Assessment in Multiage Classrooms


Two philosophical beliefs provide foundation to how assessment should be carried out and utilized in multiage educational programs.

  • Assessment is a part of a fully integrated whole to the school program.
  • Assessment best supports students when it is used to inform instruction rather than to simply evaluate students.

Multiage educators believe that students follow their own individual pace of learning IMG_5298and that each student’s pace is not always constant.  Children can at times learn quickly while at other times they will learn more slowly, similar to the physical growth spurts that occur during a student’s childhood.  This varied pace can also fluctuate between subject areas as well as with passions for various subjects or areas of learning.  While a student may be rapidly progressing in an area such as math during the first part of a school year, they may equally as likely show a relatively stagnate pace in reading comprehension during that same period of time, only to reverse this during a latter part of the year or during a subsequent year.  This is one of the reasons many progressive schools use a multiage structure* throughout their program, it more easily supports students as they go through these natural fluctuations in learning pace and passions.  Multiage educators further believe that the best way to support children, to best meet the students’ needs as they each follow their own academic growth spurts, is for assessment to be student- small group- and class-specific.  To do this schools must treat teachers as professionals and rely on them create and use meaningful assessment strategies and materials – all guided by comprehensive curriculum maps, benchmarks, and of course the students themselves.

Multiage educators also understand that the healthy progress of children is stronger when learning is based on success, as opposed to emphasizing shortcomings as in a deficiency model.  The later points out what is “wrong” while the former builds strength and a positive image that better supports overall forward progress.  This doesn’t mean that multiage educators don’t look at challenges and what the next academic hurtle will be, it just means that learning is celebrated as forward progress rather than over focussing on what is missing.  This is what communication with individual students is based on in a multiage program, assessment that celebrates personal progress and the next learning steps to be taken along their academic continuum.

When multiage teachers share with parents and guardians the individual progress of their children, they communicate that assessment is based on the criteria of the assignments given and the individual student’s own personal progress for each area.  This is often reflected through the shorthand of grades on progress reports which are augmented through conversation during parent/teacher conferences as well as during individual conversations throughout each school year.  Realizing that this doesn’t always meet the concerns of parents in regards to their child’s standing in relation to their age peers, multiage educators often include two or more age- or grade-specific measurements used specifically to inform parents of academic standing relative to standardized age norms; reading level and mathematics benchmarks are often the most appropriate. Each student’s reading level can be based on reliable metrics such as the Woods and Moe Analytical Reading Inventory or the leveled assessment materials from Fountas and Pinnell (  To inform parents of mathematical progress, achievement can be communicated via math benchmarks.  These benchmarks are standardized through foundational resources such as Washington State Mathematics Learning Standards or other state standards, and The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).  Both of these age-specific measurements should be communicated strictly to parents and guardians, not to the students themselves.

Preschool progress in a multiage program should be based on the same overall philosophy, but the manner of assessment should be more appropriately focussed on observational strategies as well as personal, social, and physical skill development.

Unfortunately the large standardized tests that are common in the U.S. compare students against standards created for specific ages. They are not supportive of multiage educational programs. These tests tend to be evaluative, high stakes in nature, are designed to be age-specific, are typically administered yearly, and the results often don’t get back to the teacher in time for instruction to be modified for individual students. In the long run they tend to inadvertently cause educators to “teach to the test,” just the opposite of teaching children based on their individual learning needs or style.

Assessment needs to support the partnership of students, teachers, and parents as they find ways to best support the growth of each child.

* An elementary multiage classroom purposefully combines students of multiple ages together, ensuring a range of ability and achievement that reflects a natural community, as opposed to the more contrived single-grade structure found at many schools.

My Teaching Philosophy



I have been a teacher of children ages 7 to 12 years old in both public and independent elementary learning environments.  I have taught both single-grade and multiage classes.  Two principles have always been at the heart of all that I have done as a teacher. First, is my believe that education should be student-centered and second, that fostering an enjoyment of learning is probably the most important thing educators can do with their students.

