NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

More Teachers Are Grouping Kids by Ability

March 19, 2013

New findings based on more than 20 years of research suggest that despite decades of controversy, elementary school teachers now feel fine placing students into "ability groups," says USA Today.

  • The research from the 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 percent to 71 percent.
  • In math, between 1996 and 2011, the practice rose from 40 percent to 61 percent.
  • The practice remained fairly constant in eighth grade math, rising from 71 percent to 76 percent.
  • Data for other eighth grade subjects was incomplete or inconclusive.

Brookings researcher Tom Loveless says 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.

Several factors were likely at play in the quiet change, Loveless says, including an uptick in computerized instruction, which naturally segregates students by skill levels; also, the rise of accountability requirements under NCLB has pushed schools to pay more attention to students who are just below "proficiency" levels in reading and math.

The data are based on teacher surveys conducted as part of the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress, a reading and math test administered to thousands of students every two years.

Sources: Greg Toppo, "More Teachers Are Grouping Kids by Ability," USA Today, March 18, 2013. Tom Loveless, "2013 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?" Brookings Institution, March 18, 2013.


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