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Is ability grouping the best way for students to learn or does it hold many back? Education World takes a look at recent information -- from researchers and from teachers -- on the issue.
Does homogeneous grouping of students enable the largest number to experience the most learning success? Or does heterogeneous grouping create a setting in which more students can perform to the best of their abilities? A heated controversy rages over these two, familiar positions.
Leading the charge for detracking -- the breakdown of homogeneous groups into hetereogeneous groups -- was a special issue of the Harvard Education Letter. Authored by guest editors Leon Lynn and Anne Wheelock, the article began by stating:
"Evidence is mounting that schools that reserve the highest quality educational opportunities for the "best" students -- as determined by a selection process that is often flawed and discriminatory -- are denying many students the opportunity to achieve their full potential. This injustice is made even more onerous by the rising importance of standards-based school reform, which seeks to hold all students and schools accountable to higher levels of learning. Schools cannot embrace high standards for all students without addressing the barriers that prevent many students from equal educational opportunity."
Tracking and ability grouping have been hotly debated for nearly a century. In an essay titled The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate, published in July 1998, Tom Loveless delineates the issues surrounding the question of tracking.
Though tracking and ability grouping are widely used terms, what they actually mean in the contexts of different schools various greatly. In this essay, ability grouping is described as when students are organized into groups within classes, creating, for example, "bluebirds" and "redbirds" groups in reading instruction. Tracking, on the other hand, refers to grouping students between classses, offering academic courses in subjects that reflect differences in students' prior learning or ability.
Tracking in particular has spawned fiery debate. "Critics," according to Loveless, "charge that tracking not only fails to benefit any student, but that it also channels poor and minority students into low tracks and dooms a vast number of students to an impoverished education. Defenders of tracking, on the other hand, argue that high ability students languish in mixed ability classes, that it is nearly impossible, for example, for teachers to lead students through the plot twists of King Lear while simultaneously instructing in phonics. In the last decade a turning point in this debate occurred as education policymakers in several states launched initiatives to discourage tracking."
Teachers and administrators engage in lively discussion on listservs. One such discussion on the Middle-L listserv tackled the topic of tracking.
One math teacher found the following happens when ability grouping is used in math:
On the other hand, some teachers argue for homogeneous grouping. "Heterogeneous grouping is a true political soapbox," says one teacher. "Administrators love to boast that their school has heterogeneous grouping...but the administrators aren't in the classroom, and they don't see the disappointment on the faces of each students when a new experience is presented and not everyone remains 'on the same page.'"
"That ideal [of heterogeneous grouping]," he adds, "is an ideal....Truth is, in our experience the low-end kids tend to pull down the high-end kids, rather than the other way around. The class pace slows, and the teacher has to in effect devise two lesson plans for each period, one for the accelerated students and another for those who have low skills."
Another teacher takes the middle road. "I, too, have read some research on ability grouping. I found that it helps in certain areas, such as math, but students shouldn't be ability grouped throughout the day in all academic areas..."
She continues, "[As] a language arts teacher, I have found that I like a mixed ability group because they can play off one another and the highs seem to bring up the lows in some cases. I have never found that the gifted child has to 'come down' to the lower level student. Language arts is an area where all can be successful if they work toward their strengths....some of my best readers and writers are not necessarily "gifted" students. (Don't we just love those labels!)"
So, as the debate rages on, a consensus on ability grouping and tracking is difficult to reach. Perhaps the most common conclusion among teachers actually dealing with this issue in the trenches is that ability grouping can work in certain situations, but not in others, and that flexibility is necessary so that students do not become tracked without the clear ability to move from group to group.
Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate
Delineates the essential points of the debate, with sections such as What Is Tracking?, The History of Tracking, The Research, Principles for Future Policy, and Impact of Grouping on Achievement.
Grouping: Answers to Common Questions
Mary Ann Swiatek, Ph.D., answers some of the most common questions on ability grouping, based on current research. (Carnegie Mellon Institute
Sense of the Research on Ability Grouping
Wynne Harlen discusses the research evidence around setting, streaming and mixed ability grouping. (Scottish Council for Research in Education)
Grouping, Tracking, & Alternatives
WISE (Working to Improve Schools and Education) offers this hotlist of links to information about ability grouping, tracking, and alternatives.
Statement on Ability Grouping
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers their position on the issue.
Grouping in Elementary Schools
Hundreds of research studies have examined the effects of the two most common variants: between-class and within-class ability grouping. An digest from ERIC.
to Ability Grouping: Still Unanswered Questions
As a result of the growing criticism of tracking, schools are increasingly eliminating it. (A 1995 ERIC Digest)
the Wrong Track?
In this Education Week article by Debra Viadero, some researchers are daring to suggest that tracking students may not be as bad as everyone thinks.
Tracks, Different Teaching
The results of research by Adam Gamoran, a professor of sociology and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and two colleagues. They spent two years studying 92 honors, regular, and remedial English classes in 18 secondary schools in the Midwest.
Article by Sharon Cromwell
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