The Truth About School 'Tracking'


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


Ability grouping and tracking are often confused as synonyms, though they are different educational terms. In a tracking system, students receive instruction from different teachers, in different classrooms, and follow a different curriculum than other students — for example, to focus on advanced material.

Ability grouping allows one teacher to divide a single class into smaller instructional groups for the purpose of teaching a lesson. “All students start with the same basic content, but what they’re asked to do with it varies,” says Maria Matlack, MEd, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for New Jersey’s Lumberton Township School District.

For at-risk students, acceleration is the goal of grouping, says Wendel, who works with students to shore up skills in order to avoid special education services. If that doesn’t happen, however, ability grouping “starts to mess with their self-esteem,” believes MK reader and mom of three Belinda Ritter. In her sons’ case, she reports, ability grouping failed to address their special needs. “When they’re young it’s not as noticeable, but in middle school they start to ask questions like ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ”

It can be demoralizing, admits Vitella, to recognize that you’re in the lowest-achieving group. “Within a classroom, certainly students are aware of who’s in what group,” she says. However, Matlack finds that lower readers tend to be more confident in this setting because they find success when paired with peers of similar skills. “The attitude is ‘This is what I need to learn right now,’ not ‘I’m in the low group,’ ” she says. 

Fluidity & flexibility

Flexibility is “the beauty of small groups,” says Vitella. As students’ needs change, groups should change, too. In Wendel’s district, reading specialists meet with classroom teachers weekly to monitor progress and discuss potential changes in grouping.  

It’s beneficial for students to see different faces every day, says Matlack, so some teachers make up groups on the spot. Because of the fluidity this affords, the groups are not given a name or a label. 

According to Vitella, schools are getting better about collecting, analyzing and, especially, interpreting the data that breaks down student performance. It not only gives feedback about moving children up and down in groups but can also give parents feedback on how to help at home. 

Over the past three decades, observes Matlack, grouping trends went from three sections to teaching every student the exact same thing and now to multiple ability groups. “We have hit on a good formula, a nice balance,” she says. “Our focus is on getting better, wherever you are.” 

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.


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