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Acceleration: Topical Research Series #1

Historically, acceleration has ignited strong reactions from educators and parents alike--sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but rarely neutral. Fueling the debate is a perceived family conflict between wanting students to achieve their full potential and concern that acceleration might lead to social and emotional maladjustment. The issue is complicated by the fact that many think of acceleration only as grade-skipping, when in fact there are many ways to advance a student academically without skipping grades. In addition, many educators in the gifted field see acceleration and enrichment as strategies that cannot co-exist, so they endorse one approach over the other, further polarizing attitudes about acceleration.

At Johns Hopkins, the Center for Talented Youth and the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth have long histories of conducting research on acceleration. Believing that students with advanced cognitive abilities and achievement need an academic curriculum where the pace and level of instruction have been adjusted to meet their needs, Johns Hopkins conducts annual talent searches utilizing above grade-level aptitude tests and offers advanced courses to qualifying students. Talent search students have also utilized a variety of ways to move more quickly through their school curricula. In order to meet the needs of the students served, Johns Hopkins' researchers have been evaluating the efficacy of accelerative options since the early 1970s. Their work has described the various forms of acceleration, studied the characteristics of students who have accelerated, evaluated the impact of acceleration on subsequent achievement, and explored the important issue of the social and emotional adjustment of accelerated students. Following are three articles that represent some of this work.

The study, Academically Talented Students' Achievement in a Flexibly Paced Mathematics Program by Mills, Ablard, and Gustin (1994), investigated the achievement gains of third through sixth-grade mathematically talented students who participated in a flexibly paced mathematics course. Pretesting demonstrated that many students exhibited advanced mathematical knowledge prior to starting the course, and their achievement gains during the one-year course far exceeded the normative gains expected during this period of time. Thus, the ability of talented students to move at a faster pace and learn material at a more advanced level than is typically taught in school was supported by this study, and follow-up testing showed a high level of retention of information learned.

The question of academic success following an accelerative experience is a continuing concern of critics. The study, Academically Talented Students' Preparation for Advanced-Level Coursework after an Individually-Paced Precalculus Class by Mills, Ablard, and Lynch (1992), focused on the achievement of seventh- through tenth-grade academically talented students who participated in a three-week summer precalculus course. Having advanced considerably in mathematics in the individualized, flexibly-paced course, participants were placed in the next level course when they returned to school. The majority of students surveyed reported that they received an A in the school course. Their accelerated summer course had left them feeling well prepared to continue at a level that was more advanced than their agemates.

These studies evaluated acceleration in one subject, mathematics. Some students, however, need to advance in more than one area, and this may lead to skipping grades. Whether the grade skips occur in the early grades or later, students who skip grades are likely to be ready to enter college at a younger than typical age. The paper, Young College Students: Assessing Factors That Contribute to Success by Brody and Stanley (1991), explores the issues around early college entrance, providing strong research support for the effectiveness of this practice for selected students, but also offering a variety of alternatives for acceleration and enrichment that do not place students in a full-time college setting at a young age.

These articles are a small sample of the research that has been done at Hopkins, and the results have answered the question "Is acceleration harmful?" with a resounding "no." Studies of groups of students who were accelerated in subject matter and/or grade placement strongly support acceleration as an effective and important vehicle for advancing the academic knowledge and motivation of talented students. Academic achievement among accelerants is high without concomitant social and emotional problems.

At the same time, the researchers point to individual students who should not have accelerated for various reasons or who accelerated too radically. So the question to ask is: "When is acceleration most appropriate and what type is best for a particular student?" These decisions should be made for individual students only after a careful assessment of their cognitive strengths, achievement, and social and emotional maturity.

Complete references and abstracts are available.

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