“Ability grouping” returns to the classroom

The controversial practice of clustering students by learning strengths and weaknesses is back in favor

Topics: Education, ability grouping, Race, class, Discrimination, Education Reform, elementary school, Students, ,

"Ability grouping" returns to the classroom (Credit: Shutterstock)

The practice of clustering students by ability in elementary school classrooms — seating strong readers with other strong readers, struggling math students with other struggling math students — fell out of practice in the 1980s and 1990s following criticism that it perpetuated inequality in schools, but ability grouping has reemerged in recent years, according to a new analysis from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

According to the report, 71 percent of fourth-grade teachers surveyed said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. In math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers grouped students by ability in 2011, a 40 percent increase since 1996.

Teachers using the practice say it’s a necessary strategy to manage large classrooms with varying academic strengths and weaknesses represented among students. They also report that these ability clusters are dynamic and change throughout the year to accomodate students’ evolving strengths and struggles, as the New York Times reports:

In Ms. [Jill] Sears’s classroom at Woodman Elementary in Dover, the three or four groups of students rotate throughout the day, some being taught on the rug while others work in desk clusters. Before each unit, she groups the 26 children based on initial assessments, takes a few days to observe them in the smaller groups and revises the groups again, sometimes as often as every day.

In the decimal unit, one group might learn to add decimals using blocks they can manipulate with their hands, while another might be able to draw the models on their own. Yet another might practice using the algorithm for adding. The last group might be asked to analyze a word problem and apply the calculation.

“I can really hone in on their performance and see if they need to move up to a group that will help them access the same content in a way that works for them,” said Ms. Sears, who refers to the technique as dynamic grouping. “Are they an abstract learner, are they someone who needs to draw a picture, are they someone who needs to move their body, are they someone that likes to work alone?”

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But many education experts and civil rights groups remain critical of ability grouping, arguing the practice can shape teachers’ expectations in advance, trap students inside inflexible learning tracks and perpetuate inequality in the classroom by separating students into groups that often breakdown along race, class and native language lines. “The kids who are thought of as the least able end up with the fewest opportunities and resources and positive learning environments,” Jeannie Oakes, author of “Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality,” told the Times. “The potential benefit is so far outweighed by the very known and well-documented risks.”

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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