Holiday party chatter: Tracking and testing

I hope the holidays were pleasant for everyone. Except for one vigorous debate with my husband over whether to wash the pre-washed lettuce yet again, we had a serene and home-bound holiday. We visited friends in the neighborhood. made fudge and  played  Rummikub.

Because most of my friends have school-age kids, we always fall into conversation about education. I  want to share two conversation themes that came up several times over the holidays.

The first is the perennial private school versus public debate. I am in a strong public system here in Decatur, made all the stronger by the prevalence of parents with advanced college degrees.  (This is due to the high number of CDC researchers, Emory doctors and college professors who live here. )

Neighbors with two kids in public school and one in private told me that the biggest difference they saw was testing. Their public school offspring were always being prepped for tests or taking tests. And they felt that once the CRCT was completed in the spring, most learning stopped in public schools. Their youngest in a private school spends little time preparing for tests or taking tests. They feel that he has had a more rewarding experience in school as a result of being spared testing pressures and preparation.

The second issue that came up a lot is tracking based on abilities. Until this year, our local middle school had advanced classes in math and language arts for children who tested into them. This year, they are not pulling students out of classes but creating “clusters” for those capable of more challenging work within the regular classes. Few parents of advanced students thought this approach was working well.

I attended a high school with rigid tracking and have mixed feelings about it. But I also think the success of this  “cluster”  approach to acceleration depends on the ability of teachers to differentiate instruction, an issue that we have debated here on the blog many times.

I have teacher friends who contend that differentiating instruction for every child is impossible in classes of 30 students with ability levels that range from functioning years below grade level to years beyond. In such a diverse pool of learners, teachers tell me that they have to throw the life preserver to the students who can barely tread water in class and leave the Olympic-level swimmers on their own.

In talking to parents about offering advanced opportunities within regular classes, most said their kids didn’t quite grasp that they were in an advanced cluster; the kids only grumbled that they received packets of advanced work to do. Some of the kids treated the packets as optional.

It still surprises me that school systems are experimenting with how best to address advanced learners as I would assume that there would be clear findings by now on what works. I also think that administrators tend to oversell these programs to parents during orientation meetings. The administrators describe how the program should work when all the conditions are optimal and the teacher is on board and highly effective.

But few classrooms have optimal conditions.

–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get School blog

47 comments Add your comment


December 26th, 2010
10:48 am

Tracking/Ability Grouping. Hmmm……
The educational establishment seems to be very much against tracking and ability grouping, and rather much more in favor of heterogeneous classrooms and differentiated instruction. This in spite of the fact that “differentiated instruction” comes with more work for teachers, and with such instruction is comparatively more fragmented and hence somewhat less effective than instruction planned for classes which have been grouped by achievement.

Do our educational leaders oppose the creation of advanced tracks and/or classes because as students they themselves were placed in such classes and found them to be unsatisfactory?


December 26th, 2010
10:54 am

First off, I hope you had a good Christmas, Maureen. I have seen the problems with a lack of at least somewhat tracking students, but a the same time I see the problems of not giving all students the opportunity to succeed. Until this year, at the school I work at we have had advanced level classes for students in Social Studies until their senior year for Economics. Students either went into AP or they were in general level Economics. Many students who already were enrolled in several AP classes in the Math or Science departments did not want to overload themselves with another. The problem is you had students capable of doing higher level work getting into classes with those who needed the additional support. When you try to differentiate, too often you would hear “well why does so and so only have to do this, but I have to do this more challenging assignment.”

That being said, last year I had a student who should have been in a collaborative class, but for whatever reason was not. I was told he operated on perhaps a 4th or 5th grade level. I don’t know how it happened, but this young man managed to earn a solid C in my course and on the EOCT, although he did not pass it, he did earn a grade in the high 60s. Not bad for someone who struggled so much. What would have happened to him if he were stuck in a resource class? I really don’t want to think.

It’s such a tight rope to walk. I can say from my own experience when my high school moved everyone from tracked science classes for physical science and biology to one class for chemistry, I was quite bored, and a friend of mine out of sheer boredom actually managed to shake the bolts holding his desk together out of the holes. I don’t think there will ever be a clear cut answer for this problem, but I have a funny feeling the tide will turn back towards tracking before long and then back towards differentiation again several times during my career.


December 26th, 2010
11:02 am

One other note, while I’m thinking about it….. if we have so much emphasis on testing but that testing comes with so little accountability, what is it really designed to do…. oh wait, we’re all bad teachers and we must show that through student testing that has no accountability on the students. On a more serious note, I do know that EOCT is scheduled to replace GHSGT and become 25% of the students’ grades, but look at what the test does now. Let’s say, hypothetically you have a 75 in a course and all you care about is passing the course so you don’t have to retake it. At 15%, that student knows they only need a 38 on the EOCT. Not much of a motivator there. Even at 25%, that necessary grade is only 53 on EOCT. Still not much motivation to the students, but could be end of the world for the teachers. Why do I have to start on January 4 preparing students for EOCT instead of actually trying to get them to enjoy my course – and not to toot my own horn, but since I am responsible for teaching personal finance too, making sure students become financially responsible adults?


