Opinion
Education Opinion

Abandoning Age-Tracking

By Tamara Fisher — July 21, 2010 5 min read

In the school district where I teach, we do a moderate amount of within-grade-level ability-grouping with our students, particularly in reading and math. Occasionally I hear a teacher bemoan this practice as “tracking,” despite the fact that the groups are rather flexible and, particularly in reading, the students are re-grouped often (every few weeks) according to their learning needs. It is not “tracking” in the way groupings were created decades ago in our district in which students were irreversibly placed into, or rather locked into, a track. These are flexible groupings far more than they are tracks.

Ironically, the grade-level, whole-class groupings apparently preferred by these teachers who bemoan ability-grouping are the most restrictive form of tracking, that by age. For a century (-ish), schools have “tracked” students based on when they were born, not based on what they are ready and able to learn. “Born between September 1, 2003, and August 31, 2004? You belong to the Class of 2022.” That is how it works in nearly every school in our country. It’s tracking by age, but no one calls it that.

Of course, many teachers, especially those of us in the realm of gifted education, recognize that age-tracking (particularly in the absence of any differentiation) does little to help schools meet the learning needs of gifted and advanced learners who are academically years ahead of their age-peers.

A very small but growing number of school districts around the country are converting to the educational practice of grouping students by readiness (or ability or skill or mastery, depending on how you want to describe it) rather than by age. And these aren’t within-grade-level ability groupings, these are within-school (or within-district) ability groupings, where the groups consist of students of various ages who are all ready for approximately the same learning material. In some cases, the students learn in a more individualized setting with teacher guidance. The overall common essence is a setting with students learning what they’re ready to learn and then moving on when they’ve mastered it and are ready to move on, rather than everyone magically (and we all know not actually) learning a year’s worth of material in a year. Some can learn much more than “a year’s worth” in a year (if only we’d let them) and others can still get it but just need a little more time.

A school district that has recently decided to go this route - and received a lot of press for it - is the Kansas City, Missouri, schools. In early July, an AP article went the rounds of at least dozens of news outlets. The article (here it is in USA Today) explains that the Kansas City schools will begin using widespread (and cross-age) ability groupings as part of their plan to turnaround the district’s schools.

Kansas City Superintendent John Covington is quoted as saying, “The current system of public education in this country is not working. It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.”

Hence the walls so many of our gifted youngsters smack into at school...

I’m fascinated by this concept of schoolwide readiness groupings.

I know people argue against having kids of different ages together. Anyone who has ever tried to grade-skip a kid likely encountered statements such as, “But everyone else will be getting their driver’s licenses a year earlier,” or “She’ll always be the shortest in her class,” or “The other boys will all be shaving and he’ll still have fuzz.”

So?

As a society, we tend to give higher importance to things that don’t matter nearly as much as education. To quote Goethe, “What matters most must never be at the mercy of what matters least.” What matters most in schools (beyond, of course, the kids) should be LEARNING and EDUCATION, not who’s shaving and who isn’t. We need to be better at placing these priorities and we need to be better at helping our kids understand what is of more value (learning? or who gets to shave first?).

Outside of school, kids interact with and hang out with kids of other ages all the time. (Especially gifted kids, who tend to choose friends based on common unusual interests - such as medieval history - rather than common birth year.) Outside-of-school groups such as 4-H, Scouts, church youth groups, tae kwon do classes, and neighborhoods & families (where kids play with who is close by and available) all feature widely-mixed ages. The one-room schoolhouses of days old (although some still exist in Montana and elsewhere) crammed in, and typically met the various needs of, all-comers of all ages, even sometimes adults.

[A now-abandoned one-room schoolhouse near Melville, Montana. Photo by Tamara Fisher]

I would argue that it is our age-tracking in schools that is the societal anomaly.

Yes, I realize there are advantages and disadvantages to any grouping. Older kids can certainly be a bad influence on younger kids, for example. But they can also be a very positive influence. Yes, most kids of a certain age will all be ready to learn the same material at approximately the same time and pace anyway. Yes, there are social complexities that arise when kids of various ages are grouped together. But the reality remains that age-tracking in large measure - for millions of kids - isn’t working.

Hence my fascination with districts that are implementing widespread, cross-age, readiness groupings. I’ll be curious to see how this all works out in Kansas City. (Although I do have a mild amount of concern that if it doesn’t work in helping to turnaround the schools, this strategy alone will be faulted. It appears the Kansas City schools have a host of other issues they are contending with that are contributing factors to any district’s or school’s success as well. A long but detailed account of these other factors in the Kansas City schools can be found here.)

Do you have knowledge of or experience with a school that has tried cross-age readiness groupings? How did it work? What were the results?

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The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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