If you're a fourth-grade teacher, you've probably got kids reading at the kindergarten level and you've got kids reading at the eighth- or ninth-grade level. I don't know how you are supposed to teach a room like that. When you have a kid who is four or five grades ahead, it's not fair to hold them back. —Jane Clarenbach, National Association of Gifted Children
WASHINGTON — Teachers say they are grouping students of similar abilities with each other inside classrooms and schools are clustering pupils with like interests together — a practice once frowned upon — according to a review of federal education surveys.
The Brookings Institution report released Monday shows a dramatic increase in both ability grouping and student tracking among fourth- and eighth-grade students. Those practices were once criticized as racist and faced strong opposition from groups as varied as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to the National Governors Association.
"Despite decades of vehement criticism and mountains of documents urging schools to abandon their use, tracking and ability grouping persist — and for the past decade or so, have thrived," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the centrist Brookings Institute's Brown Center on Education Policy, who wrote the report.
Ability grouping was common during the 1960s and '70s in elementary school and allowed educators to put their students already in the same classroom into smaller clusters based on their understanding of the lessons. For instance, students who already had mastered their basic multiplication tables could go ahead and start working on more advanced calculations.
Tracking is similar, but happens between academic years and divvies the high school students up into schedules based on their records. An example would be to send some sophomore students into honors courses while others remained in basic courses.
Both faced criticism because they exacerbated racial and socioeconomic differences.
"What happens is ability groupings create stigma and stigma is a bad thing," American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in an interview. "The moment that you create a label that says 'this is a slow learner' or 'this is a fast learner,' that's a stigma you've created for a kid."
In response, educators moved away from the practice.
But they didn't stay away for long — if, in fact, they really ever disappeared in practice.
In 1998, for instance, only 28 percent of fourth graders were put into ability-based reading groups. By 2009, that number rose to 71 percent, according to Education Department data that Loveless reviewed.
"In other words, the odds of a fourth grader being ability grouped in reading were less than 50-50 in 1998, but by 2009 had increased to about 9-to-1," Loveless wrote.
In math, that number rose from 40 percent of students in ability groups in 1996 to 61 percent in 2011, according to the same surveys.
Loveless reviewed data included in teacher surveys conducted as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a reading and math test known as the nation's report card. The data is collected every other year.
While the numbers tell an increased reporting of ability grouping and tracking, it's hard to extrapolate meaning. It's possible that increased demands on teachers led to more grouping to help students catch up in reading and math skills ahead of tests mandated in the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law. Teachers perhaps identified students on the cusp of passing those tests — which in some places determines teachers' evaluations — and worked more closely with the pupils they could pull to a passing grade.
Asked why grouping was returning, Weingarten said she had little doubt: "I think the answer is because of this increased fixation on testing and accountability," she said. "We hear it all the time when you start talking about the bubble, in how they inch kids over the mark of proficiency or not proficiency."
The report's numbers themselves do not assign blame or motive.
"They don't tell us anything about why that's happening," said Daria Hall, policy director for the Education Trust, an organization that works on student equity.
But the numbers do offer hints about how students are being taught.
"If you're a fourth-grade teacher, you've probably got kids reading at the kindergarten level and you've got kids reading at the eighth- or ninth-grade level. I don't know how you are supposed to teach a room like that," said Jane Clarenbach, director of public education at the National Association of Gifted Children. "When you have a kid who is four or five grades ahead, it's not fair to hold them back. Why would we not do the right thing for the kid who can benefit?"
Plus, she said, students already are clustered whether the schools were reporting it as such.
"We already ability group. You have to be 5 to get in the door for kindergarten," Clarenbach said. "We want students to get the most out of their time in the classroom. Don't we want children to be engaged and not bored?"
Not everyone is convinced that tracking really ever faded.
"People don't like to admit they were tracking. But if you look at what they're doing, they were clearly tracking. It was politically incorrect to say they were tracking, but they were doing it," said Kevin Welner, an educator professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a critic of systems that group students.
Students in the slower groups, he said, often were the ones to suffer.
"As a rule, if you're talking about low-track classes, you're talking about a situation where there are tremendous obstacles for students and teachers. For teachers, you have institutionalized low expectations and you have a situation that's incredibly tough to overcome," he said.
While much of the research on ability grouping and student tracking indicates students of color and from lower incomes were given short shrift, there are classrooms where it can work if teachers are given proper instruction how to group kids based on ability, not on appearances, advocates said.
"In exceptional classrooms, ability grouping can be used to the benefit of all students, meeting them where they are," Hall said. "We know that when done badly, it relegates students of color to the corner."