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Old Program Resurrects Debate on Student Equity

With larger class sizes and increasing student diversity, elementary school teachers are increasingly turning to grouping students by ability level to meet their individual needs, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on American Education.

Between 1998 and 2009, the percentage of fourth grade teachers who said they created ability-based reading groups rose from 28 percent to 71 percent. And in math, between 1996 and 2011, the practice jumped from 40 percent to 61 percent, states the report, “The Resurgence of Ability Grouping and Persistence of Tracking.”

Though research on ability grouping has generally found positive outcomes and has had continued parental support, the practice gained notoriety after it was labeled a civil rights issue in the 1990s, with groups including the NAACP saying it often involved separating students by race and class. “Most people think ability grouping died out in the ’90s, and we were quite surprised to see that it had come back so strongly,” says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the study’s author.

Why the recent increases? No Child Left Behind and accountability systems that focused on incentives for raising the performance of low-performing students provided justification for teachers to treat those students differently, Loveless says, and put them in groups for extra attention, extended learning time, and different instructional materials. Classroom technology that individually tailors content has also increased opportunities for students to work at their own skill level.

An oft-cited 1987 study from the Review of Educational Research found that grouping programs can increase student achievement when they are used only for one or two subjects, when group assignments are frequently reassessed, and when they involved substantial adjustment of curriculum to student skill levels. More recent studies from the University of Connecticut found similar results.

But critics, including the National Education Association, say ability grouping leads poor and minority students to receive poorer quality of instruction than other groups. “We often give high-poverty kids skill-based instruction, while kids who aren’t poor get meaning-enriched instruction,” says Richard Long, director of government relations at the International Reading Association. “The reality is, we need a little bit of both.”

Reading has historically been a subject in which students are grouped by ability, especially in the early grades. “Because of increasing class sizes, teachers have to manage a wider range of kids without having the resources to do it in a preferred way,” Long says. “It’s a response to the funding issues that have been hitting schools for the last several years.”

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