Ungraded Primary Performance in Kentucky

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This article examines the performance of multi-age classrooms in Kentucky.

As part of its 1990 education reform legislation known as KERA, Kentucky mandated a multi-age environment for the former grades of Kindergarten to grade three.

Initially, all elementary schools in Kentucky were expected to become fully multi-age for younger elementary school age children. However, following a great deal of resistance and difficulty in implementing the concept, a law was passed a decade later that essentially allowed local school personnel to decide how much multi-age grouping they would use.

As a result, by 2008, there was a considerable range of implementation of the multi-age program in Kentucky. There was also an extensive history in the state of attempts to implement this educational environment.

In 2008 the Kentucky Department of Education surveyed all the elementary school principals in Kentucky concerning the degree of implementation of the multi-age environment in their schools. This offered an opportunity to compare the degree to which Kentucky’s elementary schools adhere to the concept of multi-age grouping – known as "Ungraded Primary" in Kentucky – to those schools' combined average math and reading proficiency rates on Kentucky Core Content Tests (KCCT). Those KCCTs are used for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability.

How Ungraded Primary implementation was categorized in 2008

The various levels of compliance with Ungraded Primary in 2008 are categorized in an Excel spreadsheet as:

"Single Grade" - Students are not multi-age mixed

"Dual Graded (e.g., P3 and P4)" - Some multi-age mixing occurs, but not more than two age groups in a classroom

"Non-Graded Primary P1-P4" - Complete multi-age grouping of all students who would normally be in Kindergarten through third grade

"Non-Graded P2-P4 and graded P-1" - Students entering school (formerly Kindergarten) held separate from multi-age environment of what was formerly considered grades one to three.

Note: "P1" is nominally the former Kindergarten, "P2" is the former first grade,, "P3" is the former second grade and "P4" is the nominal third grade in the Ungraded Primary system in Kentucky.

Richard Innes, the education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, merged the Excel spreadsheet containing the Primary implementation information with another Excel document that contains each school’s 2008 proficiency rates from the KCCT. The math and reading proficiency rates for each school were averaged together, and then the spreadsheet was analyzed to see how the degree of Ungraded Primary implementation corresponded to each school’s performance on the KCCT reading and mathematics assessments.


The results of Innes’ analysis are summarized in this graph:

Primary Implementation Level Versus KCCT Scores.jpg

The first bar, "Single Grade Program" (shaded yellow) shows the combined average proficiency rate for reading and math was 71.64% in those schools which do not use any multi-age groupings.

The next bar, "Average for all Multi-Age Models," (shaded pink), shows that overall across all the various multi-age groupings, the averaged math and reading proficiency rate was somewhat lower at 70.70%.

Following bars show the combined average math and reading proficiency rates for several different classifications of multi-age environments. Only one of those environments, “Dual Graded (e.g. P3 and P4) Only,” where students are multi-age mixed only with two ages maximum, shows somewhat better performance than the totally non-multi-age "Single Grade Program.” That difference is only 0.57 percentage point, which probably isn't significantly different.


Based on the 2008 data, none of the various the multi-age environments currently used in Kentucky produce a notable advantage in academic performance over the traditional, graded structure. In fact, most of the implementations result in slightly lower performance. Therefore, the current rather lax enforcement of the requirement to implement multi-age environments in Kentucky is probably wise.


Only one year of data is examined. Also, the test score data is an average for all grades present in each school. Perhaps a better analysis would examine the scores for only the Primary Exiting students (Nominally Grade 3, known as “P4” in Kentucky). Such single-age group test data is not currently available in spreadsheet format.

Limits on future study

Unfortunately, the Kentucky Department of Education did not collect information on the degree of Ungraded Primary implementation for 2009 and later, so follow-on analysis is not possible. It would be beneficial for the department to collect that data again in the future.

More on how the data was collected and analyzed

A data file (PAPS_VW_PRIMARY_AGE_PROGRAM) requested from the Kentucky Department of Education shows the levels of adherence to the Ungraded Primary concept in 2008. The various levels of compliance are categorized under the column titled "STUDENT_AGE_GROUP."

The PAPS_VW_PRIMARY_AGE_PROGRAM file was merged with a file containing each school's 2008 performance on the KCCT. This second file (PRS09.xls) is available on line from the Kentucky Department of Education.

Schools were deleted during the merge if their school identification codes in the two files did not exactly match. That helped eliminate schools that had recently experienced significant changes in school composition due to such things as rezoning. Schools were also eliminated if they were missing score data for 2008.

Further information is available in the Excel spreadsheet Innes used to perform the analysis for this article. That spreadsheet is available here.

See Also