Mandating Access to Acceleration: Illinois’ Story

Carolyn E. Welch
Joshua Dwyer 

Academic acceleration is among the best researched and most impactful interventions for high-ability students. It is also a low-cost way to better align curriculum with individual ability levels. Despite the well-established effectiveness and low cost of acceleration, most states lack policies supporting acceleration in schools. As a result, students do not have uniform access to appropriately challenging learning opportunities, fostering inequity and exacerbating excellence gaps throughout the country.

The good news is that passing an acceleration law is achievable in any state. Illinois is a great example of this. Prior to passing the Accelerated Placement Act (Public Act 100-0421) in 2017, Illinois had no mandate for identifying and serving gifted students, no funding for gifted programs, no state policy on acceleration, no data collection or reporting related to gifted students, and no accountability for advanced students.

Given that Illinois was near the bottom of all states in terms of policies supporting advanced students, how did the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project get the Accelerated Placement Act passed?

#1: Collect data on the availability of gifted programming and acceleration.

The lack of data on the availability of gifted programs and acceleration opportunities in Illinois school districts presented the first challenge to defining the problem and articulating the need for an acceleration policy. The Untapped Potential Project began the process by submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to all school districts in order to collect the necessary data.

#2: Produce a research report that defines the problem and identifies the solution.

We then analyzed and compiled this data in the form of a research report – Accelerate Illinois. The report detailed the dire situation for high-ability students in Illinois and the need for a uniform acceleration policy.

#3: Leverage the media to disseminate key messaging.

Acceleration advocates came together and agreed that the following talking points would be used to argue for the passage of the Accelerated Placement Act:

  • Since the elimination of state funding for gifted programs in Illinois in 2003, the number of elementary and middle school districts providing gifted programming has dropped from over 80% in 2003 to 27% as of 2016.
  • Illinois schools with high percentages of low-income students are far less likely to provide gifted programming, and black, Hispanic, and low-income students are underrepresented within the relatively small number of existing gifted programs in Illinois (Fordham, 2018).
  • Most Illinois districts also do not have policies permitting early entrance, subject acceleration, or grade skipping (Accelerate Illinois).
  • 100 years of research demonstrates the positive effects of acceleration on bright learners (Hu, Makel, & Olszewski-Kubilius, 2016).
  • Passing a law requiring districts to implement policies allowing acceleration is a cost-effective way to ensure that high-ability students throughout the state have equitable access to appropriately challenging learning environments.

We shared these talking points through a variety of media channels, including newspaper articles and blogposts.

#4: Find a legislative champion and secure bipartisan support in the education committees.

Bipartisan support, led by Senate Chief Sponsor Lightford (D), Sen. Weaver (R), Sen. Koehler (D), and Sen. McConchie (R) and House Chief Sponsor Rep. Lilly (D), Rep. Pritchard (R), Rep. Fortner (R), and Rep. Wallace (D), was key to the success of this legislation. 

#5: Mobilize a diverse grass roots effort.

We organized individuals from different stakeholder groups – including parents, educators, and administrators – to demonstrated broad public support for the acceleration law. They testified before the Senate Education Committee, shared their stories at several State Board of Education meetings, filed witness slips in support of the legislation at critical junctures, and so on. We also consistently leveraged other opportunities, such as the ESSA stakeholder engagement process, to educate and build support for the law among education powerholders.

#6: Know when to compromise and when to stand firm in negotiations.

The final law was different than the version we filed in the beginning. It is important to have open, responsive and quick lines of communication with any opposition groups, as well as an understanding of which aspects of the law you are willing to modify versus where you will stand your ground. By working through points of contention before the bill went to the floor, we were able to prevent large scale opposition at the time of the vote.

#7: Be ready to follow up with support for implementation.

IAGC created an Illinois Model Acceleration Policy, based on the work of NAGC and best practices in other states with acceleration laws, and aligned it with the Illinois Accelerated Placement Act. We also submitted comprehensive recommendations for rulemaking and guidance to the State Board of Education, developed professional development on acceleration for school districts, and provided support and guidance to families.


These efforts by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, the Untapped Potential Project, and advocates for advanced learners throughout the state culminated in the passing of the Accelerated Placement Act (Public Act 100-0421) in 2017, which requires all school districts to establish policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and 1st grade, whole grade acceleration, and individual subject acceleration. The law went into effect in July 2018 and has already greatly expanded opportunities for advanced students during this 2018-19 school year.

Consider seizing this low-hanging fruit and working to pass an acceleration law in your state!

Carolyn E. Welch, J.D., is CEO of the Midwest Center for the Gifted, which produces research and promotes policies supporting underserved high-ability students. She is also a member of the NAGC Legislative & Advocacy Committee and former Policy & Advocacy Co-Chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. 

Joshua Dwyer is the Policy Director for the Midwest Center for the Gifted. In his last position, as the Policy & Government Affairs Director for Empower Illinois/One Chance Illinois Action, he wrote and advocated for four policies that became law, including two that positively impacted underserved gifted students.

The views expressed herein represent the opinion of the authors and are not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.