The 1960s and 1970s were a time of high interest in nongraded schooling. The educational press carried a number of articles on the topic, and many research studies were conducted. John Goodlad and Robert Anderson's revision of The Nongraded Elementary School (1963) provided the rationale for schools attempting nongraded programs.
That book was revised again in 1987, marking a new period of interest in nongraded schooling. Kentucky and Oregon now mandate nongraded/continuous-progress primary units as vehicles for school improvement, and other state departments of education and school districts are considering the implementation of nongraded programs. This renewed attention presents an opportune time to review research that has compared the effectiveness of graded and nongraded schools.
A nongraded school does not use grade-level designations for students or classes. Progress is reported in terms of tasks completed and the manner of learning, not by grades or rating systems. A team of teachers generally works with a team of students who are regrouped frequently according to the particular task or activity and student needs or interests. Many times these are multiage heterogeneous groups pursuing complex problem-solving activities in interdisciplinary thematic units.
Students are active participants in their learning and in the collection of documentation to be used for assessment and evaluation. The continuous progress of pupils is reflected in students' growth of knowledge, skills, and understanding, not movement through a predetermined sequence of curriculum levels.
We considered studies published after 1967 for this review because it seemed most likely those researchers would have had access to a sufficient knowledge base on nongraded education. Nine descriptors were used to search for the studies: nongraded, nongradedness, nongrading, continuous progress, multiunit, individually guided education, multiage, ungraded, and mixed age.
To be included in this review, students in graded and nongraded schools with similar populations had to be compared using standardized test measures, or nongraded students had to be tested before and after the implementation of a nongraded program. We accepted for analysis elementary school studies conducted in the United States and Canada for at least one academic year. The studies included all subject areas and had to cover more than one classroom.
Sixty-four research studies published between January 1968 and December 1990 met these criteria. A number of the studies had been conducted in individually guided education (IGE) programs or in open space buildings, or they were referred to as team teaching. This review of nongraded education was narrowed to three specific topics: academic achievement, mental health indicators, and achievement for a variety of at-risk populations.1
Standardized academic achievement tests were used in 57 of the studies. Of those studies, 52 (91 percent) indicated that for all comparisons, the nongraded groups performed better (58 percent) or as well as (33 percent) the graded groups on measures of academic achievement. In only 9 percent of the studies did the nongraded students do worse than the graded students.
It seems rather remarkable that pupils in nongraded schools scored so well. Nongraded schools respond to individual differences by adjusting curriculum and thus may not cover what traditional textbooks do. As such, nongraded students may not be exposed to all the material that graded students cover. Yet nongraded students overwhelmingly performed as well as or better than graded students on achievement tests emphasizing mastery of content that is generally not the primary focus of the nongraded school.
We included a mental health component in 42 of the studies. These measures presented data on school anxiety and other attitudes toward school, self-esteem, and self-concept. While the results on school anxiety were unclear, pupils in nongraded schools had more positive attitudes than those in graded schools, although they were likely to laugh more and less likely to raise their hands to get permission to speak. Students in nongraded schools scored higher than graded students on the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory, except in one study with no significant differences. The same pattern was noted in studies that used the Piers Harris Children's Self-Concept Scale.
Overall on mental health and school attitudes, 52 percent of the studies indicated nongraded schools were better for students. Forty-three percent found that nongraded and graded schools had a similar influence on students. Only 5 percent found nongraded worse than graded schools. Students in nongraded schools were more likely to have positive self-concepts, high self-esteem, and good attitudes toward school than students in graded schools.
While most of the research studies reported data from one year, 17 presented data over a number of years. In those studies, students completing nongraded primary programs had higher academic achievement than those in graded schools. More pupils attending nongraded primary schools started 4th grade with their entering class than did children from traditional grade-designated classrooms. This happens because there is no retention in a primary program. Students in nongraded intermediate programs had higher or similar academic achievement, more positive attitudes toward school, and similar self-esteem than those in graded programs.
Seven studies compared students who had spent their entire elementary school years in the same nongraded school with those who spent the same years in a traditional school. All those studies that reported academic achievement found superior performance by nongraded students. On mental health measures, students from nongraded settings felt more positive or the same as graded students. After five years in one nongraded, open-space program, significantly fewer nongraded students were referred for discipline in junior high school.
