The Importance of Giving Students Grade-Level Work

Education is a journey, and every student is at a different point along that path. When I first started teaching, I remember being cautioned against using the textbooks I was provided. I was also told I needed to close gaps in my student's learning by meeting them where they were and giving them work below grade level. However, one of the fundamental principles of effective education is the importance of giving students grade-level work. This approach has garnered much attention and debate in recent years. Still, research and educational experts consistently support the idea that students benefit immensely from being challenged with age-appropriate content.
So why was I cautioned against using the textbooks provided?  Two decades ago the textbooks that sat on our shelves were often not high-quality and didn't cover all of the standards we needed to teach. High-quality instructional materials are a critical component of effective education, and the call for their adoption in Texas classrooms is well-founded.  But what makes instructional materials high-quality and why does it matter?

TEKS Alignment

"While many students do have barriers to overcome to succeed in school, some of the biggest barriers are created by decisions very much within our control: whether students get the opportunity to work on grade-appropriate assignments" - The Opportunity Myth (TNTP, 2018, p. 54).
A national study examined student classroom work to see if it was on grade level and found
Region 7 ESC, Blog, Liz Pendarvis, National Grade Level Study Graphic, 17%, HQIM, RBIS, Acceleration, Remediation
The Texas Education Agency reproduced the study methodology with elementary reading teachers in 27 Texas school systems and found
Region 7 ESC, Blog, Liz Pendarvis, TEA Grade Level Study Graphic, 19%, HQIM, RBIS, Acceleration, Remediation
All students can be successful with access to strong instruction and resources, and current research shows that providing students with grade-level assignments and the necessary supports for mastery produces positive learning outcomes.

Acceleration vs. Remediation

Every classroom has students at varying levels of skills and abilities. While we have to meet students where they are, we know that students will only get to where they need to be once they are exposed to on-grade-level instruction and tasks.
The most common approach used when students need to catch up is remediation or assigning work better suited for earlier grades. However, an alternative approach has started to gain traction. Learning acceleration starts with grade-appropriate content and strategically builds in scaffolding only when students might need it to master the grade-level work. Some call this "just-in-time teaching" or "just-in-time interventions." This method ensures students are spending more time on work appropriate to their grade level, which is ultimately the key to catching up.
A 2021 study found that students who were given grade-level assignments struggled less and learned more than students who started at the same level but experienced remediation instead.
Region 7 ESC, Liz Pendarvis, Blog, Effectiveness of Learning Acceleration vs. Remediation, HQIM, RBIS, Acceleration, Remediation
According to the 2022 TEKS Certification Survey through the Texas Education Agency, it was discovered that 10% of Local Education Agencies (LEAs) reported a lack of instructional materials that comprehensively cover all of the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). In addition, 25% of the market share of elementary reading/language arts instructional materials were from products NOT approved by the State Board of Education and NOT aligned with the science of teaching reading. These products inadequately cover phonics and are designed so that struggling students rarely read grade-level texts. 

Content-Specific Research-Based Instruction Strategies

In addition to ensuring full coverage of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), high-quality instructional materials should align with evidence-based best practices in the relevant content area.
As part of a broader strategy to significantly increase the number of students in Texas who have access to High-Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM), the Texas Education Agency developed a set of Research-Based Instructional Strategies (RBIS) to articulate the key instructional shifts that are necessary to bring rigorous instruction to life for students. This set of research-based practices highlights common misconceptions in the field. RBIS are topics that require conceptual or philosophical changes in approaches to instruction and include a set of practices that are supported by research and should be present in classrooms, regardless of instructional materials. RBIS takes into consideration the science of how students best learn math and reading in K-12 and also demonstrates why HQIM is important and what is required to implement HQIM well.
Reading and Language Arts RBIS
Region 7 ESC, Liz Pendarvis, Blog, Reading and Language Arts RBIS, HQIM, RBIS, Acceleration, Remediation
Region 7 ESC, Liz Pendarvis, Blog, Math RBIS, HQIM, RBIS, Acceleration, Remediation

What should we ask ourselves about the assignments and tasks we present to students?

For reading and language arts, we need to ask: Does the instruction and tasks 
  • align to grade-level TEKS?
  • provide intentional practice with foundational literacy skills (as appropriate)?
  • require the use of high-quality, complex text(s)?
  • allow students to engage inrigous tasks requiring text evidence to deepen their understanding of complex text(s)?
  • allow students to own and further develop their thinking?
  • build knowledge and vocabulary?
For math, we need to ask: Does the instruction and tasks
  • align to grade-level standards?
  • provide opportunities for students to demonstrate depth of understanding aligned to the TEKS?
  • allow students to engage in conceptual understanding and/or procedural skills as required by the TEKS?
  • allow students to engage in productive problem-solving?
  • connect concepts along a strategic learning progression so that new understandings are built on previous foundations?
If we want our students to perform on grade level in math and reading, we have to allow them to engage with on-grade-level tasks that align with research-based practices and ensure appropriate rigor. When students are given age-appropriate challenges, it encourages them to think critically and problem-solve, thus advancing their cognitive abilities.
If you would like more information regarding evaluating your school's current state of student access to high-quality and grade-appropriate assignments and/or instruction, please contact The Center for Academic Review at [email protected].
Region 7 ESC - Liz Pendarvis - Director of Academic Review Dr. Liz Pendarvis is Director of The Center for Academic Review, which evaluates student access to high-quality and grade-appropriate material and instruction across the state. Since coming to the Region 7 Education Service Center, her work has focused on school improvement, data management, and state-wide initiatives. She is a former district and campus administrator and taught math in Region 7 area schools. A recent empty-nester, she enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband and their dog.
TNTP. (2018). The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix It.
Texas Education Agency. TEKS Certification Survey (2022).
(May 2021). Accelerate, Don't Remediate. TNTP.