Ability Grouping or tracking may be making a comeback

20 Mar

A study by Courtney A. Collins and Li Gan, Does Sorting Students Improve Scores? An Analysis of Class Composition is focusing attention on ability grouping or tracking. The NEA Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Group defines ability grouping:

Ability grouping, also known as tracking, is the practice of grouping children together according to their talents in the classroom. At the elementary school level, the divisions sound harmless enough – kids are divided into the Bluebirds and Redbirds. But in secondary schools, the stratification becomes more obvious as students assume their places in the tracking system. In many instances, these students are given labels that stay with them as they move from grade to grade. For those on the lower tracks, a steady diet of lower expectations leads to a low level of motivation toward school. Consequently, in high school, the groups formerly known as the Bluebirds and Redbirds have evolved into tracks: College Preparatory and Vocational.

The educational practice of ability grouping emerged around the turn of the 20th century as a way to prepare students for their “appropriate” place in the workforce (Cooper, 1996). Students with high abilities and skills were given intense, rigorous academic training while students with lower abilities were given a vocational education.

The two most common forms of ability grouping are:

  • Within-class grouping – a teacher’s practice of putting students of similar ability into small groups usually for reading or math instruction
  • Between-class grouping –  a school’s practice of separating students into different classes, courses, or course sequences (curricular tracks) based on their academic achievement

Proponents of ability grouping say that the practice allows teachers to tailor the pace and content of instruction much better to students’ needs and, thus, improve student achievement. For example, teachers can provide needed repetition and reinforcement for low-achieving students and an advanced level of instruction to high achievers.

Opponents, however, contend that ability grouping not only fails to benefit any student, but it also channels poor and minority students to low tracks where they receive a lower quality of instruction than other groups. This, they claim, contributes to a widening of the achievement gaps. The National Education Association supports the elimination of such groupings. NEA believes that the use of discriminatory academic tracking based on economic status, ethnicity, race, or gender must be eliminated in all public school settings (NEA Resolutions B-16, 1998, 2005) http://www.nea.org/tools/16899.htm

Collins and Li studied data from the Dallas Independent School District.

Jay Mathews writes in the Washington Post article, Ability grouping is back despite scholarly qualms:

Except that it did, as Brookings Institution education expert Tom Loveless reveals in a new report. The canaries, redbirds and other ability-group fauna took a huge hit from scholars studying inequity in American schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Teachers moved away from ability grouping.

Now, without much notice, they have moved back. Depending on your point of view, the No Child Left Behind law deserves credit or blame for the return of my bluebirds and lesser fowl.

Loveless, senior fellow at Brookings’s Brown Center on Education Policy, examines this turnabout in his new report, “How Well Are American Students Learning?” He is a former teacher with an eye for newsworthy developments in education reform.

One of the earliest and sharpest attacks on ability grouping was Ray C. Rist’s 1970 paper, “Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education.” Loveless says Rist “followed a group of kindergarten students through the first few years of school and noted how the composition of the reading groups rarely changed, consistently reflecting students’ socioeconomic status.” Rist said teachers developed higher expectations for the more affluent kids in the top groups.

Other scholars assaulted tracking, the practice of putting classes at different levels in the same grade, rather than the ability-grouping approach of different levels in the same class. Jeannie Oakes’s 1985 book “Keeping Track” argues that tracking was an attack on social justice, making inequality worse.

Loveless’s research shows that the anti-tracking movement had some effect, although middle schools and high schools still have one set of courses for college-oriented students and a less demanding set in the same subjects for those not so academically inclined.

The biggest triumph of the anti-trackers, particularly evident in this area, has been the opening of college-level classes like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and the Advanced International Certificate of Education to all students who want to take them.

Ability grouping declined more sharply than tracking did in the face of the scholarly assault. A 1986 Johns Hopkins survey found bluebird/redbird/canary/etc. groupings in at least 80 percent of elementary schools. By the mid-1990s, such grouping had dropped to as low as 27 percent, according to another study.

Then it rebounded. A 2006 survey found that ability grouping was back to 63 percent of teachers. The jump was even more pronounced in fourth-grade reports from the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, from 28 percent of students in ability groups in 1998 to 71 percent in 2009. The jump in math ability groups was from 40 percent of students in 1996 to 61 percent in 2011.

Washington area school officials tell me tracking and ability grouping is permitted as long as students are not stuck at one level and are helped to improve.

