answer, after what seems like a long pause, and then with a question mark on the end. OR, when they were even younger, they would look up at me and ask me, as I’m sitting there trying to actually figure it out. Sometimes I just say, just to be silly, do you want to know technically what grade they are in or what grade level they are doing? hehe. This can get you some strange looks. I’ve done the age answer, but that doesn’t always satisfy – like it really matters! Love your article!!! =) Love thinking outside the box!

  58. We are about to start our second year of homeschooling and since the beginning have been struggling w/this question. It never occurred to me not to worry about it. Thanks for the reminder that we no longer have to live in the box that we were trying to get rid of in the first place! That’s why we left the ps system!!

  59. Aha! I needed to read this today. This is SO much of why we homeschool but I have been falling into the comparison trap over this summer. And as I was reading this I was thinking to myself, “boy, this is a great article”. Then I saw who it was written by and then it all made sense! Thanks, Sarah. Great writing and great encouragement as always.
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  60. Wonderful article! Thanks for explaining this so well. When people ask them about their “grade level,” my homeschooled kids usually answer, “If I went to school, I’d probably be in X grade, but we homeschool, so it doens’t matter.”

  61. Wow. This article really resonated with me.

    It’s always bothered me that we as humans (or at the very least Americans) are so obsessed with fitting everything into little boxes that we forget that the children we are cramming into said boxes are people, too. From birth, children are given the gift of limitless potential, and all “grades” do is snatch it back by making them fit a common mold made to fit the lowest common denominator, and if they don’t fit in, they’re “special”, or “slow”, to say nothing of public-schoolers.

    And why? Because it’s “the way it’s always been done.”

    This is a very eye-opening article, one that I hope not just home-schoolers, but parents and educators across the country can read, appreciate, and learn something from. As a public school graduate who wants to home-school my own children one day, it’s more than food for thought. We shape our children with every action we make whether we realize it or not, and no matter what we do, they’ll never conform to our molds. They want so badly to be their own person, but how can they when we thwart their every efforts by making them instead to be “ideal”?

    Bravissimo, maestra. Bravissimo.

  62. About 20 years ago, I did part of my student teaching in a British primary school in London. It was interesting to compare how different it was compared to the American ways of schooling. One of the big differences was that there were no “grades” at all. Kids were divided solely by age with a range of ages in each room : 4-5 and 5-6-year-olds (a.k.a. “infants”), and 6-7, 7-8, 8-9, and 9-10-year-olds. If only schools here were like that, then that would be a question that would never even come up!

    What grade a child is in, when the question isn’t what grade in this school is he in, is really nothing more than a vague way of asking how old he is. After all, different schools can teach all sorts of different things in different grades anyway (especially when standardized testing isn’t required). So when you say a child is in a particular grade, and you don’t know the particular school’s curriculum for that grade, it tells you absolutely nothing except the child’s approximate age! So when a homeschooler says what grade he’s in based only on his age and not the level of schoolwork he’s doing, it’s just as good a reply as a child in school saying what grade he is in.

    Saying what grade a child is in is nothing more than the American way of saying about how old a child is, in the context of his education.

    • @RickMK
      I so agree w/that observation. Why question what grade a child is in if you already know his/her age? So glad as a Home Schooler I won’ t have to answer to anyone about grade systems. I’m fine and my child is fine w/his learning abilities no matter the grade.

  63. Mrs Lyons says:

    Wonderful article! My husband and I refer to how we educate as “outside of the box”. As our kids were growing up, often when we ran errands there was some variation of the question, “What grade are you in?” or “Why aren’t you in school?” Sometimes this has been uncomfortable. But for the most part our response of, “We are homeschoolers, and we don’t set grades,” is enough. My teenage son, who is 14, and very shy, never knows what to answer as he meets more public school kids. I suggested to him that he just answers that he does “some high school stuff” and is taking some college math classes in the fall. (He wanted a response that sounded aloof enough to keep the additional questions at bay.) That usually stops the questions, and the response back has been, “Cool.” (It’s hard enough being a shy 14 year old, 6 foot guy.) I just wish the society was more accepting of people who do not live in the box, and would instruct their children the same. But I understand that is unlikely to ever be the case.

