Homeschool Grade Level – It’s Mostly Your Choice

It continues to be the conventional wisdom in homeschooling circles in New York State that if a parent who is just starting homeschooling wants to, for example, “hold a child back” one grade level (in terms of the local public school age cutoffs of the moment), s/he should just go ahead without thinking twice about it – “because you can always skip him/her ahead later, if you want to.”

It’s true that under the New York State Regulations on Home Instruction, grade level is mostly the parent’s choice. One exception that has always existed is that whoever processes your homeschool paperwork locally always has the option of reporting you to child protective services for suspected “educational neglect”, though this is unlikely unless it’s an extreme case. (As an example, we’ll give you the wild hypothetical of a 14-year-old who has no preexisting grade level because s/he has just moved here from a state with no required homeschool paperwork, and whose parents then declare him/her a first-grader, despite a lack of evidence of “diagnosed special needs”, just so that they can get out of testing annually.) 

But, hypothetical and extreme cases aside, there are three reasons we feel the need to write a blog post (actually, a series of blog posts) about grade level.

First, there are certain circumstances in which parents statewide have occasionally hit a snag on grade level over the years, and we think it’s good to be aware of them before you decide on the grade level.

Second, in the summer of 2012 we became aware of a change in New York City Department of Education computer access levels that seems to have made it more difficult than in the past for the NYC Central Office of Home Schooling (that is, homeschooling), which processes the paperwork for all homeschooled kids in NYC, to adjust the grade level in the computer.

And third, “mandatory kindergarten” (it isn’t really mandatory – see “The NYC Mandatory Kindergarten Mess”, 08/12/2013) in NYC (and in Rochester) for 2013-14 has now thrown even more new wrinkles into the mix.

Here’s some background info on grade level issues.

For years, some NYC parents filing homeschool paperwork for the first time at an age when their children would have been in first grade if they were in public school have chosen to identify the grade level as kindergarten rather than first grade.

One reason for choosing to do this is that the individual child is a “late bloomer” who hasn’t yet bloomed. Another is that the parent has an educational philosophy that more generally allows for a later development of “basic skills” than certain conventional schools try to impose. And sometimes the parent’s later plans for the child include enrollment in a school (whether public or private, in NYC or outside of it), that has a different cutoff date for kindergarten or first grade than the NYC public schools have.  

We’d now like to jump into the practical side of how all this plays out by pasting in a recent email exchange between a homeschool parent (Katie) and PAHSI’s director, Elsa Haas.

In August (2013), Katie wrote (in reply to a question about something slightly different):

Hi Elsa!

I don’t think this is what you’re looking for, but in case it’s helpful, I have a letter of compliance for a kindergarten IHIP [Individualized Home Instruction Plan] […] I sent in for my son. However, he will turn 6 in [the fall], so this is the year we have to file, according to the regs [the NYS Regulations on Home Instruction, which have been in effect since 1988]. I put him in as K [instead of first grade, which would be the usual grade level if he were in a NYC public school] because I feel that’s the right level for him. [Someone from the NYC Central Office of Homeschooling] did contact me to confirm that this was what I wanted to do, but was very nice about it and said it was no problem.

Katie

———–

Hi Katie,

Things like this are always helpful to know – thanks! Did he call to you to ask you about the grade level, or email you?

In the past we had heard from parents who had put their “first-grade-aged” kids in “homeschool kindergarten”, and who said that someone had called [from the NYC Central Office of Homeschooling] to ask, “Are you sure you don’t want him/her in a more age-appropriate grade?” The parent would then say, “I’m sure”, and it was fine.

Then for quite a while we weren’t hearing any reports of this, but we didn’t know whether it was because nobody thought it was worth reporting to us anymore, or because it had stopped (maybe due to a lack of staff time).

Can you remember any other details of the conversation (or email exchange)? When did it take place, roughly? Did you use their form for the IHIP?

His pleasant demeanor might indicate that this will continue to be just a check to see that the lower grade level isn’t a mere mistake (for example, parents who use a Word document or something for their IHIPs sometimes forget to update that part) that would then have to be corrected later on in the computer systems (this correction is difficult because the Homeschool Office no longer has the level of computer access necessary to do it themselves), and/or an opportunity to point out in a low-pressure way, to those parents who haven’t thought of them, some of the potential long-term disadvantages of “holding their kids back” (like how old they will be in comparison to their “classmates” years down the road if they continue to advance one grade per year, especially if they then want to enter school at some major turning point like the beginning of high school).

If this is how the parents of 6-year-olds [and almost-6-year-olds] are being treated this year, that bodes well for those parents of [current] 5-year-olds [and almost-5-year-olds] who might choose to have their kids “repeat homeschool kindergarten” next year, or for those parents of [current] 5-year-olds [and almost-5-year-olds] who don’t file homeschool paperwork this year and then want to have them “start homeschooling” as kindergarteners [rather than first-graders] next year.