Learning and not teaching has been the focus in my classrooms. This simple statement is filled with implications. If teaching is the focus of a classroom, then control over student academic, social, and behavioral actions becomes the job of the teacher. Management of the details of individual students, of the classroom, of academic progress and pace, and even of recess behavior becomes the primary concern. An information delivery model in which knowledge is passed from the textbook company or state department of education through the teacher to the student would be the major route for knowledge acquisition in a teacher-centered classroom. This type of classroom supports a “culture of silence” as Paulo Freire has observed, a programming of conformity if looked at on a societal scale. It is also, as I see it, a Behaviorist way of managing instruction in which management of learning is reliant on forces external to the child, including reinforcement and an emphasis on consequences administered by the teacher.

In contrast, a learning focused classroom, as I see it, puts the primary emphasis on the process of learning and the use of knowledge. The teacher’s job is then one of helping students acquire learning skills and the practicing of those skills in ways that are useful and meaningful to the student. The teacher does not act as some sort of all-important filter of information determining all of what each student needs to know, but rather becomes more of a guide, setting up learning and practice situations and showing or modeling new ways of acquiring and using information. For instance, in my classrooms I have used many ideas from Gestalt Psychology when helping my students in math. My instruction has been based on a problem-solving model in which I guided my students to find a variety of solutions to various problems, then set up experiences for them to transfer their new skills to similar but different situations. I also used Vygotsky’s concepts of the zone of proximal development, scaffolding, and social interaction in my classrooms. By using peer tutoring and modeling thoughtfully along with my own support of the individual student, children frequently showed tremendous cognitive growth. Thus I believe that the learning environment is not limited to the classroom and to what the teacher can always control but rather is made up of the tools of learning, including social interaction.

In looking at how I came to believe such a classroom is most conducive to student learning, it is important to first visit some of my past classrooms.

In the first 3 years of my teaching career I was learning how to survive each day. My task was to get through the curriculum while still keeping school as enjoyable for the students as possible. Thus I concentrated on orchestrating a classroom full of students, keeping them “on task,” rewarding good academic and social behavior with material and nonmaterial rewards, and including negative consequences for “poor student choices.” Overall students and their parents responded well to this. Part of this orchestration was to present instruction in a variety of teacher-determined ways, including the occasional learning project. I created many “systems” in the classroom for everything from independent reading to small group management. Although I did this with input from students (I’ve been known as a very democratic teacher), I still put an emphasis on my being in control of each and every situation. I believe that nearly every conflict or negative situation could be traced to my overemphasis on teacher control, on being the giver of consequences.

In the 1993-1994 school year I was fortunate enough to get a group of students that would push me and teach me about what they needed and wanted for their education. The student labels ranged from “severely gifted” to “How do you deal with him every day?” As the months passed I found it increasingly harder to always be in control of the students. Projects would work well, whether individual or group, but anything that had even a smattering of more traditional whole group instruction would be met by resistance and/or conflict. Students would even divide themselves into factions, those who sided with the teacher, those who wouldn’t, and a few who would articulate a third or fourth stance. A number of students could not focus on instruction long enough to be able to successfully complete many or most individual learning tasks. For these students I would regularly give them individual instruction immediately after I had given whole class instruction, helping them get successfully started on the practice task. Others would be finished with the practice task at about the same time I completed the whole class instruction. They “got it” right away and began working early even when they were told not to (waiting didn’t make sense to them, and they would usually complete the task with a high degree of accuracy). For some of the students, a great number of the “learning tasks” were just busy work, they already knew how to “do it” successfully. As you can probably tell from this brief description, I was teaching most often to the middle ground (and sometimes to the lower middle). This seemed to work best for me, as most students seemed to stay “on task.” But I had to ask myself, “Am I really meeting the needs of all my students?”

After having survived that year, I reflected quite a bit on my beliefs about teaching and learning. I came to realize that children are complex and that they need to have some control over what and when they learn, that they are, and need to be, an active participant in the learning process. It finally occurred to me that I had been keeping the focus of my classroom on myself, it was a teacher-centered environment and that in order for students to really learn and to enjoy school, I had to refocus on the children, to make my classroom a child-centered one.

At about this time I discovered the ideas surrounding multiage educational practices. For me the two mixed quite well. My needs to change the underlying beliefs and structure of my classroom were a near perfect match with the beliefs and structure of multiage educational environments.

