Should Schools Group Students by Ability Instead of Age?
Although grouping students by ability was out of fashion in education for much of the 1980s and 1990s, new studies say that the practice has silently crept back into the classroom because of pressure to boost test scores under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I say it never left.
Growing up in New York state during those decades, we had reading groups, just as my daughter does now. It did not really matter whether they gave the groups letters, numbers, colors or even names of animals, we all figured out rather quickly where we stood. The blue jays were clearly flying higher than the robins.
Later, in seventh grade, the "most academically prepared" students were placed in a math class that combined the seventh- and eighth-grade curriculums so they could study Algebra I in eighth grade. These students also took high school Earth Science and the corresponding state test in eighth grade. Because they had the same math and science classes, it was logistically simpler to place them in the same English and social studies classes too. Tracking, the practice of placing higher-achieving students on a certain academic path, was unofficially still a part of school.
Arguments against ability grouping point out that groups tend to break down along racial and socioeconomic lines. Lower-level classes that may need the most help allegedly get the least experienced or motivated teachers and fewer resources. Over time, students internalize the labels that have been placed on them, making upward movement unlikely.
Proponents of ability grouping say that it is impossible to reach all children in a heterogeneous (mixed-ability-level) class. Aiming at the middle frustrates struggling students and bores the more advanced students. Parents of more academically focused students often complain that teachers spend so much time dealing with discipline issues that they have little time to teach.
Prior to the late 1980s, tracking had become a blunt instrument to sort children. However, "ability grouping" shouldn't be dirty words in education. When we speak of differentiation (a big buzzword in the first decade of this century), we are talking about a form of ability grouping under the guise of learning styles. If the children are learning mathematical operations and one group of children is practicing adding two single-digit numbers, another can be adding multiple addends of four digits or more with regrouping.
The most negative effects of grouping come when students are only sorted by ability into groups that never change. If a student spends 30 minutes working on level-appropriate math, and then breaks into a mixed-ability group to solve a collaborative problem, and then joins an interest group to explore a topic like sports or fashion, and then sits with a randomly assigned group to paint, teachers can draw on the best of all methods. Students can sometimes even be given a choice of which book they wish to read or which problem they wish to solve—grouping themselves for that one task.
Once students reach high school, we should break the association between age and grade. If students are ready for calculus, they should be with other students who are also ready for calculus, whether they are 14, 15, 16 or 17 years old. When we group students by academic readiness, regardless of age, we create groups of mixed-ability students who are all ready for the same material. Mixed-age groups are also believed to have social benefits. Older students embrace their jobs as role models, and young students work harder to prove their maturity.
Diversity, not just of race and class but also of modes of thought, is important in education. Education is the glue that binds our democratic nation together. We need to give students the opportunity to reach their full potential while also learning to work and live together in a diverse world.