December 26th, 2010
11:43 am

We do know what works best, but that is not the modus operendi in Georgia where public education is the step-child of our state legislature despite the constitutional mandate that outtlines education as a priority. If we survive this next session with Chip Rogers, et al in charge, public education can be truly called resilient.


December 26th, 2010
11:45 am

30+ years teaching middle school, mostly Math. The most difficulty I had being effective was with non-tracked, heterogeneously grouped classes. I had all the training, tools, and experiences to write and instruct differentiated lessons and even so, both ends of the spectrum were shortchanged. My greatest successes came when students were grouped to take advanced level classes in Algebra and even HS Geometry and when special ed students were pulled for small group math instruction by someone who knew math. A key component was the flexibility to move students up levels when they showed potential, interest, motivation, etc.

I believe that in our attempts to give everyone equal opportunities and keep everyone “feeling good about themselves” we have dumbed down our middle grades instruction and thus the high school years following.

I now substitute and get an inside view of the swinging pendulum. Why they swing back to heterogeneous classes, particularly in Math is beyond me. And clustering advanced 6th graders in a 7th grade general level class so they can take the higher content? Not a solution to meeting their needs! That doesn’t engage them in the critical thinking they can do to apply those harder skills because they sit in classes with kids who can’t even multiply but have to take 7th grade math because it’s their grade level. And the 6th graders who get it the first time have to hear reteaching instead of moving on.


December 26th, 2010
12:06 pm

These discussions have merit. The testing situation in public schools is absurd. It hinders authentic learning and is designed to serve politicians who want to provide “proof” that they’re serious about education to parents and voters, who generally accept simplistic data that looks good on paper but in reality is at best useless and at worst harmful to kids’ learning. It also serves the politicians by ensuring huge campaign contributions from testing companies, who make kajillions of dollars on this standardized test mania. But it doesn’t do a darn thing for our kids.

For those truly interested in using our education system to actually teach kids, look at the research on standardized testing. There’s gobs of it. Little to none of it supports the theory that standardized tests improve student learning, and most research indicates that standardized tests and the absurd emphasis on it actually have a NEGATIVE impact on student learning. In other words, kids learn LESS with this emphasis on standardized tests, not more.

Finally, when the heck are we going to get computers in every classroom — and especially English classrooms where kids are supposed to be learning how to write? Our education system must teach relevant skills that will help kids become productive workers and contributors to our society. We still have computer “labs” where kids go to learn computer skills for an hour or so a day, or a few days a week — as if technology won’t dominate every aspect of their adult work lives when they graduate. We ask kids to hand-write essays, then wonder why (a) they hate writing; (b) they can’t write; and (c) don’t write, yet they’re eager to text and tweet and facebook (which is ALL writing) on a 24-hour cycle. I worked in a classroom last year (at a suburban Atlanta middle school) where kids were learning to write a friendly letter, as if that’s a skill they’ll ever need in their lifetimes. Why not teach them how to write a decent and effective e-mail instead? BECAUSE THERE AREN’T ANY COMPUTERS!

We can talk about clusters and AP and the best solutions for accelerated learners and slow learners, but, JMO, let’s give them relevant tools for learning first. Then we can discuss the best way to develop learning plans and academic tracks.

Dr. Craig Spinks /Augusta

December 26th, 2010
12:24 pm


Teacher and student accountability are the two sides of the same coin. Each is inseparably attached to the other. How can a student be held accountable for learning material if his/her teacher is not held accountable for teaching the material? Similarly, how can a teacher be held accountable for student learning if the student is not accountable for his/her own learning? If you’re going to be held accountable for the scores your students earn on their EOCTs in May, your students should be held accountable for the scores they earn on these tests. Making at least 50% of their final course grades dependent upon their scores on their EOCTs should do much to provide many of them the motivation to learn that they seem unfortunately to lack. On the other hand, do we really expect the GA public school educracy to remake EOCTs and the remainder of its armamentarium of tests(CRCTs, GHSGTs, GMSWTs et al.) into the rigorous, consequential, “high stakes” measures that it has deluded the public into believing that these tests are? Don’t you just wince when you hear many parents proudly announce that their children have passed the “heralded” CRCTs, GHSGTs, and GMSWTs but do not appreciate that their kids’ reading, math and writing scores on national tests occupy the lowest ranks? Are “deceit,” “malfeasance” and “fraud” three words which might describe such systematic delusion. What do you think?


December 26th, 2010
12:27 pm

I think we all know or at least suspect that in education we don’t always go with what works (for anybody). Because of political pressure, there is a great deal of “fear” about tracking kids. The parents of advanced kids love it–it seems to meet many of their academic needs, fills the parents with pride, allows the kids to be away from many of the wildly disobedient kids, etc (not that the advanced kids are perfect angels, either. Many advanced kids have overly exaggerated feelings of superiority that are unwarranted, and they feel “above” many of the rules that constrain the “rest.” And many of their parents agree with this assessment, and expect their children to be cut some slack once they are sheltered away from “those kids.”)

It’s the parents of the rest that tend to rebel against tracking. They see it as not in their kids’ best interest. They also see it as inflexible.

On the DCS: My impression is that there are 2 worlds in DCS: the kids from families like you named, and the kids from the poor projects. The high concentration of highly-educated families helps “pull up” the expectations for all the kids. Is that impression correct?


