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Amherst Schools Urged To Drop Ability Grouping

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A panel set up by the Amherst, Mass., school board has urged the district to abandon its controversial system for grouping students by ability.

The 14-member panel, formed to resolve a legal challenge to the district's instructional-grouping policies, recommended that the board scrap those policies as unfair to poor children and members of minority groups.

"That some students will perform better than others is natural and expected," the report says. "What is not acceptable, however, is that some students are challenged to thought-provoking analysis and problem-solving while others are not."

Neither the district's classes nor its students should be labeled by ability, the panel concluded.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in 1992, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People accused the district of violating the civil rights of minority children by steering them into its lower academic tracks. The group sought to threaten the district's access to federal funds. (See Education Week, Jan. 13, 1993.)

The joint panel began its work nearly a year ago and issued its report last month. Half its members were school board appointees; the other half were representatives of the Amherst-area chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.

Gus Sayer, the superintendent of the 3,700-student Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, said the school system will hold teacher meetings and public hearings on the panel's report this month. He said he expects by late November to offer the board recommendations to be implemented for the next school year.

"They have come up with something that challenges our conventional thinking about the organization of our instructional program and has a great deal of possibility," Mr. Sayer said in an interview last week.

Other Legal Challenges

The Amherst case is one of several recent legal challenges to district policies that group students by ability.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has sought to make ability grouping a central issue in the desegregation case involving Wilmington, Del., and its suburbs. In a separate case, the Washington-based group's lawyers last winter helped persuade the San Jose, Calif., school district to agree to dismantle its ability-grouping system.

The U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights also has made the segregation of students within schools a target of its enforcement efforts. (See Education Week, April 20, 1994.)

Some educators and parents, however, including advocates for gifted and talented children, defend some grouping as necessary and beneficial.

Jumping the Tracks

The report by the Amherst-Pelham panel urges the district to drop its use of weighted grades, class ranks, and the course labels "basic," "standard," and "advanced."

Among other changes, the report calls for the district to increase student access to classes with students of mixed ability, while insuring that all students have access to courses such as algebra, which are viewed as prerequisites for further study.

The report also recommends that the district establish mentoring programs; promote team teaching and other instructional reforms; and print its revised course catalogue in English, Spanish, and Khmer.

William A. Norris, a lawyer for the Amherst N.A.A.C.P. chapter, said the report provides "a framework for untracking the system."

But, he added, "whether it will work or not is another question."

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