It used to be common in the classroom for teachers to group students by ability for reading or math lessons. But in the 1980s and 1990s it went out of practice as critics said it trapped the poor and minorities in the low-level groups. So classrooms started lumping everyone together teaching to the middle – leaving the higher-achieving students bored, and I think still not helping the struggling students enough.
But now studies tell us that ability grouping has re-emerged across the country with teachers and principals saying it is indispensable in coping with the wide variation of skill levels in the classroom.
“A new analysis of data collected by the government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. The analysis, by Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that in math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996. …”
“Some studies indicate that grouping can damage students’ self-esteem by consigning them to lower-tier groups; others suggest that it produces the opposite effect by ensuring that more advanced students do not make their less advanced peers feel inadequate. Some studies conclude that grouping improves test scores in students of all levels, others that it helps high-achieving students while harming low-achieving ones, and still others say that it has little effect……”
“Proponents of grouping argue that without it, teachers are forced to teach to the middle, leaving out both struggling children and gifted learners. They also say there is a “peer effect,” in which high-achieving children do better if paired with other high-achieving students. Done judiciously and flexibly, they say, grouping can help all students. The reasons for the resurgence are unclear. Some experts attribute it to No Child Left Behind, the 2001 law that strengthened accountability standards for schools. By forcing teachers to focus on students who fell just below the proficiency cutoff, the law may have encouraged teachers to group struggling students together to prepare them for standardized tests.”
The article says the key to making ability groups work is make sure the groups are mobile – students can move up or down as needed. Also the “ranking” of the group should be invisible to the students. The kids shouldn’t know if they are in the top group or bottom group so there is no stigma attached. (I think moving kids in and out like a seating group kind of helps that so the lines aren’t clear.)
Walsh’s second grade teacher did an excellent job of grouping and adjusting lesson plans up and down depending on needs. She was given a lot of gifted students and then also a bunch that were really far behind. She would pretest Walsh on stuff and if he knew it, she would move him on. She would also give extra attention to those kids on the low end. I was coming in weekly working on phonics and reading with a group of four, and it really did help. Sadly this teacher has left the profession. She was SUCH a good teacher.
Lilina’s kindergarten teacher absolutely divided the class by ability this year. I felt terrible for the teacher because she had such a range in the class. Some kids couldn’t identify all their letters and other kids walked in reading. She grouped the kids by ability for their centers and then had parents work with the different groups while she worked the main reading center. You couldn’t do that any other way. I still feel like Lilina didn’t progress as much as she could have because the teacher had so many kids that were behind.
I can remember when I was in second grade wanting very badly to be in the top reading group. I knew who was in it, and I wanted to improve to be with them. You could tell by how thick the books were. I think I did join them. (Maybe that teacher wasn’t very good at the invisible part.)
What’s funny is once they hit middle and high school they are totally grouped by ability. The kids know who is taking the grade level math or the math one grade-level up or two grade levels up. Why is that not OK in elementary school?
What do you think of ability grouping? Were you grouped by ability when you were in school? Did you know it? Are your kids’ teachers grouping by ability? Do they know it? What are effective ways to manage a varying degree of abilities in a large class?