December 26th, 2010
12:29 pm

“Their youngest in a private school spends little time preparing for tests or taking tests. They feel that he has had a more rewarding experience in school as a result of being spared testing pressures and preparation”

So why do we continue to test? Why do we continue to spend millions of dollars on standardized testing while slashing fine arts programs, physical education, field trips, and enrichment and remediation programs? Why do we continue to throw more and more money into the testing pit but cut media center budgets? Why?

I propose it is because middle class parents have been bought and sold by the “standardized testing” machine and convinced that the only way you can truly judge the quality of your child’s school is through test scores. You’ve been conditioned to ignore that little voice that says, “This isn’t right.”

Why do I feel this way? Because as long as the test scores are “passing” parents may grumble about the disappearance of band, music, art, libraries, AP classes, etc, but they’ll accept the cuts…as long as the test scores are passing. Common sense has been drowned out by a false sense of security called an “passing &/or exceeds on the CRCT/EOCT.

Actually the answer to your question is simple. Demand we stop spending money on CRCT/EOCT tests that are not mandated by NCLB and re-direct that money back into classroom focused initiatives.

Dr. Craig Spinks /Augusta

December 26th, 2010
12:30 pm


Standardized testing itself is not bad. It does not necessarily produce bad results. Its abuse is bad and produces such results.


December 26th, 2010
1:04 pm

… and the pendulum swings back. Back in the day of John Hughes HS, we were tracked starting in MS even now that I think about it. Not everyone was college prep. material; and there were different echelons of college prep. Were you land grant university material/possible Ivy League, or just your regular college prep. going to a regional college – back when Georgia had colleges and the unfortunate consequence of HOPE – HS grade inflation & a state wide Lake Wobegon mentality that everyone is college prep. – even ELLs who come to US schools as Freshmen in HS and kids who are some of the lowest of low IQs in Sp.Ed. Success is individual, but that’s another blog entry.
Now, at the MS that I teach at we have started “tracking,” but we would never call it that … but it is what it is. There are advanced teams (the kids don’t know that they’re called) with the gifted & higher regular ed. Kids who could easily move from a level 2 to 3 on their CRCTs. Then there are the ESOL & Sp.Ed. teams that include those students and regular ed. kids – it’s a Title I school, so a lot of these kids struggle like the ELLs & Sp.Ed., but don’t qualify or are former ELLs, so they benefit from the kids of instruction that they get on these teams, whereas on the advanced teams the regular kids are challenged more and taken to a higher level, hopefully. Since, it’s just a little bit intergraded, and there aren’t such huge level differences it’s easier for the teachers to provide true differentiated instruction. We’ll see how it works out … this is the first year with the advanced teams, but we’ve had the ESOL & Sp.Ed. teams for years.
As far as testing is concerned. GCPS allowed schools to opt out of pretesting & midterm Benchmark testing of students – my school elected to just take the post-term test. It was nice to have those instructional days back. I mean really – what’s the point of students taking a pretest other than for data for some teacher’s RBES goal. Most of the kids start the year not knowing/not doing their best anyway – why waste instructional time. Welcome to 6th grade – take some exams on the first week of school – yea!


December 26th, 2010
1:16 pm

2010-Clustering in Public Education… is what we called… in 1960 …SEGREGATION.
White folks know this…Black folks know this…and Hispanics will take what ever they can get.
Turning a blind eye to this continues to AVOID the real problems in public education…Lower the class size, differentiate instruction, stop standing IN FRONT OF an overhead like some corporate executive –teaching the test, and give a student the basic skills and MOST OF ALL a love for learning… RIGHT NOW…PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE STILL TEACHING LIKE IT IS 1960..regurgitating KNOWLEDGE IS LABELED AS SMART…AND this is BORING THE HELL OUT OF OUR FUTURE CREATIVE MINDS.

First, the Public Education System needs to get their head out of the sand and into this era.
A Test Score is only one …if at all …an indicator of knowledge.

Ed Johnson

December 26th, 2010
1:16 pm

How might a teacher get a “class of 30 students with ability levels that range from functioning years below grade level to years beyond” to be a teaching and learning system?

Might it be possible that all the help the teacher needs is inherent in the variety among the students? Must, at every instance, the teacher be the teacher of the 30 students? When might some students be teachers? When might the teacher be student?

Now, what’s interesting about any system is that it has an emergent behavior or property that no one part of the system has.

For example, a “vigorous debate … over whether to wash the pre-washed lettuce yet again” describes a system — hopefully very short-lived — that emerged from differently held beliefs. No single belief is a debate.

So, why must the teacher be a master reductionist who must manage the 30 students individually, as parts? Instead, can’t the teacher be a master synthetist that gets the 30 students functioning as a system that draws from every student’s abilities and, at the same time, advances every student’s learning competencies?

