Ability Grouping: Beyond Labels

Student grouping has been a contentious issue in the U.S. for more than 100 years. The disputed approaches bear labels such as tracking, ability grouping, homogeneous versus heterogeneous classrooms, cooperative learning, elitism, racism, achievement gap, and countless other terms.

What’s at stake is how to give each child the most effective education possible within the realities of public schooling. The challenge, essentially, is how to organize the teaching of large, increasingly diverse numbers of learners to maximize their opportunities, talents and achievement.

There are as many views as there are people,” says David Santore, EdD, director of curriculum and instruction for Woodbridge, DE, School District. As for eliminating tracking, Santore says, “I could argue both sides of the coin.”

There is increased interest across the country in opening up the most accelerated, challenging curriculum to a broader range of students than ever before. Regardless, schools continue to use a variety of grouping strategies, within and between classes, to improve student performance.

Not ‘Either-Or’

Decisions on how we group students have educational and socio-political implications. Grouping mirrors, as well as impacts, our expectations for the future of students and for society. The question hinges on successful instruction — which strategies for grouping yield desired opportunities, motivation, creativity and investment in talent? Instructional grouping is not a simple either-or choice.

The range of achievement in a typical elementary school classroom exceeds the number of that grade level — meaning that for any topic being taught in a 4th grade class, there are students performing below 2nd grade level as well as students operating higher than 6th grade level. Successfully reaching such different learners is not an easy task for even the most skillful educator. Yet society cannot thrive when so many children are being left behind.

The concept of “tracking” has transformed over previous decades, due in part to laws and court cases. Courts have rejected as discriminatory the kind of tracking that is rigid, long-term, based on fixed definitions of ability, allocates resources unequally, and demonstrates no resulting improvement in achievement for under-performing students.

In contrast, the courts have accepted grouping that is flexible and fluid, that is based on ongoing assessments of student proficiency in specific skills and concepts, that contains materials and strategies targeted appropriately to raise these proficiencies and indeed, that results in improvements by underachieving students.

The point is “to do right by the child instructionally,” clarifies Dr. Santore. Any grouping must serve the needs of students, he says. The bottom line is that the grouping must result in promoting student achievement.


That kind of grouping might sound easy, but how do you do it? Decades of research reports seem to contradict each other, driven more by philosophy than by rigorous investigation.

Of concern, for instance, is that youngsters who aren’t ready to take algebra by 8th grade won’t be in sequence for calculus before college application time. A flip side of this concern is that students grouped in lower math studies will then be limited to modified, lower-level math and science curriculum as well. And so it spirals, reinforcing an achievement gap that disproportionately leaves economically poor and minority children at the bottom performance levels.

In districts where tracking starts in primary grades, student performance in 2nd grade can have major long-term ramifications, notes Claudia Lyles, EdD, director of curriculum for the Cherry Hill, NJ, Public Schools. Many 8-year-olds just need a little more time and exposure to master certain skills.

“But too often, these students are not exposed to the same level and challenge in curriculum as the higher track kids. Expectations drop. They get more drill and less higher-order thinking. You can’t eliminate an achievement gap without exposure,” Dr. Lyles explains.

She describes an experience she had as an administrator working in another district. Disturbed about the possible role of expectations and bias in determining class groupings, administrators
went back through the records of all incoming 9th grade students, sorting them into groups based solely on their performances as measured by SAT 9 scores and grades.

Lyles says based on these measures, large numbers of students of color ended up in higher-level groups than the groups to which they had previously been assigned.

Seeking Solutions

Lyles is a leader of the Delaware Valley Minority Student Achievement Consortium. The Consortium includes 25 area school districts, representatives from the University of Pennsylvania and two Intermediate Units. The group’s goal is to bridge the gap that serves as a de facto achievement ceiling for so many minority students. One way to do that, leaders hope, is by raising the bar for everyone, including the low-performing minority students.

Is it really possible to raise the achievement for these learners without weakening opportunities for the high performers? “Look at Rockville Centre Public School District on Long Island, NY. They’re the poster children for that!” observes Steve Taylor, PhD, director of teaching and learning for secondary education in the Rose Tree Media School District in Media, PA. Dr. Taylor has seen Rockville in action, and says it’s very inspiring.

He notes that Rockville has consistently committed to its Universal Acceleration and Detracking program for many years, and that is “paying dividends” in measurable achievement for previously low-performing and high-performing students. “When the default curriculum is at a high level, students do well,” says Lyles. At Rockville, there are only two curricula, she explains, the Regents and International Baccalaureate, both academically rigorous.

