Ability Grouping, Once Spurned, is Gaining Popularity

When it comes to ability grouping in classroom instruction, what was old is now new again. At one point the practice of putting kids together in a classroom based on their achievement levels was considered standard practice. But this kind of grouping – also known as tracking – lost favor among education experts and administrators by the end of the 1980s. According to The New York Times, however, districts across the country are now giving it another look.

The hints that schools nationwide are adopting ability grouping again came from recently-released National Assessment of Education Progress data. According to the NAEP report, of the 4th grade teachers surveyed, 71% said that they’ve grouped their students by ability in reading classes in 2009, which represents a 28% increase over the previous decade.

Although grouping is less common in mathematics, more than 60% of instructors said that they’ve used ability and achievement to guide placement in 2011 for a 40% increase since 1996.

The resurgence of ability grouping comes as New York City grapples with the state of its gifted and talented programs — a form of tracking in some public schools in which certain students, selected through testing, take accelerated classes together.

These programs, which serve about 3 percent of the elementary school population, are dominated by white and Asian students.

Critics of grouping and tracking, a similar practice that assigns students to different classes based on ability, say that it brings about race- and income-segregated school environments. The mass abandonment of grouping in the late 80s and early 90s was driven by the worry that students would lose out by getting “stuck” in a particular group for the remainder of their academic careers.

“The kids who are thought of as the least able end up with the fewest opportunities and resources and positive learning environments,” said Jeannie Oakes, author of “Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality,” a popular critique of grouping. “The potential benefit is so far outweighed by the very known and well-documented risks.”

The NAEP isn’t the first to note that the popularity of ability grouping is growing. Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution released its own report showing that teachers were using the approach more and more in their classroom despite criticism from education theorists.

Tom Loveless, who authored the Brown Center Report on American Education, believes that the practice has received an undeserved reputation and that its value to improving academic outcomes for all students will be proven with additional research.