In addition to “student-centeredness,” I also believe that school should be enjoyable. I realize that not all learning tasks are going to be viewed as fun for all students, but that if school in general is considered fun, then learning is fun and the motivation to learn more is enhanced. I believe that engendering a love of learning is probably one of the most important things I can help elementary age children achieve. With that, every other learning task comes relatively easily to a student. As John Dewey stated in Democracy and Education, “Study of mental life has made evident the fundamental worth of native tendencies to explore, to manipulate tools and materials, to construct, to give expression to joyous emotion, etc. When exercises which are promoted by these instincts are a part of the regular school program, the whole pupil is engaged, the artificial gap between life in school and out is reduced, motives are afforded for attention to a large variety of materials and processes distinctly educative in effect play and work correspond, point for point, with the traits of the initial stage of knowing” (p. 195)

As a result of my classroom being both student-centered and a place where learning is enjoyable, the educational opportunities I gave my students were varied. Learners and the learning process are very complex. I believe that there is no one formula for teaching that fits all situations or all students. For this reason I believe that a variety of approaches thoughtfully geared to both the content to be learned and individual students is the best way to structure a learning program. This matches Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory, there are many different ways knowledge can be gained and learning can be assessed. Hands on learning activities will work well with many students and with a number of content areas. Research projects jig-sawed among the class members facilitate learning best for some students and some subject areas. A discovery approach in which the tools for a learning task are given to the students, a simple question is asked, and the procedure is left up to the students to discover works well in other situations and with some students. Again, variety of learning opportunities allows for the most number of children to both enjoy learning and, if choice is incorporated into the activity, to give children some control over their education.

I believe that structuring classroom management to allow for a wide diversity of children and for shared student control of the classroom environment is at least equally important as academic goals. The degree to which a classroom is student-centered or teacher-centered shows up in its management structure. During parts of each day I had students take over various management tasks. Students managed the opening portion of each day (attendance, reading the schedule, discussing the weather forecast). Students also ran a discussion/transition time in which we discussed the various books we were reading. These are things in which I could monitor but that didn’t need to be done by the teacher. Students in my classrooms also had the privilege of choosing their seat. It was not uncommon for a child to be seated at four or more different places in the classroom during the day. They were given the responsibility to choose a place where they could best learn and where they were most comfortable. What a difference from when I assigned seats and decided whom would sit where based on my needs and my perception of each student’s needs. By giving students some control over their school lives, I supported a belief within the students that they, and not some external force, have control of their behavior and their learning. Also that through their own effort they can achieve success. This matches the idea from Attribution Theory that learning is acquired through constructive effort.

As you can see, the two principals of student-centeredness and enjoyment of the learning process underlied all aspects of my classrooms and are two cornerstones of my philosophy of teaching.

Appendix – Multiage Education

The term “developmentally appropriate” is used a lot by multiage educators. The idea, from the work by Piaget, that certain educational practices are appropriate for children of certain age spans but not for those of different age spans, allows the educator to design lessons that match the individual child. This becomes important in a classroom of children of diverse ages. The interesting thing about Piaget’s developmental levels and multiage education is how the idea is used to determine the age spans appropriate to be placed in a single classroom, and how multiage teachers use the diversity to help children transfer from one cognitive level to another. Multiage programs are most often considered “primary” or “intermediate,” roughly matching Piaget’s Concrete Operational Level, divided in two. This recognizes that some children transition from one level to another at different times and that there is a substantial qualitative difference between cognition at the Preoperational Level and the Formal Operational Level, the levels bordering the Concrete Operational Level. The transition from one developmental level to another is supported through peer interaction and modeling and takes into account the four factors that allow movement from stage to stage, maturation, experience, social interaction, and equilibration. The heavy use of peer modeling by multiage educators is supported by Albert Bandura’s Social-Cognitive Learning Theory. By using these “live models,” the students in a multiage classroom learn vicariously through the success of the model. In this way instruction is enhanced and learning is engendered through more than simple reliance on the teacher as model.

The following is from a brochure I produced that explained to parents what underlying beliefs I have and some of the general methods I used in the classroom.


A multiage educational program is a union of an organizational structure and unique combinations of teaching and learning strategies. The way learning occurs is made possible by the multiple age structure.

Why Multiage?