  64. I agree with you completely, but I have found it difficult to live in a world that bases so much on what grade your child is in. Our church drives me crazy with it!! Sunday school classes are set by grade, and while I have my 5 1/2 year old registered as 1st grade b/c she did “Kindergarten” at 4 1/2, I never asked them to move her when she turned 5 to 1st grade Sunday school. The classes were by age up til age 5; then they started segregating them by “grades”. The SS teachers call them Kindergarteners and make a big deal about them being in Kindergarten. And in AWANA, they even make the kids sit in rows by GRADE!!!! I don’t want my children put into categories like that. I’ve heard some homeschool children saying things like “I’m in 4th grade doing 5th grade work but 4th grade math”, for example. It’s not clear cut when you homeschool, so why bother with trying to make the kids fit into institutional categories? But since most of the kids in this country attend institutional schools, that’s the way other people think. It’s frustrating.
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  65. This has been such a major issue for me as a homeschooler that I’ve applied to the non-homeschooled kids I know too. I do my best to never ask “what grade are you in” but only ask “how old are you?” And I try not to ask “how’s school”, but I ask about what sorts of things they like to do. We’ve gotten so hobbled in our communication with children, as we are so disconnected from them, that finding what ‘box’ they it in with schooling is about the only means we have of relating to them!

    The only times I find myself honestly asking ‘what grade are you in’ are when it’s an older teenager. In those cases, I’m wondering how close they are to graduating. It also matters because kids in grade 12 are often much more concerned with exams and university preparation and have less time and resources available for other activities. Asking their age is less helpful for this kind of conversation because some kids graduate at barely 17 and others are nearly 19. Often I already know their age too heh!!! At this age they’re often eager to talk about ‘the real world’ and what lies beyond after public school, so the ‘how much time they have left’ is more relevant than asking an 8yo if they’re in grade 3 or 4 this year…
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  66. Oh and my ‘pat’ answer for when we’re asked that question is usually “well he’s 13, so if he were in school, they’d put him in grade 8. But that’s one of the beauties of homeschooling… we just work at whatever level he’s at.” Which usually then elicits a response of “oh of course! That’s so wonderful to be able to do that, isn’t it?”
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  67. Well said! Goals for the year for each child are all the checklists that we need. :)
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  68. commenting on the second time this post was published…

    My kids always look at me a bit confused when someone asks them what grade they’re in. I try to remember to tell them but it means nothing to us so they forget easily. (as with all these things that mean nothing to a person)

    I prefer to ask other children how old they are, what they like to do, etc… to understand who they are. Not “What grade are you in?”. I understand that our society likes to box people but I don’t like to.
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  69. I had to laugh on this one. My husband and I had a mock disagreement about this very topic.

    Him: So the kids are in 6th, 4th, and 2nd this year?
    Me: Um, not really.
    Him: No, they are.
    Me. No, not really.
    Him: But they had to take those tests. (Standardized tests required by our state.)
    Me: So?

    I hate being boxed in when my kids are clearly all over the place in skill level and readiness. LOL I typically tell people that my kids are in an “ish” grade–as in 6thish or 4thish.
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  70. Mayra Rodriguez says:

    I love this post and it came when I neede the most. I was deciding between keeping my boys doing the same History curriculum of 3rd grade or keeping them separate with the curriculum of their ‘corresponding grade’. I think I am going to keep them together to study it as a family!

    Decisions, decisions, decisions that sometimes we take based on the opinions of others not based on our needs. Txs!
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  71. My oldest knows his grade that corresponds to the grade his government school peers are in. As for the actual grade level material we use……it doesn’t really matter. As long as they are learning new things and are engaged in the material I will use whatever works. There are definitely more important things to worry about in our children’s lives other than how the government would classify them based soley on their “date of manufacture”.

  72. I loved this so much ! I was just talking to someone yesterday about my sons schooling. They were asking me if I was starting K5–I told them we would be learning a lot this year, but that we weren’t calling it K5. As someone just starting out on homeschooling this is so encouraging!
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  73. We have close ties with our local school (I sub. teach there) so my boys know their grades. I just realized, though, that none of our work has grade levels on it. Also, my older finds schoolwork more challenging and my younger is whipping through…they may be doing ALL the same work by this time next year! Anyway, I try not to get too bent out of shape about it, since very few understand homeschooling anyway, and it’s not the only way that we are different than the rest of society, either!

