Often when students are placed in a composite or multi-age class, parents of the younger children worry they won't be able to keep up. Parents of the older children worry their advanced needs won't be met.
However, before deciding whether mixed-grade classes are "good" or "bad" for your child, first we have to establish what it is you want out of school – is it the best academic achievement, a focus on social-emotional development, a strong friendship group?
The different types of mixed classes
In most schools, students are placed in a single-grade class (as in "Grade 2" or "Year 2"), based on their age. Existing alongside this type of class are different types of mixed-grade class, sometimes formed by choice and sometimes by necessity.
"Multi-age" and "composite" are only two types of mixed-grade class, though in common parlance the terms are used to describe all types of mixed-grade classes. Other types include "multi-grade", "stage", and "nongraded". All have two or more grades in the one class but they all vary in significant ways.
In small rural schools, permanent multi-grade classes are a necessity because of the low number of students. In larger urban schools, temporary composite classes are formed on an annual basis to cope with the problem of uneven grade enrolments — when all the Year 3 and Year 4 classes are filled and there are still, say, 12 students in Year 3 and 14 students in Year 4, then these 26 students are combined into a Year 3/4 class. The following year a different composite class might have to be formed, again by necessity.
Some teachers believe in the educational benefits of learning with and from others of different ages and prefer to teach a multi-age class of two or more (commonly three) different grades, such as a Year 4/5/6 class. They form multi-age classes by choice. With syllabi in NSW written for stages (usually two years) rather than single years or grades, then a school may decide to form stage classes.
Should children be grouped by age anyway?
Putting students into classes based on their age is an administrative convenience. As all parents and teachers know, a child's age tells you nothing definitive about his or her development — a boy can be much taller than other boys his age and be a better match physically to boys one or more years older.
This boy can be a "star" when he plays sport in an age-based team. The same boy, however, might have similar literacy skills to others his age but struggle to keep up in maths. His twin sister might be smaller than girls her age but outshine them in all subjects (or none) at school.
Children's development follows a similar pattern but their age is not always an accurate predictor of their actual development. Inherited characteristics as well as environmental factors such as nutrition and experiences will influence development and the age at which particular milestones are reached.
Does a mixed-grade class affect academic achievement?
Arguments about which type of class grouping is better have always raged and probably will continue to rage. Researchers, unfortunately, have been no better than the general public in terms of their use of terminology. It is therefore difficult to be precise about what research actually does show about achievement in different types of mixed-grade class.
Most of the research has been carried out in classes in primary school. Various studies and meta-analyses combining the results of studies have consistently shown positive results for multi-age and especially nongraded classes, both of which are formed by choice and have a strong focus on individual learning needs and learning with both older and younger classmates.
In multi-grade classes, formed by necessity, results are not quite as positive but are not negative either. A seminal article in 1995 described all mixed-grade classes as "simply no worse, and simply no better" than single-grade classes. In other words, students in mixed-grade classes are not disadvantaged academically.
In composite classes, there has been some dispute about this conclusion. Because these classes are usually temporary and usually exist alongside single-grade classes, they are frequently seen as inferior and "not the norm".
Principals regularly report negative reactions from parents when their child is placed in a composite class. As a result, teachers and students are often "hand picked" for these classes in order to make them more acceptable to parents. Students are selected on the basis of ability but more importantly on the basis of not having behaviour issues and of being able to work independently.
This "selection bias" can skew results. Some American researchers claim the negative effect on achievement from being in such a class is counter-balanced by the fact that these kids are usually highly capable, leading to a zero-sum effect.
Some research has cautioned if the mixed-grade and other single-grade classes are in the same school, and if there is selection bias of students for the mixed-grade class, then the achievement outcomes in the (advantaged) composite class are being compared with those in the (disadvantaged) single-grade class.
A study of students in Grades 2 and 3 in California in 2008 showed much poorer results on standardised tests for students in composite classes. Studies in New Zealand, on the other hand, found minimal differences in results for children in composite classes where no selection bias was involved in formation of the class.
Being a younger student in any type of class has been found to be more influential than the type of class. And while parents are generally more concerned when their child is in the older part of a mixed-age class, recent research has shown that older students benefit from "apprenticing" younger students.
Schooling isn't just about test scores
Schooling and education are not just about academic achievement. When "social-emotional" factors are considered, the evidence for mixed-grade classes is positive. Results over a large number of studies are still not statistically significant or unarguably conclusive, but they are more strongly positive than for academic achievement.
Caution needs to be exercised, however, because "social insecurity" can arise when there are very small numbers in a student's own grade and thus reduced choices for same-age friendships. Being a younger student in any type of class has been found to be more influential with regard to social behaviour than the type of class.
In order to draw any firm conclusion about achievement or social-emotional development in a mixed-grade class it is therefore necessary to know the particular type of mixed-grade class, how it is formed, and most importantly, what goes on inside the classroom.
It is not the class structure that affects learning so much as the type of learning activity engaged in, its relevance, its interest, a student's learning to date, and many other factors including the student's active involvement in the learning and the quality of the teaching.
Learning with others in genuinely collaborative groups is effective and can be organised in any type of class, but mixed-grade teachers have more opportunities to group students flexibly, in different ways at different times.
Sometimes an ability group, with students from different grades, will be the correct choice. At other times, an ability group would be the wrong choice, because students need to benefit from different perspectives and such perspectives may not have any link to ability.
Parents concerned about their child's mixed-grade class should be reassured that learning occurs individually, in small groups, and as a whole class. Engaged students will learn whether the class is structured by age, grade, ability, or as some form of mixed-grade class.
This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent source of analysis, commentary and news from the university and research sector.
Written by Linley Cornish, Associate Professor, Chair of Teaching and Learning at University of New England