Data presented by the Rockville Centre confirm success at all levels. Of course, both Dr. Taylor and Dr. Lyles concede that such progress does require some intensive support for students who need help, and for the teaching staff as well.

A Key Approach

Differentiation of instruction is a key strategy regardless of grade level, says Steve Taylor, PhD, director of secondary teaching at the Rose Tree Media School District in Media, PA.
This approach refers to identifying different student needs and providing for them by teachers in their daily routines and preparation. Differentiation is useful for reaching different learners even in homogeneous (unmixed) groupings.

An example of differentiated content might be seen in the reading program TeenBiz, conducted in the Rose Tree Media schools through the help of computer technology. Students take a short diagnostic exercise to establish their reading level on a particular subject. Then different students read individualized versions of the same information, differentiated by vocabulary and syntax appropriate for those needing material at, say a 2nd or 7th grade level.

Another example of differentiated content might be in a lesson about Iraq. Some students might read an article in Time and others from the National Review, which frequently employs more complex words and concepts. But both sets of students come together able to contribute to a common discussion.

In addition to content, differentiation of process might involve choices in how to practice a skill. Differentiation of product might allow students to demonstrate their learning via an essay or creation of a web page.

Differentiation of instruction “is tricky,” says Dr. Taylor, because it takes extra preparation and requires tremendous focus by the teachers. Districts across the nation have been providing staff development and coaching to help teachers use this approach. 

Area Example: Rose Tree Media

 Dr. Taylor describes his district’s approach to grouping as “flexible.” The most heterogeneous (mixed) classrooms are those at the elementary level. Groupings based upon classroom performance increase in language arts and math as students get older. By 4th and 5th grades, for example, students showing strong skills in math participate in the faster-paced Accelerated Math Program. Students may also be grouped for Enhanced Language Arts at the middle school. By high school, the district offers students multiple levels, including numerous Advanced Placement courses as well.

However, Dr. Taylor emphasizes the removal of barriers that people sometimes associate withtracking. Students are re-evaluated each year, and parents can waive a youngster into any course, despite the recommended grouping. Lower-performing classes “are not dumping grounds. They’re small classes here, and they’re taught by the top teachers in our district. We work on moving students up,” he says. Meanwhile gifted and advanced students remain quite strong on all indicators their parents value, such as Advanced Placement scores and alumni surveys about preparation.

Area Example: Woodbridge

Flexible grouping is also the approach in Woodbridge School District, according to Dr. Santore. Younger grades are primarily heterogeneously grouped, transitioning to tracking by performance level in specific subjects once students reach 8th grade. But Dr. Santore focuses on the importance of instruction over the format of grouping.

An example of instructional differentiation is Woodbridge’s Reading First program. A federally funded initiative, Reading First provides for whole-group instruction, followed by more targeted reading activities according to different skill levels. The program also offers different “centers” in the same room that are associated with the related differentiated learning activities (such as vocabulary centers, audio-tapes and related stories for students to read in pairs). Each school has a reading coach to support differentiation of instruction.

Such grouping doesn’t last the entire day. Dr. Santore points to the socialization and modeling value of mixed classrooms, where groupings ebb and flow according to specific skills. “Students need to work well with all others. Life’s not just a single group of people,” he says.

Top-tier students at Woodbridge, those who master the curriculum quickly and are motivated to work hard and advance, can participate in the “Academic Challenge Program” at Delaware Technical College starting in 8th grade. This college-secondary school partnership offers Sussex County students acceleration in math and English, including college-level work for juniors and seniors.

Area Example: Cherry Hill

Similarly, the Cherry Hill Public Schools organize primary grades heterogeneously, becoming more stratified in upper grades where courses require more specialized knowledge and skills, says Tony Trongone, the district’s math

Trongone admires Rockville’s high track for all students and strong support for students and teachers. He notes that Cherry Hill is pushing to make advanced course levels “more accessible” to all students. Strong, experienced teachers teach freshmen and all courses and achievement levels. The entire K-12 instruction is guided by student data, and math coaches are used intensively for teacher development, to enhance their content knowledge and develop questioning skills.

Such initiatives, combined with constant attention to curriculum extension and enrichment, have helped close the district’s achievement gaps “without dumbing down” or trading off the interests of any group of learners, says Trongone.

Emotions sometimes flare as parents worry about the educational opportunities and progress available to their children. But in the world of grouping, it’s overly simplistic to define a strict either-or, zero-sum game.

“There are places for both homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping in the system,” says Rose Tree Media’s Steve Taylor. “They’re both useful; they don’t cancel each other out. Some combination is the best way to go.”

Ann L. Rappoport, PhD is an educational consultant and a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Education Features