  74. My daughter just looks blankly at people, even though I’ve prepped her with what to answer. Like you have described, she is at many grade levels, mostly a few above where she “should” be according to the school system.

  75. And an update one year later: doing pre-algebra with my 10-11 year old worked GREAT!! I am so glad that we did it that way rather than holding him back because he’s too “young” for pre-algebra!
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  76. I feel much better now about the fact none of my children knew what grade they were in when asked the other day :) Thank you
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  77. Grade levels are only what we make of them. If we’re more relaxed in our approach to say “my child is fifth grade” although we know he might be doing 2nd grade math or reading on a 9th grade level, it leaves less room for uncertainty in our conversations with people. We can then go on to explain if we think it would be beneficial to the conversation- otherwise, give people what they’re looking for- that simple answer. I try not to get too overwhelmed with those kinds of questions, but I’m also very comfortable answering either way. I’ve trained my kids to tell people the grade level they would most likely be placed in at school.
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  78. Oh I’m glad I’m not the only one who balks at the question of finding out where a child should be. One learns to smile lovingly and say, “That’s the beauty of homeschool…..”

    My daughter just had an 8th grade grad party. But truth-be-known, we don’t follow grade levels. This was more of a transitional celebration as we begin high school transcripts and such. But no, most of the time the children have no idea what grade they would be in if they were in school.

  79. Though I pay less attention to grade level even than most homeschoolers (since we unschool) we actually have an easy answer to the “grade” question: I teach my kids to tell which class they go to in Sunday school, since they stay with their agemates at church regardless of what sort of academic learning they do at home.
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  80. I used to tell everyone that the girls are in “Homeschool/ High School” because even tho they were middle school aged I was teaching them high school level courses.. mixed with a few college courses so that they were completely ready for college or technical college when they felt ready to go.

  81. My 7 year old was asked what grade he was in and he thought for a minute and then told the woman, very seriously, that he was in grade 7. She wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. He told me later that he had no idea what she was talking about and just gave her his age.

  82. Thanks for the reminder. I always get stuck on the grade level thing. My kids went through the same thing when asked what grade they are in. I finally just told them to say the grade they are registered for, that way there are no follow up questions from nosy parents. Most of the time the kids don’t think twice about it but I’ve had some parents get a little upity about my kids not knowing what grade they are in. haha Great post!

  83. I definitely agree about not containing our children in grade level learning … Holding them back because they are doing more advanced things than their grade level? No way! And I’ve struggled with the issues of “but other kids her age are doing this in school…what am I doing wrong?” thoughts….but am learning to relax more and more into the fact that they ARE learning and don’t need to fit into a box. However, I do need to know whether my children are, at the minimum, on course for their grade level because we are required to test every few years. In addition, they just like to be able to answer the “what grade are you in” question….and I’m OK with that.

  84. It seems like, perhaps, the UK has a better idea when they say “Year” instead of “Grade” so your child could say “I’m in Year Three” or “I’m a Third Year student” in this respect they are letting the person know how many years they have been formally schooled without attaching a grade level to it.
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  85. Great article. I homeschool my 3 younger boys. We do most of our subjects together as a group and this year our Science/History is at a 5/6th grade level. My youngest 8yrs (3rd???) is keeping right up there with his brothers on these subjects. He does use a 3rd grade cursive book, as he is just learning this skill. So I guess his is a 3rd/5th/6th grader.

  86. This is SO what I needed to read today! Thank you so much for this. This is our first year homeschooling, and neither of us (my son being the other person) have had any idea of how to respond to this question…and it seems like the only question people can think to ask.
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  87. Thanks for sharing this! I made my husband read it as we just starting homeschooling our 11 and 13 year olds. It helped him a lot!
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  88. Thanks for this! I made my husband read it as we just started homeschooling our 11 and 13 year olds and it helped him a lot.
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  89. We just had a similar discussion about this in our local hs group. One mom said when someone asks why her kids aren’t in school she sometimes fights the urge to say, “What! Why didn’t you tell me you had school today?” And then grab the kids and run out.

