Sorting kids at school: the return of ability grouping

Published: Sunday, April 21 2013 4:00 p.m. MDT

Jade Crown, second from left, plays a game categorizing words with faster learners in her class at Woods Cross Elementary School in Woods Cross Thursday, April 11, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

If there's a label that sticks to Mark Bowden today, it's probably "world-famous writer," or maybe "authority on modern warfare." But when the author of the book "Black Hawk Down" was in grade school during the 1960s, his brilliance wasn't so easy to spot. Back then, tracking kids into separate classes according to their ability was common. And at two different schools Bowden attended, teachers placed him in "the dumb kids' class."

Sorting children at school according to their academic gifts is a sticky subject — whether grouping children within a classroom for short periods, or tracking them into separate classrooms all day.

A Brown Center report released this month found that grouping children by ability — a practice that fell out of favor in the 1980s — is on the rise again, and that tracking persists in some guises. A 2013 report on a study conducted in Dallas schools found that teaching students in groups of like ability improved achievement for fast and slow learners alike — and who wouldn't want bright kids to be able to move ahead, or strugglers to get the help they need?

But decisions about human potential aren't foolproof, as Bowden's experience attests. And for most kids, labels applied early in life tend to stick, even if they are wrong.

Tracking, grouping

Sorting schoolchildren by ability has long been controversial, though prevalent. In some European countries, and especially in Asia, school-wide tracking remains the norm. Children are tested at around age 12, and placed in different schools or curriculum tracks that steer them toward professional, general or vocational careers. Movement between the tracks is rare.

School-wide tracking diminished as a general public policy in U.S. schools in the 1960s and ’70s as concerns about racial equity came to the fore. It never died out, though. Sorting students into separate tracks for math at about junior high school age continues to be common in the U.S., and other forms of tracking persist as well, according to the report from the Brown Center, education arm of the Brookings Institution policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Ability grouping has particular benefits for gifted students, said Pennsylvania psychologist Mary Ann Swiatek, a former research specialist for Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students.

Unlike tracking, which denotes sorting students into separate classrooms, ability grouping happens within school classrooms. When done according to the latest best-practice research, it has proven to boost achievement. Done right, it looks like what happens within classrooms at Woods Cross Elementary in Woods Cross, Utah.

Ability grouping in the school's classrooms is fluid and temporary, said principal Eric Holmes. Within classrooms, students might be grouped to work at "learning centers" for a particular unit, with one center adjusted with enrichment materials to challenge fast learners, and another targeted at helping students who learn more slowly.

Any students who master concepts can move upward between groups, Holmes said, and the student clusters might look different from subject to subject and unit to unit. For instance, a student who leads out in language arts might be at an average or slower level in math. A student who flies through multiplication tables might need extra help with fractions.

Students who lag in reading can be pulled out of the classroom in small groups for practice with a tutor until their reading improves.

Old-school tracking made life easier for teachers because fewer adjustments were needed when like-ability learners were kept together, Holmes said. Fluid, flexible ability grouping requires more diligence.

"It's always easier to draw boundaries once and say, 'This group stays here,’ ” Holmes said. "Our teachers have to be cognizant of almost daily performance of a student so they can adjust as needed. It's a lot of work for teachers."

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