Ability grouping: The devil is in the details

In his recent blog post, Mike rightly noted that in the tracking debate, "to track or not to track" is NOT the question. He argued that tracking--the move to differentiate between students who would take "college prep" courses and those who would follow a "vocational" or other track--should be replaced with "ability grouping" where all students in a class can achieve at roughly the same level. And he argued that ability grouping should begin early to help ensure our highest-performing students do not slip through the cracks.

To be sure, "ability grouping," done right, can be a win/win. It allows teachers to push the rigor and the pace for our highest achieving students and to provide the extra support, instruction, and time that our most struggling students need.

Sounds easy, right?

Sadly, not. Like all things in education and life, the devil lies squarely in the details.

Ability grouping requires schools to make decisions about which students are able to handle the pace of the most rigorous classes--often honors and AP courses--and which should be placed in the "lower" classes--classes where students are typically exposed to less-rigorous curricula and "tracks" that often do not adequately prepare students for competitive colleges and universities. These decisions are, logically, generally made by looking at a student's achievement to date.

Unfortunately, individual student achievement--particularly for low-performing students in urban schools--is frequently a consequence of a host of factors. Aptitude? Partially. But many low-achieving students--particularly low-socioeconomic status and minority students--struggle thanks to a host of factors that have nothing to do with their inherent ability to succeed, including: discipline challenges, apathy, being taught by a revolving door of our most inexperienced and sometimes lowest performing teachers, and so on.

What's more, in the hands of an expert teacher with outstanding classroom management, clear discipline systems, high expectations, and instructional expertise, students who struggle for these "other" reasons have the ability to "catch up" to their high-achieving peers. Quickly.

Too-early ability grouping can therefore inadvertently condemn these high-potential, low-performing students into lower classes when they can handle--and should be exposed to--the rigor of more advanced coursework. And, sadly, these "tracks" frequently become castes from which it is all but impossible to escape.

Of course, as Mike notes, too-late ability grouping can hold back our highest-potential students.

Unfortunately, as Tom Loveless's study has revealed, most middle schools have looked at this dilemma as a question of whether to track students at all. And they have decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning tracking and ability grouping altogether.

In an effort to correct this problem, however, it would be a mistake to over-learn a lesson and let the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. Instead, schools and districts must navigate the tough question of when to track students and must ensure that students aren't being relegated to ability groups for reasons other than their innate ability to achieve

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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