NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor

June 12, 2013

It was once common for elementary school teachers to arrange their classrooms by ability, placing the highest-achieving students in one cluster, the lowest in another. But ability grouping and its close cousin, tracking, in which children take different classes based on their proficiency levels, fell out of favor in the late 1980s and the 1990s as critics charged that they perpetuated inequality by trapping poor and minority students in low-level groups. Now ability grouping has reemerged in classrooms all over the country, a trend that has surprised education experts who believed the outcry had all but ended its use, says the New York Times.

A new analysis from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a Census-like agency for school statistics, shows that of the fourth grade teachers surveyed:

  • Seventy-one percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998.
  • In math, 61 percent of fourth grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996.

The resurgence of ability grouping comes as New York City grapples with the state of its gifted and talented programs, which is a form of tracking in some public schools in which certain students, selected through testing, take accelerated classes together. These programs, which serve about 3 percent of the elementary school population, are dominated by white and Asian students.

Teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement.

  • While acknowledging that wide variation in classrooms poses a challenge, critics of grouping (including education researchers and civil rights groups) argued in the 1980s and 1990s that the practice inevitably divided students according to traits corresponding with achievement, like race and class.
  • Some states began recommending that schools end grouping in the 1990s, amid concerns that teachers' expectations for students were shaped by the initial groupings.
  • Some studies conclude that grouping improves test scores in students of all levels, others that it helps high-achieving students while harming low-achieving ones, and still others say that it has little effect.
  • Children may be assigned to different groups for reading and math, and can switch groups if they have shown progress, struggle to get along with other students in a group or need extra help with a particular lesson.

Source: Vivian Yee, "Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor in Classroom," New York Times, June 9, 2013.


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