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Could This Be Everything You Wanted to Know About Tracking But Were Afraid to Ask?

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I recently received the following email from a parent regarding the tracking (or ability grouping) of students:

"When my son entered kindergarten (he's now in 6th grade), I noticed that they very quickly separated kids into groups based on 3 achievement levels (low, middle, high). This ability grouping continues through elementary school and I see they do it still in middle school. Theoretically, in our school you're not necessarily 'stuck' in a group but my observation tells me otherwise. This has always bothered me because I'm present at the schools regularly, sometimes daily through volunteering, and I can see that the 'low' groups are primarily if not completely African American and seemingly very detached, unengaged and often with behavioral and class management issues. I also looked at test scores from the last several years and found our achievement gap to be astounding (I think one year in 4th grade science there was an 81 point difference between whites and African Americans). Notably, the same teacher teaches all three groups for that grade level. I'm afraid this grouping practice is prevalent in our schools. I haven't read all that's out there but the studies seem to show tracking just widens the gap."

The practice also raised several questions in an Education World , article: "Is ability grouping (or tracking) an efficient way to handle differences in student abilities? Does such grouping benefit students - or does it unfairly label them? Research, logic, and emotion often clash when responding to those questions."

I believe we must rely on the research, and a great summary is available on the Ithaca College website. This research is heavily weighted toward the conclusion that total ability (homogeneous) grouping does not have a positive impact on student achievement.

But the Education World article also included the following:

In a comprehensive review of research on different types of ability grouping in the elementary school, Robert E. Slavin (1986) found that some forms of grouping can result in increased student achievement. Slavin's review focused on five grouping plans.

  • Grouping students as a class by ability for all subjects doesn't improve achievement.
  • Students grouped heterogeneously for most of the school day, but regrouped according to ability for one or two subjects, can improve achievement in those areas for which they are grouped.
  • Grouping heterogeneously except for reading instruction (commonly referred to as "The Joplin Plan") improves reading achievement.
  • Non-graded instruction - instruction that groups students according to ability rather than age and that allows students to progress at their own rates - can result in improved achievement.
  • In-class grouping - a common approach in which teachers break out two or three ability-based groups within a class for instruction - can benefit student achievement. (Slavin's research supports this practice for math instruction. Findings related to reading instruction aren't as conclusive; in-class grouping is so widespread a practice for teaching reading that it's difficult to find "control groups" for such a comparative study.)

Any grouping plan, Slavin concludes, must allow for frequent reevaluation of students' skills, and easy reassignment of students who show progress.

Ability grouping doesn't improve achievement and is harmful to students. Such grouping should be banned, says Anne Wheelock, author of Crossing the Tracks: How "Untracking" Can Save America's Schools (New Press, 1992). The practice of grouping by ability is too widespread and too widely accepted, Wheelock adds.

Wheelock says that about 60 percent of elementary schools practice some form of whole-class ability grouping, including Chapter 1 classes and special classes for gifted students. Survey results published in Education Week in 1995 found that two-thirds of U.S. high schools were at least moderately tracked.

Ability tracking is harmful for a number of reasons, Wheelock told Instructor in A Talk with Anne Wheelock .

  • The criteria used to group kids are based on subjective perceptions and fairly narrow views of intelligence.
  • Tracking leads students to take on labels - both in their own minds as well as in the minds of their teachers - that are usually associated with the pace of learning (such as "slow" or "fast" learners). Because of this, we end up confusing students' pace of learning with their capacity to learn.
  • We associate students' placement with the type of learners they are and therefore create different expectations for different groups of students.
  • Once students are grouped, they generally stay at that level for their school careers, and the gap between achievement and levels becomes exaggerated over time. The notion that students' achievement levels at any given time will predict their achievement in the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wheelock doesn't dismiss all forms of ability grouping. For instance, she notes, a group might be set up within a class to help students who are having difficulty with a specific skill. Or a group might be formed to "pre-teach" a skill to a group of students who might have difficulty grasping a concept.

As you advocate for higher student achievement in our schools, I encourage you to study the research to ensure your kids are in structures that yield the highest achievement.

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