Does Ability Grouping Work?

Aug 3, 2017 | Stone Oak

Ability Grouping - Is it Right for Schools?

Ability grouping, also called tracking, was an educational system used in the early 1900s to sort students according to ability: vocational, college prep, trade school, and general. By the 60's and 70's tracking had been eradicated, because students from minorities or low income families were unable to move up or change tracks. Schools adopted the current system of grouping students solely by age to increase equality among all students.

An article by Barry Garelick from The Atlantic proposes the idea that tracking has begun to make a come-back with GT (gifted and talented) and honors courses, at least in high school. Garelick argues that this is a good change, and should be more widely utilized across all grade levels, not just in high school and middle schools. Garelick says that when shools stopped using ability grouping, have eliminated achievement:

Unfortunately, the efforts and philosophies of otherwise well-meaning individuals have attempted to eliminate the achievement gap by eliminating achievement. Exercises in grammar have declined to the point that they are virtually extinct. Book reports are often assigned in the form of a book jacket or poster instead of a written analysis. Essays now are "student-centered" -- even history assignments often call upon students to describe how they feel about past events rather than apply factual analysis. Math classes are now more about math appreciation and being able to explain how a procedure works rather than the mastery of skills and procedures necessary to solve problems.

Opponents of ability grouping say that grouping students by ability only benefits high-achieving students, and has severe consequences to young children's self esteem and confidence. Tracking students by ability can lead to labels that students internalize and carry with them into young adulthood.

Think of students now though, on both sides of the spectrum. We have students who are highly motivated, and who have reached understanding and proficiency in material they are forced to complete anyway. They get bored easily, and aren't actually learning to the best of their abilities. We also have students, in the same class, we might have missed a foundational skill or concept, and now struggle to keep up, because they are unable and not given the time they need to go back and build their foundations.

Ability grouping does not have to be black and white. Different subjects can have different levels, or groups. A student in a top level in reading might be in a lower one for math, while the opposite could also happen. Students could also move between groups when they have mastered the skill set in their current group. By teaching each student at their own, individual level it makes sense that all students' abilities could increase.

Perhaps an overhaul of both systems, ability grouping and and age-to-grade, needs to be considered. In fact, maybe we should not group students by "ability" (because ability is fluid) but by proficiency in concepts and skill sets. All students should be held to the same standard, but students who have fallen behind because they weren't given the time they needed should be given the chance to "catch-up" to their peers by going back to their level and building from there.

At Mathnasium, we have students who are ahead, at grade-level, and behind. We assess them all at their level, and we help them build to where they want to be. For struggling students, we show them that just because they have trouble in math doesn't mean they are bad at it, or have lower ability than their peers. We show them that they too can have confidence and mastery of the topics they thought out of their reach. For advanced students, we show them that math isn't boring because they are bored in class. We teach them that in fact math is boundless and beautiful.

Our goal at Mathnasium is for all students to have confidence, skill, and a love of math they might not have had before. We want every child, regardless of current ability, to see that they are bright, masterful, and understood. We want them to see math as a topic propelling them forward, not holding them back.

Whether or not ability grouping is right for schools, at Mathnasium we belive in individualized learning, because no two students are alike. What a boring world it would be if they were.


For the article mentioned above from The Atlantic, please go here:

Picture from the article above.