    Another mom said she and her kids scratch their heads and say they have lice :)

    God gave us our sense of humor. Might as well use it 😉

  90. I am homeschool 3 kids. This is actually my 8th year and I still struggle with the grade level thing. My oldest daughter is technically in 8th grade, but she has Aspergers and I just actually talked to her about not doing 9th grade work next year. We use My Father’s World and I made the decision not to put her in the more independent work which had lots of writing and so forth. I just know she would never keep up in the 9th grade level work. She’s still struggling so much with writing and we do Math U See for Math. She’s still in fractions when she *should be* in pre-algebra or higher. Yet, I know I’m doing what is best. I’m going at her pace, not pushing her at all. I had her in special ed at the public school and they just wanted to push her through in math so they didn’t have her master anything. So I had to go back and actually reteach multiplication and division to her before pushing her on to fractions/decimals/percents. It’s been frustrating to say the least, but I am keeping on this very slow path and if she doesn’t graduate at 18, that’s ok. My other daughter is 10 and she is actually doing the same math book as my oldest, so this sometimes is hard for my oldest to accept, but also good in that she tries to stay ahead in the lessons so she can “beat” her sister. They might even graduate at the same time the way they are going. I hope not. That will end badly, I think. My youngest child is an over achiever and when he gets something, he just flies right through it. I chose to skip half the K curriculum because it was way too boring and easy for him. Now we are flying through phonics in 1st grade and I might also have to skip him on to 2nd grade work before I’m finished with this. Again, its too easy. The one reason I like to know where my kids are at with grade levels is by law, I’m required to test them at the end of the year and see where they are at. It does get depressing when you get a piece of paper back stating your child is below percentile for their grade. By law, we are required to get help if that happens, which I’ve done, but we also have to take steps to remedy it once they are diagnosed, like with my daughter. I’ve had her out of therapy now for a year. I just don’t see paying a bunch of money to someone is going to help…so I’m taking a break with therapy for now. She’s actually doing better, but she still has major learning gaps. So I do take the time to gauge where she was, where she is now and see if she’s progressed. If not, maybe I need to think more about the next steps. It helps for me in planning how to proceed. I don’t care really otherwise about grades, but I think its a good thing to see where the gaps are and where you can fill them in better. The public school sure doesn’t do a good job of that, but as a homeschooling mom, I feel I can. Sorry for the long rant. Appreciated your views on this matter as I just found this blog today :)
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  91. I am a new homeschooler, and found your blog through a link on “Simple Homeschool” while I was looking over the Day in a Life series. I love, love, love this post and oh, how it resonates with me and my 7 and 9 year olds! Thank you!! I do look forward to visiting here again soon.
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  92. Christina says:

    Although, this article is several years old, it has made a tremendous difference in how I feel. It made me feel so much better about the direction I’m taking with my son’s curriculum.

    Due to his poor performance in his first year at a Common Core school, we’ve decided to homeschool him. He is 10 right now, has Asperger’s, Sensory Processing Disorder, and possibly dyslexia (if he would cooperate with the test). We moved last spring from Texas, a non-common core school, where he excelled in Math, Science, and Social Studies. He has always struggled with Reading and Writing. Well, this past year, with Common Core, he has tanked. Where he could easily do Math in his head, he struggled to do some of the simplest problems on paper due to the method that the school wanted him to do. They barely covered Science, which really deflated his drive. It was all about the convoluted math method and writing/composition.

    As I just spent the last four days of mind-numbing research on what curriculum would be best based on our budget and what he needs, I threw my hands up and said, “Forget it! I’m just going to put together a lesson plan and build a curriculum for him!” I used to teach, build lesson plans, and assist with writing courses for the military, I’m pretty sure I can do it for my son.

    So, he may be on 3rd grade reading, 8th grade science, and 5th grade math. Who cares! As long as he progresses, learns, and isn’t stressed by being in a classroom setting, it shouldn’t matter.

    TL:DR – Sorry for the long post. Thank you for your post it has been extremely helpful.

