Nurturing Talent: Discussion on "Tracking" Students

Grouping by ability continues to be an emotionally charged topic. We need to nurture our most able students.

Grouping or “tracking” is the practice of placing students in classes or academic teams based upon their perceived ability. 

Educational practice throughout
the country varies widely in its adoption of this method placing students for

Is ability grouping an efficient way to handle differences in student abilities? This subject of grouping or “tracking” students continues to be emotionally charged for teachers, administrators, researchers, and parents. 

Each side of this issue has years of research and anecdotal evidence to back up its assertions, so the debate continues to rage. 

Those who favor homogeneous grouping assert that it permits teachers to focus instruction and adjust the pace according to the students’ needs.  

For example, a class of high achievers can cover more material in more detail than a class of average or low achievers.

Educational research over several decades seems to indicate that grouping in every subject does not improve overall achievement. 

However, the two academic subjects most affected by ability grouping are reading and math.  

Yet students who remain together for the majority of the day who are “tracked” for only one or two subjects do show improvement in those subjects. 

Another common practice of ability grouping often occurs within a heterogeneous classroom.  

This type of grouping, especially in math, results in improved achievement in that subject.  (Because ability grouping in reading within a heterogeneous classroom is so widespread, no control group is available for comparison.)    Students grouped in classes by ability rather than age, (as in multi-age classrooms) who can also progress at their own rate, appear to achieve higher than those in a strictly heterogeneous setting.  Examples of homogeneous grouping include gifted and talented programs at the elementary level and tracked classes in middle and high schools. 

In contrast, proponents of heterogeneous classroom settings maintain that any type of grouping harms children.   Tracking is certainly prevalent at the secondarylevel.  In fact, research done within the last decade indicates that two-thirds of American high schools have some form of ability grouping. The danger of ability grouping, according to Anne Wheelock, author of Crossing the Tracks: How "Untracking" Can Save America's Schools, is that ability grouping produces labeling, both on the parts of the students and their teachers.  Teachers of low ability levels often have low expectations for them.  Furthermore, once students are tracked, they tend to stay in that ability level.  Hence, she maintains that the gap between achievement and levels becomes exaggerated over time.

However, she does concede that some forms of ability grouping can assist learning in some situations . . . “a group might be set up within a class to help students who are having difficulty with a specific skill. Or a group might be formed to ‘pre-teach’ a skill to a group of students who might have difficulty grasping a concept.”

So how can schools resolve what seems to be an educational dilemma:  high
achievers benefit from homogeneous grouping, while middle and low achievers
benefit from heterogeneous grouping?  Perhaps individualizing instruction within a classroom is the best compromise.Certainly, we should do whatever we can do nuture our academically talented students.

FREE  Presentation: "The Journey to College Begins in Middle School" Monday, January 7, 2013 @ 6:30 p.m., James Blackstone Memorial Library,  Branford.

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