In 18 of the research reports, we analyzed, data were analyzed for various populations: black students; underachievers; students of low socioeconomic status; and boys, who seem to experience more difficulty in the early years of learning and are often considered at risk.
With the exception of one study, boys in nongraded schools scored better on achievement tests than boys in graded schools. While boys in nongraded schools generally had better attitudes toward self and school, one of five mental health measures in a Canadian study indicated boys in nongraded settings had a poorer attitude toward school than graded boys.
Except for one study in which the multigrade students received only individualized instruction, blacks in nongraded schools had higher academic achievement than those in graded schools. In all comparative studies with data on black students, those in nongraded schools had better self-concepts and more positive attitudes toward school, teachers, and learning than those in graded schools.
Underachievers in nongraded schools had better self-concepts, attitudes toward school, and academic achievement than underachievers in graded schools. Students of lower socioeconomic status also showed greater academic achievement when placed in nongraded schools.
Only five studies of schools with individually guided education used an instrument to assess the implementation of nongraded practices. In those studies that looked at a wide variation in implementation, students in schools with high implementation of nongradedness had higher academic achievement, more positive attitudes toward school, and better self-concepts than those in schools with low implementation.
A 1971 study used responses to a teacher questionnaire to develop a nongraded index. Academic achievement was significantly higher in the school that showed the most characteristics of nongraded education than in the least nongraded school. In a 1973 study, program descriptions for six schools were assessed on a nongraded scale. Students in a strong nongraded program had more positive attitudes toward school and better self-concepts. The results showed higher academic achievement for both average and below average learners.
Guarino (1982) documented teaching practices using a modified version of an observational instrument developed by Pavan (1973) in order to locate two schools, one clearly nongraded and one clearly graded. Using students matched for age, sex, and IQ, he found that students in the nongraded school had higher academic achievement, lower anxiety, and higher self-concepts than those in the graded school. Of all of the studies that looked at implementation, this one provides the best evidence in support of nongradedness.
Research on Nongraded Programs
- Research studies comparing nongraded and graded schools provide a consistent pattern favoring nongradedness.
- The nongraded groups performed better (58 percent) or as well as (33 percent) the graded groups on measures of academic achievement.
- On mental health and school attitudes, 52 percent of the studies indicated nongraded schools as better for students, 43 percent similar. Only 5 percent showed nongraded as worse than graded schools.
- The benefits to students of nongradedness increase as students have longer nongraded experiences.
- Blacks, boys, low socioeconomic level students, and underachievers benefit from a nongraded program.
The 64 research studies cited in this review clearly support the use of nongraded/continuous-progress programs. Students in nongraded settings do as well as or better than students in traditional self-contained classes in terms of both academic achievement and mental health. We find these results despite the fact that the instruments used were standardized in traditionally structured schools. Given this strong evidence, parents and educators can be assured that students will flourish in a nongraded school.
Anderson, R. H., and B. N. Pavan. (In press). Nongradedness: Helping It to Happen. Lancaster, Pa.: Technomic Press.
Goodlad, J. I., and R. H. Anderson. (1987). The Nongraded Elementary School. New York: Teachers College Press. Revised editions in 1959 and 1963 published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.
Guarino, A. R. (1982). “An Investigation of Achievement, Self-Concept, and School Related Anxiety in Graded and Nongraded Elementary Schools.” Doctoral diss., Rutgers University.
Pavan, B. N. (February 1973). “Nongradedness? One View.” Educational Leadership 30, 5: 401–403.
Pavan, B. N. (March 1973). “Good News; Research on the Nongraded Elementary School.” Elementary School Journal 73: 233–42.
Pavan, B. N. (1977). “The Nongraded Elementary School: Research on Academic Achievement and Mental Health.” Texas Tech Journal of Education 4: 91–107.
All references for this review and a comprehensive table giving details of each study are available in Anderson and Pavan (In press).
Barbara Nelson Pavan is Professor of Educational Administration, Temple University, 244 Ritter Hall, 003-00, Philadelphia, PA 19122.