Organic farmer and journalist Donella Meadow’s wisdom in “Dancing with Systems” might shed some light on why ask these stupid questions:

another comment

December 26th, 2010
1:48 pm

This little senerio may help explain the problem, my daughter was invited to a high school classmate sophmore’s sweet 16 party at the local high school. The girl lives on the very edge on South Cobb off Bankhead Highway ( as I unfortuately found out when I was asked to give a ride to South Vinings, it is not), and has a transfter into a Smyrna High School. My daughter was asked to be in the Court and then was told to buy a certain attire, as was her boyfriend. This party continued to take front and center attention even after it became public knowledge that this girl was failing her classes. How did it become public knowledge the cheerleading coach got the balls to suspend 9 of the 18 girls on the team for failing 1 or more classes about 3 weeks ago until they could bring their grades up above a D. She sent all parents repeat e-mails since mid-terms that all the girls had to provide their grades and must be above a D or higher to Cheer. When she finally suspended 9 from cheering, she said they could not attend any of the games. They then attended the games and jeered the 9 cheerleaders who were passing alll of their classes this included several girls who were in AP, IB and Honors classes. The coach kicked them out of that game. The coach sent a new round of e-mails to parents that they are Student – Atheletes and the Student part comes first, that your student should be home studying, they are not allowed to attend any basketball games. Again the failing nine showed up to the next basket ball game ( the school’s basket ball team are in the top 5 in the State in 5 A, they were in the bottom in Football). The Coach kicked them out again, sent another e-mail and told the parents that they would be permantly removed from the team if they showed up at any more games without bringing up their grades. Instead, of complying parents have gone in to fight the coach, my daughter has heard how their momma is going to fight or kill the coach.

Now back to the party, I would have cancelled the Sweet 16 Party, had my child been failing any classes, but no, it was full steam ahead with it. The real kicker to the story is the mother of this child is a Cobb County School Teacher in South Cobb. My child did not attend this party, nor did several others that I know, because we as parents would not support this behavior. Nor when we found out about the dress requirements and our children were being directed to purchase certain clothes to wear to the party would we do it.

It will be interesting to see after break if we have 9 cheerleaders, who are mostly made up of girls in AP, IB and Honors classes, or if the Administration has caved, or grades have been changed.

Hey Teacher

December 26th, 2010
2:02 pm

Our students have become immune to testing … about the only test my students take somewhat seriously is the SAT/ACT. As far as tracking is concerned, at the high school level you don’t need to have 3,4 or 5 different “tracks” for students …. by senior year, students should be able to handle regular level work or AP … or they are in special education courses. Does that mean that ALL students will make a B ? No … but watering down coursework with all of these different levels so that everyone can qualify for hope is not the answer … I see this happening in many systems .. students who should be in AP take a lower level class “advanced” instead of “AP” to get a better grade. I miss the good old days when kids flunked my class and got “remediation” in night school (no longer funded), or summer school (no longer funded). Having students repeat the course is a necessary evil that NCLB and lack of funding for night school and other alternative programs has taken away from us.


December 26th, 2010
2:07 pm

It’s not SEGREGATION at my school, TopSchool … there aren’t enough White kids to make a subgroup. Segregation is based solely on race not test scores. Yes, at my school even minority students are gifted and/or advanced and can excel beyond the lowest minimum of the curriculum. Not every school system is as backwards, shady etc. as APS.


December 26th, 2010
2:15 pm

@Hey Teacher- I agree- our students are also immune to the consequences of failure- which in and of itself can be an excellent motivator.


December 26th, 2010
2:28 pm

The entire debate over heterogeneous vs. homogeneous grouping is fraught with difficulties and boils down to whether it is preferable to emphasize individual achievement or group performance. In general, if you wish to raise the average (mean) test score of a large sample of students, the best results will be obtained by not grouping on the basis of any perceived pre-existing characteristics. If your major interest is raising the achievement of students in the top quartile (or decile, or top one-percent), ability grouping will work best, but the lower groups will not perform as well as they would in a non-grouped arrangement.

Public schools in the current political climate are judged by their average (mean) test scores, so it makes sense from that perspective for them to group homogeneously. This is not a popular choice with teachers because it presents pedigogital difficulties, and is not popular with parents of high socioeconomic students who believe (with some justification) that their children are not being challenged sufficiently.

The major political problem with heterogeneous grouping is that it will inevitably sort students by socioeconomics and result in over-representation of low SES students in the low groups. In most places, the low groups will also be racially identifiable.

Private schools (at least the most prestigious private schools) are a form of self-selected ability grouping.


December 26th, 2010
2:52 pm

@HMS – have you confused homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping in your post or is this what you intended to say?


December 26th, 2010
3:12 pm

Ed Johnson:
I have to completely disagree with you. Students in a class should not, for any reason, be responsible for educating other students. I’ve seen this firsthand. Putting the advanced students in a classroom “in charge” of the education of lesser students is, IMO, a very lazy way to teach.
Those advanced students need to move on! Not be saddled with teaching another student who probably needs small group instruction from the classroom teacher.
My child isn’t even in school yet, but I promise you if I find out he’s “helping” others in cooperative learning groups, I will be furious. His job is his own education – not that of others. On the flip side, I would expect his teacher to help him out when he’s struggling.

This is how many teachers choose to differentiate their instruction. Cooperative learning groups are a complete farce when used almost exclusively in a classroom. I can’t stand group work for the most part but especially when it parades as differentiation.