  • Allows for flexibility in the grouping of children according to need, ability, or interest; not just by age.
  • Problems associated with a yearly transition from one grade to another can be overcome. The teacher has a nucleus of children; trained in the details of the class organization who keep it going while newcomers absorb it.
  • As the student-teacher-parent relationship develops over a longer period of time, students will receive greater support for their success in school.
  • A more natural learning situation is established. Children work at their own pace. Their program is not geared to the work of a single year but can be adjusted over two or more years.
  • Benefits come to the older children from the quality of leadership and responsibility they develop.
  • Younger children are stimulated intellectually by older children.
  • Children have a broader social experience with increased opportunities to lead and to follow, to collaborate and to make stable peer relationships.

It is my goal to use instructional strategies that:

  • Expand the teacher’s role to include that of a facilitator as well as a source of knowledge.
  • Produce cooperation.
  • Allow students to learn from each other through peer tutoring.
  • Give students responsibility and independence in both learning and behavior.
  • Build understanding of action-consequence relationship.
  • Provide choice to students in different areas of learning that will reflect learning-style differences.
  • Allow continuous learning through the use of learning centers, group instruction, projects, and individual pacing.
  • Involve parents in classroom activities.
  • Encourage student responsibility and ownership of the learning environment.
  • Teach goal setting from an early age.
  • Build leadership skills in all students.


Note: The information on this page has developed over a number of years beginning as I was defining a shift in my own teaching practices during the spring of 1995. I have revised it many times since, its latest revision was to meet the needs of this blog.


Ballantyne, Paul F. (2006). Piaget’s Stage Theory (online) Available:

Dewey, John (1966). Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press.

Freire, Paulo (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Ginn Wanda Y. (1995). JEAN PIAGET – INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENT (online) Available:

Gredler, Margaret (1997). Learning and Instruction: Theory Into Practice. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Kearsley, Greg (2013). Social Development Theory (L. Vygotsky) (online) Available:




Research Supporting Multiage Educational Practices

Following are a number of links to research and online articles that support multiage educational practices.  Although some of these were published a while ago, they are still relevant in this age of STEM and high stakes testing.

Developmental Stages and Multiage Education

multiage, multi-age, developmentally appropriate

An experienced student helping a younger buddy read a book.

Follow the link below to my podcast titled Developmental Stages and Multiage Education.


The following is an enhanced transcript to my podcast on developmental stages.

Developmental Stages

It was once believed that children were simply new people that only lacked the knowledge of adults in order to be mature and wise. If this were really true, education would simply be the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next. Now we understand that people think and reason differently during different stages of their lives. The way a child of three thinks is qualitatively different than the way a child of fifteen does. Further, as has been stated by Piaget, the stages that people pass through are followed in a sequential order, with none of the stages being skipped or followed in a different order (Ginn, 1995). Children from birth through eleven or more years of age go through four cognitive stages. Basically these stages show that the way children learn and make sense of the world changes from concrete manipulation to abstract manipulation of objects and information as they move through these stages.

Teachers strive to have all of their students be academically successful throughout their school years and beyond. This most often manifests itself through educators determining what it means to be a successful student and then trying to find ways to help diverse sets of students reach those expectations. Embedded within those expectations and driving many of the strategies employed by teachers is a knowledge of the cognitive stages of development as outlined above. However, when looked at from the students’ perspective, there is a different agenda of tasks that must be accomplished in order for the student to feel successful at different stages of their development. A study reported by James E. Gay, Robert B. Williams, and Joan B. Flagg-Williams found the following examples of developmental tasks.

1. Examples of developmental tasks of a girl in kindergarten included:

  • Being accepted by adults.
  • Dressing in ways pleasing to adults.
  • Being accepted by a significant adult (e.g., teacher) outside of the home.
  • Seeing herself as a contributing member of the class – helping other kids.
  • Developing reading and writing skills.
  • Speaking before the class.
  • Developing relationships with peers/classmates.
  • Developing socially acceptable ways of expressing her emotions rather than crying.
  • Self-evaluation skills in relation to academics.

2. A second-grade boy’s developmental tasks were identified as:

  • A desire to feel loved.
  • Intending to improve his skills.
  • Needing to have successful and rewarding school experiences.
  • Developing appropriate coping mechanisms.
  • Relating to and obtaining nurture from significant adults (e.g., teacher).
  • Being able to tell people when he is hurting.
  • Developing a relationship with his parents.

