New findings based on more than 20 years of research suggest that despite decades of controversy, elementary school teachers now feel fine placing students into "ability groups."
New findings based on more than 20 years of research suggest that despite decades of controversy, elementary school teachers now feel fine placing students in "ability groups."
The research, out Monday from the centrist Brookings Institution's Brown Center on American Education, finds that between 1998 and 2009, the percentage of fourth-grade teachers who said they created ability-based reading groups skyrocketed from 28% to 71%. In math, between 1996 and 2011, the practice rose from 40% to 61%. The practice remained fairly constant in eighth-grade math, rising from 71% to 76%. Data for other eighth-grade subjects was incomplete or inconclusive.
Brookings researcher Tom Loveless said the practice, frowned upon for decades and dubbed a civil-rights issue in the 1990s, likely gave way in the last decade to new demands from the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which required schools to focus on struggling students in reading and math.
"Despite decades of vehement criticism and mountains of documents urging schools to abandon their use, tracking and ability grouping persist — and for the past decade or so, have thrived," Loveless said.
Grouping works within a single class and is typically done just at the elementary school level. Tracking is a larger, more institutionalized form of grouping that involves moving students into different classes. It generally takes place in middle school and high school.
The data are based on teacher surveys conducted as part of the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress, a reading and math test administered to thousands of students every two years.
Loveless said the data may downplay the extent to which teachers of younger students are now grouping them. Grouping, he said, peaks around first grade.
Patrick Boodey, principal of Woodman Park School in Dover, N.H., said the new findings on ability grouping are accurate but added that teachers have gotten more sophisticated: They now use "dynamic grouping" that moves students as their skills improve. Groups sometimes change week to week. "It's constant," he said.
For decades beginning in the 1970s, separating students by ability came under intense criticism from some researchers, with many saying it often amounted to separating students by race and class. By the early 1990s, several civil rights and education organizations, including the Children's Defense Fund and the NAACP , condemned the practice.
Like other public institutions, Loveless said, schools keep "an ear to the ground" for public opinion: When a practice becomes controversial, teachers back off. But after the mid-1990s, the controversy died, and schools "returned to both practices," although the education establishment hasn't necessarily changed its mind: The National Education Association (NEA), which represents 3 million teachers and other school employees, supports the elimination of tracking.
In a statement on its website, the union says that for struggling students, "a steady diet of lower expectations leads to a low level of motivation toward school." While acknowledging that proponents see grouping as a way to tailor instruction to students' needs, NEA notes critics' claims that it "channels poor and minority students to low tracks where they receive a lower quality of instruction."
Several factors were likely at play in the quiet change, Loveless said, including an uptick in computerized instruction, which naturally segregates students by skill levels; also, the rise of accountability requirements under NCLB has pushed schools to pay more attention to students who are just below "proficiency" levels in reading and math.
Boodey, the New Hampshire principal, said ability grouping "has been going on since the one-room schoolhouse — what we call it has changed over time," he said. He added, "As a teacher you know in your heart you need to meet the needs of each child."