December 26th, 2010
3:14 pm

TopPublicSchool is mentioning a point that some don’t want to admit. During the early days of INTEGRATION, some schools used ability grouping as a means of SEGREGATION. GA is particular did not comply with the Brown decision until the mid to late sixties in many school districts. As I understand by speaking with my elders, ability grouping was eliminated because it was found that it was misapplied in many cases, i.e subjective student assignments.

I believe that ability group could help in creating more homogeneous grouping of students, enabling more targeted assistance/instruction by teachers. I wonder if the stigma from the past keeps us from revisiting it.

Ed Johnson

December 26th, 2010
4:11 pm

By “cooperative learning” do you mean yet another prescriptive cookbook, by-the-numbers, externally researched-based, silver bullet, static, reductionistic program imposed on teachers from on high by top administrators, like this?…

Career Switcher

December 26th, 2010
4:19 pm

The biggest successes that I have had with students is when I am able to work with heterogeneous groups. We have times (particularly just before CRCT) in which we group students across teams by performance level for last minute review. The truth is, particularly with math, that when working with students who are at or near one another in terms of skills, you can move along at a much steadier rate. The more advanced students are not bored, and there is not a group of 3-5 who are totally lost. It is easier to pinpoint where the students may get lost at or what questions they may have, and that benefits all in the class. We are asking most of these students to learn math skills at 12-14 that were reserved for only the brightest high schoolers several years ago. Then, at a time when peer opinion is everything, we place them into groups where some students move so quickly that they seem to already know the material before it is taught along with others who literally still count on their fingers. It is not uncommon at all to get all the way to late spring (working on 2 variable systems of equations) and to have a group of a few in each class still not understand how to substitute a number for a variable into a simple equation or know that one half is the same as 0.5 (even with tons of extra help and instruction). This is not fair to the child who doesn’t understand, the child who has begun to understand, or the child who already understood.

As for using clusters within classes, there is only one teacher (sometimes 2). You are asking students who may not be self-motivated or have fully developed their self-regulation behaviors to sit in a group of other adolescents and take charge of their learning?? At an age when it is not “cool” to at one end or the other of the ability scale? This means that those who are lost tend to sit there, not asking for help, and those who do understand are afraid that others will make fun of them for being smart.

I do, however, agree with the previous poster who said that tracking leads to students being grouped along socioeconomic and/or racial lines. In my experiences, both when I was in school and now, is that this is for the most part true. I think there may be many reasons for this, but I do think that this is the real reason why tracking isn’t used anymore. When properly used, tracking (not just individual classes, but vocational/college prep tracks) could have a great impact on education and students, and I really don’t see us getting better achievement results until it is put back into use.


December 26th, 2010
4:40 pm

~ Homogeneous grouping is the placement of students of similar abilities into one classroom.
~ Heterogeneous grouping is the formation of groups that include students with a wide variety of instructional levels.


December 26th, 2010
4:48 pm

Ed Johnson:
I am talking about putting students in to groups to work. Assigning one thing for them all to “do” for a grade. The way you describe it working in your previous post and the way it actually works are not the same thing. This is either due to poor instruction from the classroom teacher, students who do not work well together because of personality clashes and maturity issues, or because the assignment is not applicable to all areas and levels of learning present in the group.

And if you can do it better, BY ALL MEANS, become a teacher and do so – or kudos to you if you are one!


December 26th, 2010
5:20 pm

Another comment:
Wow, unbelievable. So unfortunate


December 26th, 2010
5:57 pm

My Gwinnett County MS does track and by race too. It is no big secret to sit in the cafe and watch the classes stroll in. Blacks and Browns at one table and White and Yellows at another.


December 26th, 2010
6:01 pm

It is true that one can find research to support whatever position one feels is true. Teachers are trained in differentiated teaching…making adjustments to plans to address the needs of all students. What is true is how difficult it is to do with 30+ students in a classroom. It is difficult with 15. It is hard to say this, but performance grouping (NOT ABILITY grouping) may be the avenue to reaching all students and challenging them in this economically challenged time. Our teachers are not magicians; rather, they are dedicated professionals doing EVERYTHING possible to create excitement in their classrooms.


December 26th, 2010
6:09 pm

An additional note to bloggers: Grouping and Tracking are totally different. I know of no educational entity, public or private, in the metro area that tracks.


December 26th, 2010
7:50 pm

Don’t high schools ability group with honors and AP classes? Why is it such a no no to offer those opportunities to middle and elementary school students?

APS Teacher under fire

December 26th, 2010
8:00 pm

Classes are determined by executive directors, principals and registrars in APS. I got a homogeneous class. All of their GPA’s were between 68 and 72 (seniors) and it was an EOCT class. Half had not passed the GHSGT. I was exiled from my old high school because I reported testing irregularities to Professional Standards. The result didn’t sit well with downtown. I got the royal set up. All the other teachers had regular bell curves except me. I worked as hard as I could but they wouldn’t give me textbooks for them first. I asked for supplemental materials and got nothing. They actually ignored me people so I ended up going to the Internet to get what I needed to teach the class.

My poor kids…thank God they had one of the most dedicated teachers on earth. Despite all of our bad odds, they did their best. We have authentic scores. The other 90% pass plus rates of the other teachers….no comment.

