Grouping students by ability is one of the most talked-about topics in education. Does it benefit students? Inhibit their learning? Not matter? To bring you this report, Senior Editor Meg Bozzone spoke to Anne Wheelock, author of Crossing the Tracks: How "Untracking" Can Save America's Schools (New Press, 1992).  

Does ability grouping — or tracking — enhance academic achievement?
No, and research tells us that it is not a neutral or benign practice, either. Although it is widespread and widely accepted, ability grouping generally depresses student achievement and is harmful to kids.

Why is tracking harmful?
It's harmful for a number of reasons.

  • The criteria we use to group kids are based on subjective perceptions and fairly narrow views of intelligence.
  • Tracking leads students to take on labels — both in their own minds as well as in the minds of their teachers — that are usually associated with the pace oflearning (such as the "slow" or "fast" learners). Because of this, we end upconfusing students' pace of learning with their capacity to learn.
  • We associate students' placement with the type of learners they are and therefore create different expectations for different groups of students.
  • Once students are grouped, they generally stay at that level for their school careers, and the gap between achievement levels becomes exaggerated over time.The notion that students' achievement levels at any given time will predict their achievement in the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How common is ability grouping?
About 60 percent of elementary schools are breaking up students into differentlevels in every grade, or practicing some kind of whole-class grouping by ability — including creating Chapter 1 or gifted classes. While some schoolsinstitute rigid distinctions in the early grades — such as grouping students intotransitional first-grade classes — others wait until fourth or fifth grade.

What does tracking look like at the elementary level?
Because teachers tend to give students a curriculum that matches their label, the "most able" or "fast" learners generally read whole books, go to the library frequently, do independent research, enjoy more choices, have additional access to the computer, go on extra field trips, have opportunities to collaborate on projects with community members, have a mentor, and so on. On the other hand,"slower" learners tend to read from the basal, do worksheets, have fewer choices,and so on.

Are there advantages to grouping kids homogeneously for certain subjects,such as reading?
Yes. Schools I've found that are exploring alternatives to tracking set uptemporary groups for students who have similar skill levels, such as groups whoneed help grasping the concept of subtraction. Kids get extra help, not "insteadof" help.

What other alternatives to tracking have you seen?
Sometimes teachers pre-teach groups of kids they think need help grasping a concept or skill. Before the topic is introduced to the rest of the class, the teacher works with the group to jump-start their learning. These groups are temporary.

Other schools offer double periods for particular subjects, such as additional reading or math lessons so kids have multiple chances to cover the topic — orprovide extra support through after-school programs.

Is cooperative learning an important strategy in heterogeneously grouped classrooms?
Cooperative learning is one of many strategies, but it can't stand alone. It needs to be a linchpin of a high-content, activity-oriented, inquiry-based curriculum that provides access to all ability levels.

Are gifted children challenged enough in heterogeneously grouped classrooms?
If the curriculum is rich and varied, yes. So teachers should commit to creating a high-expectations climate and an engaging, hands-on curriculum for all.

In a sixth-grade class I visited, for example, students who were learning about the hearing impaired took turns translating announcements for me in sign language. They also had set up exchanges with schools for deaf children, and were reading personal memoirs of deaf children, composing a novel featuring a hearing-impaired character, testing their hearing at different decibel levels and graphing the results, monitoring their learning with portfolios, and so on. There was room in that unit for all kinds of kids to do all kinds of work. The teacher offered extra help to those who needed it and made sure gifted students had opportunities to further explore their learning.