3. Some developmental tasks a sixth-grade girl was thought to be working on included:

  • Academic survival -avoiding failure.
  • Getting caught up in school work.
  • Seeking positive attention.
  • Attempting to please teachers.
  • Gaining acceptance of peers.

4. An adolescent male’s developmental tasks were identified as:

  • Establishing a personal and unique identity.
  • Planning for his future education and work.
  • Developing work habits.
  • Collaborating with peers to establish a living arrangement away from his family.

(Gay, Williams, and Flagg-Williams, 1997)

When looked at together, these developmental tasks and the cognitive developmental stages discussed earlier can provide educators with a picture of child development as students pass through the school years. Although, as implied above, there are some general age spans that can be determined for each developmental stage, students often move through these stages at different rates. For instance, “…because gifted children often begin understanding and using concepts at an earlier age, they are said to be more adept at understanding and using abstraction” while they also seem to move more rapidly within and frequently between stages (Dalzell, 1998).

Developmentally Appropriate Educational Practices

What does this mean to educators? How can an understanding of cognitive developmental stages and developmental tasks help educators plan and implement a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate, one that helps insure student success and promotes life-long learning?

First of all a commitment to a child-centered (or student-centered) educational program is important. A child-centered program is one in which educators first strive to meet student needs. The antithesis of this would be a curriculum-centered approach which places the mastering of predetermined curriculum goals over that of meeting student needs (Stone, 1996). In order for a child to be successful, they need to meet the needs of their own developmental tasks. As they do this they will be grounded and ready to be engaged by a developmentally appropriate academic curriculum.

Because people think qualitatively different at different stages of their development, learning activities need to match the way each child successfully gains understanding and makes connections. In order for students to be actively engaged with their learning, the educator should assess their cognitive levels and determine their strengths and weaknesses. From this information the teacher should then individualize instruction as much as possible. Those students in the earliest developmental stages will need to manipulate real objects in ways that help them learn patterns and see connections. Students in later stages will need the chance to abstractly manipulate information and be given “…opportunities to communicate with one another, to argue and debate issues…to make mistakes and learn from them” (Ginn, 1995).

Although this looks as if the best educational structure would be to group students by developmental level, it is not. The work of Lev S. Vygotsky shows that there are other factors that need to be considered by educators when structuring classrooms and planning for instruction. A student’s “…actual developmental level refers to all the functions and activities that a child can perform on his own, independently without the help of anyone else. On the other hand, the zone of proximal development includes all the functions and activities that a child or a learner can perform only with the assistance of someone else. The person who intervenes in this scaffolding process could be an adult (parent, teacher, caretaker, language instructor) or another peer who has already mastered that particular function” (Guerra and Schütz, 2000). It is in this zone of proximal development, while social interaction is happening, that substantiative learning occurs. One way to effectively take advantage of this is to structure classrooms heterogeneously, to insure a diversity of skills and abilities. Since the boundary between any two developmental levels is not absolute and since a child can simultaneously exhibit traits from two different developmental levels, a heterogeneous mix of students will likely include children with developmental traits from two or more levels. When studying factors that make up exemplary programs for limited English proficient (LEP) students, researchers found that “…(m)ost sites emphasize cooperative learning in untracked classes, in which students with different proficiency levels work together in groups. The exemplary schools demonstrate the power of cooperative learning as a tool to unleash students’ ability to learn from one another. Some schools use practical strategies for keeping students with the same teacher(s) for several years. These students develop a sense of identity with their group; moreover the teachers are more easily able to coach them through their development as learners. Instead of placing students who lag behind in remedial classes, some schools assume that all students can learn to high levels and use an accelerated learning environment to get students on track quickly” (Berman, Minicucci, McLaughlin, Nelson, and Woodworth, 1995). These practices that work so well for students learning a new language also work well with students in any learning endeavor.

Just as structure looks different for developmentally appropriate practices, so do classroom lessons. The following list of learning activities are examples illustrating appropriate strategies for students at various developmental levels.

Primary – Teddy Bear Picnic

Primary aged students need to manipulate real world objects in order to learn. This mathematics lesson has kindergarten aged students physically grouping their own teddy bears based on attributes that they come up with (Pugh, 1997).