Ed Johnson

December 26th, 2010
8:13 pm

@northatlantateacher, no, I am not a teacher. I am, however, an Atlanta taxpayer who no longer stands by as the Duncans, the Halls, and the Rhees flub teachers and decimate K-12 public education.

Didn’t mean to elicit defensiveness with my questions – and they were questions; I didn’t “describe” anything. However, this might at least be interestingl…

“Teaching Smart People How to Learn”

Anyway, why the supposition to “group” students in order to engage some of their abilities in advancing the whole class as a quality system of teaching and learning? Wouldn’t “grouping” merely amount to, in effect, chapping up the whole class into smaller classes, which is a rather mechanistic and inherently whole class-destroying exercise? And wouldn’t that effectively put brakes to the teacher having to learn how to improve teaching and learning for the whole class? That the teacher would not have to do anything essentially different? How might the teacher having not to learn make a difference for the better?

Again, just questions.


December 26th, 2010
8:33 pm

Private vs. Public

We visited the best local public elementary school (judging by the test scores) and the best private school (judging by reputation and which colleges its graduates attend, the private school is K-12) before our kids started school.

We liked the private school for its very attentive teachers and excellent extracurricular activities (music, art and ample opportunities for sports since it is a smaller school). We were very impressed with number of high school graduates ended in very selective universities. However, we are not so sure about instructions and quality of teachers. We were told that every student was treated the same, instruction wise. The teachers were nice, however, we did not see much enthusiasm. We wondered whether they were the best around.

We liked the public school because it had a stellar reputation in terms of test scores. Our concern was whether the school would be too driven to reach the less than 10 percent of students who failed the mandatory tests at the expanse of the rest of 90 plus percent who passed. The principal convinced us that the school was the best for differentiation instruction. Teachers seemed to be happy. As a public school, of course the art and music instruction were pitiful: they had one music teacher for the entire K-5 school of over 400 students.

We went with the public school. We knew we made the right decision when my kid’s teacher told us that she was going to recommend my kid for the gifted program one week after my kid started school. The teacher was about 50-year old and had more than 20 years of teaching experience. She recognized our kid’s potential and also knew how the system worked (to initiate the process to move my kid to the gifted program). The best part of the school is the quality of the teachers. I wonder whether treating teachers well in this district is the key. According to public records, many teachers in the school make somewhere between 60K to 70K a year (many of them have more than 20 years of experience, and truly deserve the pay and more, may I add). For whatever the reason, teachers like the district as well: for each open position, they often get 150 to 200 applicants. Yes, the school district is one of the best in the state and many kids are from well-to-do families, but not all. This is also an advantage over private school, IMHO. Kids in public school have a better chance of interacting with kids from different backgrounds than kids in private school. The class is also divided into different groups based on students’ knowledge on a given subject. It works well for the students. Unfortunately for teachers, they have to prepare 3 to 4 different lessons plans. After volunteering in a classroom like this, one walks away with admiration and appreciation for teachers.

We are happy with our public elementary school. We resolved the issue of extracurricular activities by signing our kids up for private music and art lessons. However, we are not so sure about high school. Fortunately, we still have time.

P.S.: Testing is not an issue, IMHO. In retrospect, I understand why the private school refused to use differentiation instruction. If I had sent my kid to a private school for $15-20K a year, I certainly would not like my kid being assigned to a group that receives less challenging lessons.


December 26th, 2010
8:58 pm

Ed Johnson:
I think we’re making the same point. I’m against grouping students of differing abilities in a classroom under the supposition that learning will magically just happen because four students are sitting together. I don’t know where this idea came from.
Several years ago, I was told the advanced classes would be no more and those students who were not “gifted” (another complete farce, but for another day) but also very much above average both in IQ and performance, would be in a regular on level classroom. That year, I had two special ed team taught classes. That meant in one class I had 5 advanced students in with 15 regular students and 7 special ed students. Let me tell you that even though I had a great team teacher, those advanced students didn’t get what they needed, heck – neither did anyone else because the team teacher and I were so busy dealing with the special ed kids – again, another topic for another day. Sigh.
I wish ability grouping would return with fluid boundaries – students could move up or down and between teachers as needed and we could effectively and quickly meet the needs of more of our students.
Sorry for the defensiveness; that wasn’t my intention. I guess I’m frustrated that the answers for improving education are clear to many but the right questions are never asked of the right people.

APS Teacher under fire

December 26th, 2010
9:18 pm

One more thing… Poor performing seniors ( half were classified as juniors because of their failures) still want success. Those kids taught me humility and respect for people with less than above average abilities. The class actually worked for me in one sense; I had to keep trying new ways to reach them. They actually learned something; maybe not measurable by our standardized tests so much but I was proud of their efforts. And, I really don’t care how APS responds to their test scores ( a few did pass), they worked hard and so did I. I was so used to Advanced Placement kids and this was a rough transition.

The kids who can do AP need to be in class together so that they can compete and have more rigorous coursework. Don’t mix them. I found out that it was easier to work with kids of like ability and bring them up. Just don’t label them. My two cents as an educator. The guys downtown actually did me a favor despite themselves.


December 26th, 2010
9:35 pm

Random thoughts: Ability grouping makes as much sense to me as providing different sizes of clothing and shoes for children even if they are the same age. They aren’t all the same size, and they don’t all learn at the same rate.

