Public schools are tasked with educating a large number of students from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and with a variety of maturity levels. It is an enormous task, and with the hard work of many competent teachers and administrators they are generally successful. However, successful does not mean optimal.
Logically, an elementary education should represent the attainment a certain level of knowledge, and age should be irrelevant. People can reasonably disagree on what exactly constitutes an elementary level of education, but whatever level it is deemed to be, when a person demonstrates the requisite knowledge and ability then that person should be able to move on to the next level of education. If an eight year old child can demonstrate completion of an elementary level of education, then that child should be moved to the next level. If a twelve year old can demonstrate completion of whatever is deemed to be a secondary education, then that child should be given a high school diploma and be permitted to begin college. I am aware that a child who fails a grade can be held back, but I’m not aware of any process in the public school system in Virginia by which a child who attains a grade level two or three years above her own will be automatically moved to a higher level. If there is such a formal process, had my daughters been made aware of that then it might have made a difference in their enthusiasm for studying. I have heard of occasional students skipping grades, but not of any formal process by which an ambitious child might aspire to higher levels, nor have I heard of any regular test which is used to determine grade level, either in a specific subject or in a group of subjects. If there were such a testing process then I feel certain that one or both of my daughters would have made the effort on her own initiative to try and excel on that test.
Some people might argue that keeping kids grouped by age is more advantageous, but if you have a child who is learning on a level above her current level, then that child’s mental peer group might consist of older children, and keeping her with children in her (or his) own age group might actually be to that child’s disadvantage. Conversely, a child’s mental peer group might consist mainly of children younger than her. If children were grouped purely by educational attainment, they would be more likely to be with their mental peers.
In order for a system to teach by educational attainment rather than by grade, it would first be necessary to explicitly state what knowledge constitutes an elementary education, and what knowledge constitutes a secondary education. Once this was done, then devising a test to determine how far children had advanced towards achieving that goal would be the next step. When the child can pass the test, then the child should receive the elementary or secondary diploma. With this type of process, children would know exactly what the ultimate goal was, and would know that there was a tangible reward for hard work.
In my opinion, the ultimate goals of an elementary or secondary education should be kept in mind at all times, but they are lost in the current focus on intermediate levels.