Should It Be OK To Place Students In “Ability Groups”?
New findings based on more than 20 years of research suggest that despite decades of controversy, elementary school teachers now feel fine placing students in “ability groups,” reports Greg Toppo in a very interesting article in USA Today:
“The research, produced by the centrist Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on American Education, finds that between 1998 and 2009, the percentage of fourth-grade teachers who said they created ability-based reading groups skyrocketed from 28% to 71%. In math, between 1996 and 2011, the practice rose from 40% to 61%. The practice remained fairly constant in eighth-grade math, rising from 71% to 76%. Data for other eighth-grade subjects was incomplete or inconclusive.
Brookings researcher Tom Loveless said the practice, frowned upon for decades and dubbed a civil-rights issue in the 1990s, likely gave way in the last decade to new demands from the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which required schools to focus on struggling students in reading and math.
‘Despite decades of vehement criticism and mountains of documents urging schools to abandon their use, tracking and ability grouping persist—and for the past decade or so, have thrived,’ Loveless said.
Grouping works within a single class and is typically done just at the elementary school level. Tracking is a larger, more institutionalized form of grouping that involves moving students into different classes. It generally takes place in middle school and high school.
Patrick Boodey, principal of Woodman Park School in Dover, N.H., said the new findings on ability grouping are accurate but added that teachers have gotten more sophisticated: They now use ‘dynamic grouping’ that moves students as their skills improve. Groups sometimes change week to week. ‘It’s constant,’ he said.” (Read more here.)
This last point is the key. If the ability groupings are truly “dynamic”—if they are fluid and responsive to changes in students’ developing skill levels—then they carry exactly the opposite message from the old-style fixed groups. Dynamic grouping tells kids: If you work hard, you can improve.
Of course, there are also benefits to combining students of different ability levels together, and I hope teachers find opportunities to do that as well.
What do you think? Have you had experiences with ability groups, old- or new-style—either your own or your children’s?