Unfortunately, ability grouping is looked upon with disfavor in the South because it has been declared by the courts in the past to be de facto segregation.

I will say that none of my education courses prepared me for “differentiated instruction,” but courses offered today might.

I agree with Dr. Spinks that (1) the tests don’t really indicate mastery of anything and (2) the students don’t take the tests seriously. When 1/3 of my students don’t bother to even bring one #2 pencil to a test that counts for 15% of their grade, and over half don’t bring a calculator, how concerned do you think the students could possibly be?

HS Public Teacher

December 26th, 2010
10:37 pm

Why would anyone be shocked that the advanced learners are left behind?

NCLB forced public schools to focus on the lowest performing student. The time and money was used too try to get EVERY student to perform and to heck with those higher level students because they already performed to “standard.”

This has never made sense to me. In reality, aren’t the higher performing students are future? Aren’t they the future doctors, researchers, problem solvers, engineers, etc.? Should we focus at LEAST equally on them?

Education should be about allowing EVERY student to strive to be the best that they can be. Throw out NCLB!

K-12 Educational Solution Pontificator

December 26th, 2010
11:57 pm

Downey acts like this is new news??? NCLB has = educational mediocrity and lessened opportunities for middle and high performing students to achieve their highest potential because teachers have had to place an “at all costs” focus on the low performers. Why do you think there are more cheating scandals? Any parent who has been awake in the last 8 years knows this is what NCLB has delivered. And frankly, if you want students to achieve their highest potential, there has to be tracks where kids are placed in SEPARATE TRACKS accordingly to their ability, maturity, and motivation. Public, Private, or Parochial, you can’t provide advanced learning to high potential children by placing them within other clusters – never works, for many demographical and social reasons. And I wouldn’t be bragging about any public school district in these times as being “strong.” A school may be strong in one area (academics) but fail in the other key pillars of education (athletics/extracurriculars, fine arts, career and college guidance, and religion). Ask parents who are REALLY in the know at the top high schools in East Cobb – several of these parents now have their children at our private college-preparatory focused high school for no other reason than the cuts in guidance counseling and removal of focus on college preparation for students.

K-12 Educational Solution Pontificator

December 27th, 2010
12:08 am

And by the way – this brings up an appropriate topic – “School Choice.” Without options for parents to ensure their child is having their needs met, once again those children will remaint the “hostage” of a public school system required to implement NCLB.

So if you are tired of having your advanced child, “Left Behind” – join me at the Capitol on January 25th -School Choice Day !!! We will rally and thank our legislators for SB 10 and HB 1133, while pushing for more Charter School support and expansion of scholarship programs, homeschool and virtual schooling support, and real public school choice. Go to to get the details and to be most informed.

Education Insider

December 27th, 2010
8:23 am

Having read these comments it appears it’s going to be another banner year for public education. Fiddling while Rome burns. As long as we point fingers at one another, no one is pointing them back to those who are in charge. Someone is always to blame be it NCLB, the kids, the color of their skin, the parents, the teachers. What a fabulous business model! And superintendents who are fired for non-performance are soon hired by another district based on “educational philosophy”. Of course, how objective can School Boards be when they are guided by School Board Associations filled with former school administrators. There is no one group more arrogant and self-serving the GSBA. DOE is filled with people who may be well meaning but who in “school improvement” has actually turned things around? And fortunately the governor is more then happy to use anyone who got any kind of a diploma to inflate graduation numbers.
An associate in Louisiana recently commented that they didn’t believe that God brought the wrath of Katrina upon New Orleans to wash away the sin of a city but it was the only way to change a horrifically failing public school system. God knew he had a better chance of saving the soul of a 19 year old stripper, then turning around education. I hate it when change requires a historic natural disaster… Sonny Perdue doesn’t count.

Gwinnett Parent

December 27th, 2010
8:27 am

Lower grades-Some of my friends have kids in our FOCUS program. Eventhough these children are bright, some do not enjoy doing extra work. It is a challenge to teach to all levels, especially when the olympic swimmers want to stay in the shallow end.

Testing-Way overdone. After the CRCT last year classroom instruction stopped. I found myself supplementing my child with extra coursework outside of school. Personally, I would like to see 10 months of teaching instead of 3 months of review followed by 3 months of instruction, then 1 month of review again, and 2 months of games and partying.

[...] Holiday Party Chatter: Tracking and Testing [...]

Disgruntled Employee

December 27th, 2010
11:03 am

At the school I teach at there is “grouping”. AP is for students who are close to reading on grade level and regular classes are for those who are far behind. Students did not choose to be in AP it was just given to them. When I argued that for many of these students the work load was too much I was told how brilliant these students were by a guidance counselor who has never stepped in a classroom. I am all for open enrollment in AP but it should be because the student and parents wanted it. The problem at my school is that there are no parents. I asked why did we need so many AP classes when we were not even an AYP school and I was told it will expose the students to rigor. So if you’re not in an AP class your class is not rigorous? When you expose the students to “rigor” and they crumble under the pressure and fail you are told you can’t have more than 10% of you class failing.
The bottom line of my rant is if you are a parent that values your child’s education you will make sure they are educated. If that means moving to a better school district you will. If that means using NCLB and finding the transportation to move your kid to a better school, you will. If that means struggling and working extra jobs to pay for private school, you will.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Coopmike48. Coopmike48 said: RT @EDUCATIONCEO: From @AJCGetSchooled: Holiday party chatter: Tracking & testing. #education #parenting [...]