We’ve been wondering about those scenarios because the changes in law and in Chancellor’s Regulations [for 2013-14] were aimed in part at reducing “red-shirting” by public school parents. The wording of the Chancellor’s Regulations now exempts from kindergarten attendance [and from homeschool paperwork] those kids whose parents “elect instead to enroll them in first grade the following academic year”, which almost makes it sound like, if you don’t file kindergarten homeschool paperwork this year, they might argue next year that you have to start homeschooling at first grade (we don’t think they could prevail on that, but we need to think about these things in advance).

Anyway, musing away here. Very helpful – please write back with any more details you might have.

[…]

Elsa

Katie replied:

He called [rather than emailing] to ask about the grade level. He said he just wanted to confirm that we wanted to register as Kindergarten since the public school would [have] place[d] my son in first. He added that it could cause a problem if we apply to public school middle school programs or high school programs when my son is eligible by age, because the grade level in the system won’t match his age.

I said we follow a Waldorf style education and if he goes into school later, it will likely be a Waldorf one. And that Waldorf considers him to be K for this year so I would like this to match. [NAME DELETED] said, “Okay, great, just wanted to check.”

I actually know the date of the conversation because I was traveling that day-the morning of [DATE DELETED]. I sent in my LOI [letter of intent to homeschool] the week before.

I got a packet of info, identical to [my older child’s] packet […] when I returned from my trip. I used a very simple ihip form that nearly matches theirs but is on the computer and hence easier than handwriting. I sent that in shortly thereafter, and received the compliance letter in late July.

Happy to help! […]

Katie

It may be worth mentioning that the Waldorf-style education that Katie mentions in her second email is what PAHSI used extensively as an example in our 02/28/2013 blog post titled “What Kindergarten Is – Part 1” (as of this writing, we haven’t posted a Part 2).

The Office of Homeschooling is, thank goodness, familiar with the idea that the NYC public school system has no monopoly on educational philosophy or approach.

It sounds from Katie’s description that when the person who called her said, according to her, that “it could cause a problem if we apply to public school middle school programs or high school programs when my son is eligible by age, because the grade level in the system won’t match his age”, he meant not that her child would be judged unfavorably by the school for being “old for his grade level”, but that if she wanted him to apply at the usual age for that grade level, she might be told that he wasn’t yet eligible to apply and would have to wait a year. (We admit, though, that it’s hard to know for sure, second-hand, what was meant.)

We don’t object if the Office of Homeschooling wants to warn homeschool parents of the possible long-term pitfalls of a grade level that isn’t “age-appropriate” according to the cutoffs observed by the NYC public schools. We even think that calling a parent about this (assuming that the parent has chosen to provide a phone number) is an example of the “guidance counseling” that this Office has sometimes been known for, and that many parents appreciate.

Other things we’d like parents (even the parents of very young children) to think about include: driving age, romantic relationships, bullying, the age at which their kids could take the PSAT in order to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship (it’s supposed to be taken in eleventh grade for that purpose), College Now eligibility, summer programs, talent search programs, and the fact that certain Social Security benefits based on a parent’s death, retirement, or disability may depend in part on full-time high school status (whether in a public or private high school or as a homeschooler). That’s not an exhaustive list. For more things to think about (mainly in terms of why not to skip your kid ahead through the grades too blithely), you might want to go to our previous blog post, “That Letter on Teens Aging Out” (06/02/2013), and have a look at the last set of bulleted points, which begins: “Car insurance discounts for good students”.

You might want to consider all of this in the context of, “What happens if my kid does end up in a NYC public school for some reason, even though that’s not my plan right now?”

Because (as we mentioned above) adjusting a grade level in the computer isn’t necessarily as quick and easy as it used to be, at least in NYC (more about that in a future blog post), and because in some situations it’s the computer that rules despite what your paperwork says, you may need to plan ahead more than veteran homeschoolers are likely to advise.

It’s worth noting that the NYC public school system has one of the latest cutoff dates for kindergarten entrance in the country, so its students in all grades tend to be on the young side. A September cutoff date is far more common.  

To compare nationwide kindergarten cutoff dates, see the bar graph under “Summary”, or the table below that, in the March 2013 pdf document titled “Kindergarten Policy Characteristics” (updated by Emily Workman) at www.ecs.org, the website for the Education Commission of the States. This is the direct link (as of this writing, the lower age limit for compulsory schooling in NYS is still given as “6”, with no further explanation):

http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/06/80/10680.pdf

It’s worth commenting that the obsession of most conventional schools with age-based grade levels is called into question, at least in terms of academic ability (not physical size or social maturity) by studies like the one described in an (apparently undated) article, “How Many Ability Levels Can One Teacher Juggle?: The Case for Differentiated Differentiation” (which appeared in Digest of Gifted Research, published by the Duke University Talent Identification Program or “Duke TIP”).