  93. Karl Bielefeldt says:

    A teacher was just suspended at my son’s former school due to cheating on a standardized test, which got me thinking about other ways these time boxes we call grades are harmful. There are no other industries that operate this way. Can you imagine taking your car to the mechanic, who works on it for a day, runs a test at the end of the day, then says, “Well, it still won’t run right, but my time is up. Don’t worry, we will try even harder on our next batch of customers tomorrow.” Working on a concept for as long as a child needs, and no longer, ought to be blindingly obvious.

  94. Great thoughts! When I was homeschooled (in high school) I would tell people I was a freshman, sophomore, etc, according to my age but we did nothing to keep up with “grade level”. Every person is different so why should they all accomplish the same things at the same age?
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  95. loved your article! so refreshing; I so needed the encouragement too since my family just grilled me about our children’s grades for the coming year.

  96. We have a daughter come lately who is 12 and two who are in their 20’s and graduated homeschool awhile back. Now I am experiencing dealing with younger moms because my daughter’s friend’s moms tend to be about 8-10 years younger than me. I’m going to share this article because they are young and inexperienced enough to fret about getting the right grade level curriclium or following the public schools schedule for what to teach when.
    It’s rather annoying especially when they look at me like I just stepped off a space ship from the planet Crazy because I suggest doing a unit study or two on a subject their child is interested in to see how they like that. I’d like to point at my two college students on the Dean’s list every semester and say ‘trust me on this’ but most of them won’t let go of the sacred grade level notion.
    Oh well, enjoyed the tips. And my kids usually looked at me when asked “What grade are you in?” Sometime I answered with a grade, sometimes I would say we haven’t really been keeping up with that. (Or grading papers, or testing, or rigid scheduling for that matter)
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  97. Our current plan is to transition our children into a private school after we moved back to the US, so I have been using the typical grades when talking about our homeschooling. However, my daughter was upset at the end of kindergarten to be going into 1st grade, because it wasn’t a ‘garden’ anymore. Soooo…we’ll be calling it First Garden this fall :)

  98. I’ve often wondered how to reply when people ask me what grade my grandkids are in – I’ve done the math in my head real quick and said, “if they were in public school they’d be in grade . . .” But this article sheds light on the bigger picture of what it means to allow a child to develop at their own pace in individual subjects and puts into perspective the pressure in a more structured school environment to have kids all perform on the same level in all subjects. Helpful for me as a grandparent of homeschooled grandkids. My response in the future will be different.

  99. chyteal jones says:

    I’m new at homeschooling my 5 and 8 year olds. I’m still fighting to come out of the grade level boxes. When I first began, I was intrigued by the fact that there was a possibility of my children going to college at a younger age than normal high schoolers would. I’m now stuck. How do I know if they reach middle school or high school level? My state requires that the kids do 180 hours every year…. In that case, is there a certain amount of hours they need to be considered a high schooler? See, I’m still in a box and can’t get pass if I’m giving them all the time they need to finish up or not in the end. Help (smile)!!!

  100. Thanks for this article. I agree that people get way too hung up on grade levels. I pulled my 10th-grade daughter out of public school in December, so we are sticking with that. When it comes to graduation requirements, however, that could change quickly. :)

  101. Thank you for this article! I was thinking today about how I don’t like grade levels. I was pondering my son who is 9, but is doing 2nd grade work. It was making me feel bad that he is so far behind. He is progressing and for him and his learning capabilities, he is where he should be for himself. I really do not like this grade level stuff for it puts ideas into my head and then I start feeling like a failure because my son is not at 4th grade level or above. I’m on a hunt to figure out how I can eliminate grade level work for him in the next school year (which for us starts in November this year). Are there any curriculum that just move up levels and not based on grade levels? Like Reading level A, B, C, D or Math level A1, A2, B1, B2, etc. I would love to just eliminate all grades and just move up the ladder in levels rather than focusing on grades. Thanks

    • AshleyMarie says:

      I don’t even use a specific curriculum for my children. One s far ahead, the other is three and I’m not sure if she will be ahead or behind. If they were to be behind, as long as they are progressing on their own level at their own pace, none of the rest matters! You keep doing what’s best for your family! Don’t let others put you down! <3

  102. Great article!

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