Ed Johnson

December 27th, 2010
5:17 pm

@northatlantateacher, you said:

1. “I wish ability grouping would return with fluid boundaries – students could move up or down and between teachers as needed and we could effectively and quickly meet the needs of more of our students.”

Hmm. “Fluid boundaries,” huh? Cool! Given the opportunity to craft a policy statement in this regard, who would you write?

2. “I guess I’m frustrated that the answers for improving education are clear to many but the right questions are never asked of the right people.”

Your take on my go at the right people with questions?…

Via E-mail

December 23, 2010

Dear Atlanta Board of Education Chair Mr. Khaatim S. El:

Kindly allow the suggestion that the overarching touchstone for selecting the next Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Superintendent must be Atlanta Board of Education’s purpose or mission, rather than any superintendent candidate’s or external agent’s purpose or mission.

Has Atlanta Board of Education an explicit purpose or mission, one that is widely known and widely embraced throughout the Atlanta community?

Absent purpose or mission to guide it, might the superintendent selection process simplistically opt, once again, for the so-called “strong urban superintendent” whose agenda best fits “lessons learned” elsewhere but not lessons learned by APS itself? Has Atlanta Board of Education endeavored to discover and articulate its own critical lessons learned, so the lessons might inform and also be a touchstone for the superintendent selection process?

Atlanta Board of Education’s purpose or mission can also serve as a touchstone against which to qualify external organizations and agents for involvement with APS.

For example, consider the following mission, which is urban-centric, command-and-control, and best fits business enterprises ranging from factories to even plantations of old:

“The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s mission is to dramatically transform urban K-12 public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition.”
–The Broad Foundation

Hold The Broad Foundation’s mission in mind as you consider this humanistic mission:

“In a rapidly changing world, the South Orangetown school community affirms its positive vision of the future by providing a safe and caring environment where the excitement of teaching and learning is shared by all, and where we encourage and nurture the uniqueness of each child.

“Through diverse and challenging programs, we promote high academic standards, creative and critical thinking, self-respect and respect for others, and acceptance of our responsibilities in a global society.”
–South Orangetown Central School District Board of Education

Now assume Atlanta Board of Education has the mission much like South Orangetown has. Given that assumption, would Atlanta Board of Education want to engage an organization or agent whose backward-looking mission conflicts with their forward-looking, humanistic mission?

A seeing person might also ask: How does competition align with our mission of “providing a safe and caring environment where the excitement of teaching and learning is shared by all?”

Certainly, the seeing person will know competition is steadfast opposition to, and destructive of, the idea (and ideal) of “all” simply because competition, by its very definition, always intends to produce as few winners as possible and as many losers as possible. This simple wisdom obviously escapes even The Broad Foundation, in spite of its vast monetary richness (or perhaps because of it).

So, again, why would Atlanta Board of Education want to engage an organization or agent whose expressed mission is, in effect, antihuman to promoting “high academic standards, creative and critical thinking, self-respect and respect for others … in a global society?”

Of course, such questioning is pointless if Atlanta Board of Education knows not their purpose or mission, has or defaults to a mission like The Broad Foundation’s mission, or seeks to adapt or adopt The Broad Foundation’s mission.

Gosh, this advocate’s desperate hope had been you and board member Ms. Yolanda Johnson would have come away from our conversation with Kentucky Education Commissioner Dr. Terry Holliday with new awareness, new perspectives, and new senses of possibility to share with your fellow board members. Surely, you got from that conversation some inkling of the great value that can come from a Baldrige Criteria-based assessment of Atlanta Public Schools, as might be conducted by the non-profit Georgia Oglethorpe Award Process, Inc., didn’t you?

In any case, please know even as Atlanta Board of Education tries to move forward with involvement by The Broad Foundation and such other entities, when APS situations arise once again to powerfully and undeniably demonstrate great lack of quality in any or all of:

1. Leadership
2. Strategic Planning
3. Customer Focus
4. Human Resources Focus
5. Operations Focus
6. Results
7. Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management

Be certain Georgia Oglethorpe Award Process, and its nation-wide access to Baldrige Examiners in the Education category, will be there for Atlanta Board of Education.

So shall I, as necessary and to the extent possible.

Kind regards,

Ed Johnson
Advocate for Quality in Public Education
Atlanta GA
(404) 505-8176

Cc: Atlanta Board of Education members
Bcc: Distribution List

Late to the Party

December 28th, 2010
11:29 am

Grouping within schools is not needed where I live. Parents have self-selected for high achieving schools by purchasing expensive homes in the best school districts. That 95% of these families are white or Asian should come as no surprise. During the recession, home sales in this district have risen and prices have increased by 5%, with zero foreclosures.

What's really going on

December 28th, 2010
3:48 pm

This is a very late addition to this thread but for those of you still reading, here’s a link to a pretty good research paper pertaining to tracking and ability grouping.