According to the article (which admittedly leaves out certain important information, like the sample size):

[…] The study measured the number of words students could read in a minute (commonly referred to as oral reading fluency). For example, some fourth grade students read as few as 17 words per minute while others read as many as 221 words per minute—a factor of 13! For context, this is like an Olympic sprinter running the 100 meter dash (usually under 10 seconds) against a person who takes over two minutes. The authors also show that the reading range in fourth grade classrooms represents a reading comprehension grade level equivalent ranging from 1.3 (first grade, third month) to 12.6 (twelfth grade, sixth month), or over 11 grade levels! […]

The study described in this quote doesn’t seem to be easily available online, but is referenced as “Reading Comprehension and Fluency Ranges Across Diverse Classrooms: The Need for Differentiated Reading Instruction and Content” (Firmender/Reis/Sweeny, 2012, Gifted Child Quarterly, 57, 3-14).

If you want to see the article we took the quote from, you can go to this link: 

http://www.tip.duke.edu/node/1486  

New York City, despite all the talk of doing away with “social promotion”, is in reality quite age-bound – just like most conventional schools.    

To better understand the bigger picture that homeschoolers got caught up in, see this New York Times “Motherlode” blog post by Sarah Gonser, titled “Kindergarten ‘Redshirting’ Gets Tougher in N.Y.C., With Repercussions”:

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/kindergarten-redshirting-gets-tougher-in-n-y-c-with-repercussions/?_r=1  

Finally! A mainstream article (well, blog post) that almost (not explicitly) states that kindergarten in NYC isn’t really mandatory!

Incidentally, if you’re among the parents who have decided not to file kindergarten homeschool paperwork for 2013-14, but who want to follow our suggestion of posting something just inside your door/s in case of an ACS visit (see, again, our blog post titled “The NYC Mandatory Kindergarten Mess”, 08/12/2013), then the above NY Times blog post is one possibility. (You’d highlight the phrase “such children are not required to attend kindergarten if: (a) their parents elect instead to enroll them in first grade the following academic year […].”)    

But in the blog post you’re reading now (and to get back to what we started out with when we titled it) we’d like to explain why homeschool grade level is mostly your choice.

The basic explanation is this: grade level is established by means of an IHIP, it’s the parent who writes the IHIP, and there is no provision in the NYS Regulations on Home Instruction for rejecting an IHIP based on a disagreement over grade level.

Following is a more detailed explanation.

The Regulations themselves don’t directly address who gets to choose the grade level for an IHIP, but Section “d” (“Contents of IHIP”) indicates that it’s the parent – because grade level is listed there as one of the things that should be included in an IHIP (and it’s the parent who writes the IHIP).

But that doesn’t mean the district (or “megadistrict”, in the case of NYC) can’t object to that choice.

On the other hand, the district/megadistrict can’t legitimately object to the grade level on the IHIP by sending the parent a letter of non-compliance (or “giving the parents written notice of any deficiency in the IHIP”, as Section c-3 of the Regs puts it) because item 36 in the New York State Education Department (NYSED) document “Questions and Answers on Home Instruction” says this:

When the IHIP is submitted by the parents, does the school district have the responsibility to make a subjective judgment of the substantial equivalency of the home instruction program?

No. The purpose of these regulations is to provide a basis for objective determinations of substantial equivalence. IHIP submissions are to be evaluated to determine compliance with subdivisions (d) and (e) of Section 100.10. Quarterly reports are to be evaluated to determine compliance with subdivision (g). Annual assessments must comply with the requirements of subdivision (h). A home instruction program that adheres to the standards of the regulations at each stage of the process should be deemed to be substantially equivalent.  

In other words, you’re supposed to include in the IHIP all the information required by the Regs – and as long as you include it, the district isn’t supposed to reject your IHIP just because it doesn’t like the information you provided.

In the same way, if your choice for the IHIP is to list a “curriculum”, the district isn’t supposed to declare your IHIP deficient because it thinks the curriculum is outdated (or “too religious”, or whatever). And if your choice is to provide a “plan of instruction”, it isn’t supposed to declare it deficient because it thinks the plan (for example, unschooling) is ill-advised – because if you think that your plan will enable your child to demonstrate “adequate academic progress” according to the Regulations when the time comes to do so, you have the right to try it.

The bit in the NYSED’s “Q. and A.” that directly addresses the “kindergarten vs. first grade IHIP” issue (for a “first-grade-aged child”) is item 39, which reads:

Must the IHIP for a six-year-old indicate that the instruction is on the first grade level?

No. As with any age, instruction should be geared to the level appropriate to the student’s needs and previous level of achievement.

When a parent meets resistance on grade level based on the idea that homeschool grade level should be consistent (by age) with public school grade level, veteran homeschoolers often point to item 22 in the NYSED’s “Q. and A”, which reads:

How should school officials deal with the grade placement of a student who has been instructed at home and subsequently enters the public school?

As with any other transfer, the principal of the school determines the appropriate grade placement of the student.  

In other words, you could argue that grade level is always up to the parent during homeschooling and always up to the new principal after homeschooling, and that it’s never the job of the NYC Central Office of Homeschooling (or its counterpart locally) to “uphold public school standards” or to enforce public school age cutoffs.

But, as we alluded to at the beginning of this post, and as we’ll try to cover in a future blog post/s that include/s examples of real-life conflicts over grade level, in some cases this simple theory trips up with the messy (and/or computer-driven) reality. Please stay tuned.