Examining data over time shows the decline and rise of ability grouping for reading. In 1961, surveys showed that about 80 percent of elementary schools grouped students by ability for reading instruction; in the mid-1990s less than one-third did, the Brown Center report showed. NAEP data for 2009 show 7 of 10 4th-graders were in ability-based reading groups.
The data don't reveal how the groups are implemented, though, and that makes all the difference. Students need to be grouped according to accurate measures of their subject knowledge that are not subject to bias, Swiatek said.
Research shows ability grouping within classes has more positive benefits than tracking, Swiatek said. However, that must be weighed against the challenges involved, she added. In many regular classrooms, the differences between student ability levels are glaring. That presents challenges for teachers and subjects low-performing students to constant self-comparison with students who seem to fly through school with enviable ease.
Unfortunately, the rigid ability groups and tracking of the past are still with us in many schools, said University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black, an expert on educational equity. Likely, labels are applied with more subtlety than in the bad old days when some teachers gave reading groups not-so-secret code names like "Bluebirds," "Robins," "Crows" and "Buzzards." But kids still know.
Sorting or segregating?
Black said the initial rise in tracking and ability grouping in the U.S. coincided with laws forcing states to desegregate schools in the mid-20th century. Tracking and grouping provided a convenient excuse to separate students within schools, ostensibly by ability. In practice, racial biases entered into grouping decisions in the South. Elsewhere in the United States, social class and economic status were likely to influence decisions about student placement, he said.
Research over the past three decades found that tracking — putting students in separate classes based on ability — corresponded closely to social and racial inequalities, wrote Tom Loveless, author of the Brown Center report. Black, Hispanic and poor children dominate remedial classes; middle-class white children populate honors courses.
Critics of such practices say they don't just mirror the inequalities of the broader society. "They reproduce and perpetuate inequalities," the report said.
Even when teachers have the best intentions, perceptions about student ability are not objective, Black said. They can be colored by hidden biases about race, ethnicity and socio-economic status.
"We are less likely, as a society, to spot the ability of certain students," he said.
Black doesn't dispute that ability grouping can be used to good effect when correctly implemented. But he bristles when he hears of children shunted into rigid slow-learner groups where they receive second-class treatment.
"The basic harm is the stigma," Brown said. "Kids are told they are not as smart as the other kids, and they internalize that. Teachers internalize it as well and have different expectations. Often, there's a richer curriculum in the upper level. That's where teachers want to be, so kids in those classes end up with more-qualified teachers."
Ability groups can also be skewed by "parents of influence" lobbying to get their children into higher-level classes, Black said. Decisions are made that have far-reaching consequences for individual students, and they can be astonishingly arbitrary. That he knows from experience.
When Black was a 14-year-old schoolboy in Tennessee, he made a decision he now sees as immature: to avoid the hard work of an advanced-placement English class offered in the next school year by ignoring sign-up deadlines and failing to take home the required forms for parent signatures.