Intermediate – Seed Dispersal

This science lesson has elementary aged children create and test model seeds, comparing them to those found in nature. Children at this age need to make connections between the real and the abstract by observing and manipulating both. The way this learning activity requires students to look closely at real plant seeds and at the same time create mental abstractions that they turn into models, lends itself well to this developmental level (Kelly, 1997).

Secondary – Collaborative Poetry!

Secondary students generally can learn abstractly and are working on establishing their unique identity. This language arts learning activity, in which students collaboratively write poetry, lends itself to the developmental needs of this age group (Faulkner, 1997).

Other developmentally appropriate practices can be found in structures defined as multiage, nongraded, differentiated, and student-centered or child-centered. Whatever the label, educators striving to include developmentally appropriate practices as a part of their curriculum decisions should consider the following guidelines from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

A. Developmentally appropriate curriculum provides for all areas of a child’s development: physical, emotional, social, linguistic, aesthetic, and cognitive.

B. Curriculum includes a broad range of content across disciplines that is socially relevant, intellectually engaging, and personally meaningful to children.

C. Curriculum builds upon what children already know and are able to do (activating prior knowledge) to consolidate their learning and to foster their acquisition of new concepts and skills.

D. Effective curriculum plans frequently integrate across traditional subject-matter divisions to help children make meaningful connections and provide opportunities for rich conceptual development; focusing on one subject is also a valid strategy at times.

E. Curriculum promotes the development of knowledge and understanding, processes and skills, as well as the dispositions to use and apply skills and to go on learning.

F. Curriculum content has intellectual integrity, reflecting the key concepts and tools of inquiry of recognized disciplines in ways that are accessible and achievable for young children, ages 3 through 8 (e.g., Bredekamp & Rosegrant 1992, 1995). Children directly participate in study of the disciplines, for instance, by conducting scientific experiments, writing, performing, solving mathematical problems, collecting and analyzing data, collecting oral history, and performing other roles of experts in the disciplines.

G. Curriculum provides opportunities to support children’s home culture and language while also developing all children’s abilities to participate in the shared culture of the program and the community.

H. Curriculum goals are realistic and attainable for most children in the designated age range for which they are designed.

I. When used, technology is physically and philosophically integrated in the classroom curriculum and teaching.

(National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1997)

Helping all students be successful during their school years by engaging them in a developmentally appropriate and student-centered program can insure their success as life-long leaners after they graduate. When a person views them self as a learner, understands that learning is a key to attaining their goals, and finds learning enjoyable, then they will seek out learning opportunities throughout their life. Developmentally appropriate practices in school can provide a foundation to support this.

Standards, High Stakes Testing, and Developmentally Appropriate Practices

All of this may lead one to wonder at the current trend in the United States to enact school reform through standards and accountability methods. This trend encourages a curriculum-centered rather than a child-centered approach to education. Current methods based on standards are the result of a three-pronged government approach to school reform. First are the creation of standards. These standards in many states have become the foundation to grade specific frameworks, detailed lists describing what academic skills a child should master at any particular age. Rarely do these frameworks allow for the reality of students who are differently-paced than the age level norm. The second part of the approach is to measure academic progress with standardized testing. These tests are either criterion referenced in which student scores are compared relative to a set standard deemed adequate for success, or they are norm referenced in which student scores are compared with other same-aged students who took the test. Although standardized testing may allow for success of the average developmental level of the students who are being tested, they do not necessarily allow for success of students whose developmental pace is different. The third part of this reform movement has to do with accountability. Consequences are created, both positive and negative, based on student test scores. It is this aspect that changes standardized tests from a tool that can inform instruction to high-stakes tests that can move schools away from child-centered approaches and towards curriculum-centered ones. “Increasingly … early childhood experts say, that (the solution to increasing a school’s scores) becomes that school’s need to downplay exploration, hands-on learning, and flexible curriculum to drill students in specific, structured academic content…’We’re comfortable with the idea that kids walk and talk at different ages, but we’re not comfortable with that happening with reading, writing, and arithmetic,’ says Gronlund. ‘It’s accountability that’s the crux of the problem, not standards'” (Harrington-Lueker, 2000).