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The Truth About School 'Tracking'

Often, schools use ability grouping or differentiated instruction instead.

(page 1 of 2)

If you’re like most area parents, your memories of elementary school grouping likely consist of having your class divided into three groups for reading and math lessons. The names and faces in each group — one high, one average, the third low — didn’t change much (if at all) as you advanced from marking period to marking period, grade to grade. 

“At one time, you were assigned to a group, and that was pretty much it for the year,” says Bud Read, EdD, director of curriculum & instruction for the Colonial School District in New Castle, DE.

But these days, the educational practice called ability grouping — which divides students within one classroom into multiple smaller instructional groups based on current academic proficiencies — is much more dynamic. Students are assessed frequently and therefore don’t get pegged into one group for the duration of their academic careers. 

Ability grouping, sometimes referred to (and mistaken for) “tracking,” is used primarily for reading, writing and math instruction, especially in elementary school. In most schools, small-group instruction starts in Kindergarten. Students within a classroom are sorted into small groups of three to five, then work with a teacher or classroom aide for a 10- to 20-minute lesson. While the small group meets, other children in the classroom work independently while they wait their group’s turn. 

“There are times when it’s appropriate to group based on ability,” says Sharon A. Vitella, EdD, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment for South Jersey’s Mt. Laurel school district. However, there are many lessons for which the input and thought processes of a diverse group of students — for problem-solving, say, or science or math hypotheses — is beneficial.

Teachers also use other types of grouping, such as grouping by topic (to learn about sharks, for instance) or grouping by the skill being taught (to learn about inferences) in order to give classroom learning some variety. 

Definitions & critiques

Ability grouping has its critics, who feel that the practice leads to potentially negative labeling. Some believe the groupings might be predetermined, based on stereotypes of students’ gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status rather than on academic ability.

The fear is that students get stuck in a strata they can’t overcome, says Susan Wendel, reading support teacher in Pottstown, PA’s Owen J. Roberts School District. In such cases, students labeled as low-achieving in elementary school would continue on that track and remain low-achieving through high school. In her experience, though, says Wendel, “The [academic] rigor is there, no matter which group we’re talking about.” 

Next page: The difference between tracking and ability grouping

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