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The Case for Ability Grouping

Grouping students by ability, which fell out of favor beginning in the late 1980s, is undergoing a comeback today ("Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor in Classroom," The New York Times, Jun. 10). According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 71 percent of fourth-grade teachers surveyed grouped students by reading ability in 2009, compared with 28 percent in 1998. In math, 61 percent did so in 2011, compared with 40 percent in 1996.

I understand the arguments against ability grouping, but strictly from the point of view of a former classroom teacher the practice makes sense. When I taught English, which arguably is the most difficult subject to teach because of the varied backgrounds of students in an increasingly multicultural society, I directly felt the effects of the tabu. Instead of typically preparing one lesson for each of five classes when ability grouping was used, I sometimes had to prepare three times as many. That's because each class contained slow, advanced and average learners. Trying to engage them with one lesson invariably meant confusing the first group and boring the second.

Attributing the change in attitude about ability grouping solely to No Child Left Behind is debatable. Certainly putting together struggling students who were close to proficiency makes it easier for teachers to prepare them for standardized tests. But it may also be that the realities of the classroom are finally beginning to sink in. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from different cultures present challenges that were not fully appreciated in the past.

In my view, neither of the two most common arguments against ability grouping passes muster. The first is that it avoids stigmatizing students. But students have long attended schools where Advanced Placement and honors classes exist, and they haven't been traumatized. The second is that when classes contain students of mixed abilities, weaker students can be helped by their exposure to stronger students. But what about the effect on the latter? Will their learning be slowed down?

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