Studies show teachers prefer ability grouping to teaching all students, fast and slow, at the same time. Ability grouping also helps them focus on those children closest to reaching the proficiency targets under No Child Left Behind. This retread from my youth is back, and likely to stay, no matter what researchers and my mom think of it. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/class-struggle/post/ability-grouping-is-back-despite-scholarly-qualms/2013/03/17/5dc15a1c-8df8-11e2-9f54-f3fdd70acad2_blog.html

Citation:

Does Sorting Students Improve Scores? An Analysis of Class Composition

Courtney A. Collins, Li Gan

NBER Working Paper No. 18848
Issued in February 2013
NBER Program(s):   ED

This paper examines schools’ decisions to sort students into different classes and how those sorting processes impact student achievement. There are two potential effects that result from schools creating homogeneous classes—a “tracking effect,” which allows teachers to direct their focus to a more narrow range of students, and a peer effect, which causes a particular student’s achievement to be influenced by the quality of peers in his classroom. In schools with homogeneous sorting, both the tracking effect and the peer effect should benefit high performing students. However, the effects would work in opposite directions for a low achieving student; he would benefit from the tracking effect, but the peer effect should decrease his score. This paper seeks to determine the net effect for low performing students in order to understand the full implications of sorting on all students.

We use a unique student-level data set from Dallas Independent School District that links students to their actual classes and reveals the entire distribution of students within a classroom. We find significant variation in sorting practices across schools and use this variation to identify the effect of sorting on student achievement. Implementing a unique instrumental variables approach, we find that sorting homogeneously by previous performance significantly improves students’ math and reading scores. This effect is present for students across the score distribution, suggesting that the net effect of sorting is beneficial for both high and low performing students. We also explore the effects of sorting along other dimensions, such as gifted and talented status, special education status, and limited English proficiency.

You may purchase this paper on-line in .pdf format from SSRN.com ($5) for electronic delivery.

There are pros and cons of ability grouping.

Margie of Bright Hub Education lists the pros and cons of ability grouping in the article, The Pros and Cons of Ability Grouping:

Positive Aspects of Ability Grouping

Students Are Not Forced To Wait Or Rush

When you place students of the same ability together, they usually are able to work at about the same pace. This means the students that understand the concept you are teaching can move on to a more advanced stage and the ones that need extra guidance can slow down and get extra help. No one is waiting on someone else to grasp a concept (that they already understand) and no one is being forced to move on before they are ready.

Teacher Can Work More Intensely With Those That Need Help

When you divide your class into ability groups, you will have groups that completely understand the topic and are ready to move on to something new. You will have groups that understand most of the concept but need some extra practice, and you will have groups that need extra instruction and guidance before they can progress. Since they are seated and working together, you can take this opportunity to sit with the ones that need extra instruction and provide it for them. The other students have their assignments, so they are busy working on material that has been tailored to fit their needs, so this frees you up to spend some time with those who need it.

Students Are Allowed to “Fly” On Their Own

The students that clearly understand a concept have time to move forward and progress at a faster pace and possibly move on to a more complex topic. This can build self-esteem and alleviate boredom in the classroom.

Negative Aspects of Ability Grouping

Students May Get “Stuck” In a Group

It is important to remember that no student is perfect at everything and no student is bad at everything. Sometimes, when we ability group it is easy to label students and place them in the same low, middle, or high group time after time. This can lead to labeling, (the “nerdy group” or the “dumb group”) something teachers want to avoid at all costs. Afterall, a huge part of our job is to make our students feel confident and secure.

It is easy to avoid this by using a data notebook to track students’ progress. This way you do not unintentionally place students in the same groups time after time. If you follow the data, students will actually be placed according to their ability.

If you do notice that students are consistently being placed in the same group, you might want to shake things up and step away from ability grouping for awhile, or try some heterogeneous grouping. School is hard enough for our students, we certainly don’t want to give anyone a reason to bully or tease a classmate.

Additional Work For The Teacher

Ability grouping can add additional work for the teacher… and teachers are certainly busy enough. Ability grouping is not something that has to be done every day, or even every week if you are having a particularly busy week. Figure out the concepts where you seem to have the most differing abilities and use ability grouping only in those areas. Ability grouping can be very beneficial, but only if it is done thoughtfully and with a plan in mind. If you are simply too busy to undertake it one week, put it off until the next.

Ability grouping can be looked at as simply another tool in your toolbox. Pull it out when you need it and when it will work for both you and your students. http://www.brighthubeducation.com/classroom-management/19620-pros-and-cons-of-ability-grouping/

Moi shares the concerns of the NEA that poor students and students of color may be channeled into lower aspirational tracks.

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One Response to “Ability Grouping or tracking may be making a comeback”

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