School & District Management

More Teachers Group Students by Ability

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 26, 2013 5 min read
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After being condemned as discriminatory in the 1990s, grouping students by academic ability seems to be back in vogue with a new generation of teachers, according to an analysis of federal teacher data.

The study, “The Resurgence of Ability Grouping and Persistence of Tracking,” is part of an annual report on education released last week by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

While different terms for sorting students are often used interchangeably, ability grouping generally refers to the practice—primarily in elementary grades—of separating students for instruction within a single class.

By contrast, tracking is the practice, more often used in middle and high schools, of putting students who have different starting-point ability ranges into classes with correspondingly distinct difficulty levels within the same subject area—for example, Algebra 1 versus pre-algebra in middle school.

A 4th grader who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1998 had less than an even chance of being grouped by reading ability, but the odds were 9-to-1 in favor of such grouping by 2009, according to the Brookings Institution analysis of teachers’ reports collected in conjunction with the assessment.

Teachers were also asked—twice before 1998 and again in 2011—if they created math groups primarily based on ability, as opposed to interest or other factors. The percentage who answered affirmatively fell from 48 percent to 40 percent from 1992 to 1996, increased to 42 percent in 2003, and then rose sharply to 61 percent in 2011.

“I was shocked,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at Brookings and the author of the study. “After suffering through a decade in the 1990s in which both ability grouping and tracking were thought to be taboo, ability grouping is coming back so strong.”

Back in Vogue

The percentage of teachers who say they group students by ability for mathematics instruction has grown substantially since the early 1990s, including a rapid upswing since 2007, according to a new analysis from the Brookings Institution.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

In part, the new trend may be a generational issue: A majority of teachers in 2011 had not been in the field in the 1990s, when the debate over tracking and ability grouping was at its height. Several high-profile studies on ability grouping and tracking, including the educational equity scholar Jeannie Oakes’ 1985 book Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, found that ability grouping often ends up being a proxy for sorting by socioeconomic class.

The practice came under wide-scale criticism as being discriminatory against minority students and those from poor families, who were disproportionately put into lower-level groups and classes. Researchers found that, as in “separate but equal” segregated schooling arrangements, students in lower academic groups and tracks were given less high-quality instruction and were not spurred to catch up with classmates in higher-level groups.

Some research also concluded teachers were able to devote less instructional time to individual subgroups in classes with static ability groups.

In a resolution first set out in 1998 and reaffirmed in 2005, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, officially calls for eliminating “the use of discriminatory academic tracking based on economic status, ethnicity, race, or gender ... in all public school settings.”

In 1998, the year of the NEA resolution, 39 percent of reading teachers whose students participated in NAEP reported that they did not group students for instruction at all, and only 28 percent said they grouped students by ability.

But by 2009, according to the Brookings study, more than 70 percent of teachers reported ability grouping in reading, and only 8 percent relied on whole-class instruction as their primary method.

Because prior research has shown that ability grouping is most often used in early grades and tapers off through elementary school, Mr. Loveless said the NAEP 4th grade teacher surveys likely underestimate the prevalence of ability grouping in elementary schools overall.

Possible Benefits?

Meanwhile, some emerging research suggests that, in some cases, flexible ability grouping can in fact benefit students.

In a separate study released in February of students in Dallas public schools, economists Courtney A. Collins of Rhodes College, in Macon, Ga., and Li Gan of Texas A&M University, in College Station, found that sorting students into different courses by previous academic-test performance was associated with higher academic achievement not just for the high-performing students, but for struggling students as well.

The researchers found that nearly 75 percent of the 135 schools studied sorted students, either within class or among classes, but they were more likely to use a specific learning-needs designation rather than ability in a single subject.

For example, 57 percent of the schools sorted on the basis of a student’s English-language proficiency, and 28 percent made placements based on whether a student was identified as gifted.

By contrast, fewer than one in four schools grouped students on the basis of their prior reading-test performance, and fewer than one in five sorted according to math performance. Nearly 40 percent of the schools used at least two different ability-level indicators to sort students.

The researchers found that students in both high- and low-level groups performed better when grouped with peers who had performed similarly on the previous year’s math and reading tests.

“These results,” conclude Ms. Collins and Mr. Gan, “give credence to the line of reasoning that suggests that more homogeneous classes allow teachers to teach to a more narrow range of students, which is beneficial for both high- and low-scoring individuals” in reading and math.

The findings may point to why teachers continue to group students by ability even at the risk of reinforcing disparities among them.

“Teachers still think they are faced with a really wide variety of students, and they think they need this tool in order to reduce the achievement [differences] they face,” Mr. Loveless said. “Ability grouping and tracking just never go away.”

However, Ms. Collins and Mr. Gan’s study also found that students in special education who were grouped separately from other students had lower achievement in both math and reading, though only reading performance was significantly impaired.

The National Center for Education Statistics plans to analyze teachers’ approaches to ability grouping and tracking in more depth next year, based on its 2011-12 Schools and Staffing Survey, which is due out later this spring.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as More Teachers Group Students by Ability

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