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Debate Over Ability Grouping Gains High Profile

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The debate over ability grouping in public schools appears to be escalating, and supporters of the practice are increasingly being placed on the defensive, experts on both sides of the issue agree.

"Something happened to make this build as an issue, starting in a real big way in about 1990,'' said Robert E. Slavin, a principal research scientist at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University. "Whenever anybody holds a meeting on this topic, it is packed to the rafters.''

According to Peter D. Rosenstein, the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children and a defender of grouping students by ability, it has become "politically correct to deny that there are different potentials among children.''

But despite the increasingly high-profile debate, most education officials at the state and school-district levels appear uneasy about ending ability-grouping practices. Many educators doubt such changes will benefit all students, particularly the brightest, and classroom teachers often cite the practical difficulties of teaching classes made up of students of widely divergent ability levels.

Advocates of mixing students of different abilities, meanwhile, point to what they say is a growing body of research bolstering their position.

Anne Wheelock, an educational researcher who has surveyed what she calls "untracking'' efforts around the country, said she has observed a "gathering consensus that tracking is a real barrier to achievement.'' At the same time, she added, districts committed to ending such practices remain "few and far between.''

"The completely untracked middle school is a rarity,'' Mr. Slavin observed.

"But,'' he added, "there are probably 10 times more now than there were five years ago.''

No Coming to Terms

The issue remains so volatile that educators do not always agree on the terminology that figures in the debate.

The terms "ability grouping'' and "tracking'' have been used to describe a wide array of practices, ranging from the segregation of black children at an early age, based on unfairly administered intelligence tests, to the placement of gifted and talented children from various backgrounds in advanced courses designed to challenge them.

Opponents of grouping by ability tend to use both terms pejoratively and interchangeably.

But advocates for the gifted and talented and other supporters of homogeneous grouping tend to make a clear distinction between the terms.

They say they, too, oppose "tracking''--by which they mean placing children at a certain academic level in most subjects at an early age and denying them an opportunity to move to a higher level.

By comparison, they say, "ability grouping'' is nothing more than the placement of children at certain tables or in certain classrooms where they will receive an appropriate level of instruction with classmates of similar ability. Such placements may vary from grade to grade and subject to subject.

One-Carrot Soup?

Research on the issue also remains controversial.

Joseph S. Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, suggested that educators who have cited research in attacking all forms of ability grouping "are making an awful lot of soup out of one carrot.''

Mr. Renzulli acknowledged in an interview that most research shows that children who had been placed in lower- and middle-level groups experienced some academic improvement when grouped with brighter students.

Nevertheless, researchers have "absolutely no evidence'' to show that high achievers benefit from heterogeneous grouping, Mr. Renzulli said.

One of the most recent major studies, an analysis of data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, concluded after comparing the progress of homogeneously and heterogeneously grouped 8th graders over two years that homogeneous grouping appeared to worsen the prospects of low achievers while doing nothing to benefit high achievers. (See Education Week, Sept. 16, 1992.)

The researchers, who included Mr. Slavin of Johns Hopkins, added, however, that more research needed to be done before they could apply their conclusions to programs for the gifted and talented.

Change on Slow Track

Faced with such uncertainty, the federal government and most states and school districts appear hesitant to push schools to group all students heterogeneously.

When Michael L. Williams took office as the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights in 1990, he identified ability grouping as a major topic on which he planned to issue a policy statement. But Mr. Williams proved unable to "get censensus'' within the department on such a policy, he said recently. (See story, page 36.)

Although the National Governors' Association has joined the College Board and the National Education Association in calling for an end to ability grouping, such an objective was left out of the national education goals adopted by the governors and President Bush.

Moreover, 33 states continue to mandate or fund programs for the gifted and talented, Mr. Rosenstein said. He also noted that President-elect Bill Clinton has served on the advisory board of the National Association for Gifted Children.

A survey of 19 states released in late 1991 by the Council of Chief State School Officers found most were aware of the detrimental effects blamed on homogeneous grouping, but said they were constrained from issuing mandates for mixed-ability classes that would be seen as challenging local school control.

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