Many many moons ago, I was a sixth grade student at a place called Ligon Middle School in Raleigh, N.C. I only went to this magnet school -- located in a rather dingy part of the city -- for one year. My parents elected to move to South Bend, Indiana shortly thereafter. But I remember it as being a fairly good year academically.
Ligon was, at the time, one of the most thoroughly tracked schools around. I was a member of the "Chell team," named after my wonderful home room teacher who just retired recently after 36 years of teaching. The Chell team consisted of about 200 students who'd been identified as gifted. We all took academic classes with a set group of teachers (math, language arts, social studies, science) who only taught the Chell team students. (There were also plenty of options for electives -- a Tarheel ghost stories class, a tap dancing class, etc. -- what fun! These were usually not tracked and anyone could sign up).
So far, so good. However, within the Chell team, we were further subdivided into the apple group, the orange group (or some such) and other harmless fruit names. The apples all took academic classes only with the apples, the oranges with the oranges, etc. Though it was never explicitly stated, it turns out that these fruit groups were also organized by IQ scores/giftedness levels.
That's two levels of tracking if you're counting. Given that some schools don't even like to have one level of ability grouping, it was only a matter of time before this system got re-evaluated. It turns out that that matter of time is now. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, this year, "Ligon limits classes to the most gifted."
Rather than dividing into teams based on ability levels, only the most gifted students (in essence, the apples of the Chell team) will be in classes with other gifted students for all their core academic subjects. The more moderately gifted students (i.e., the oranges, pears, bananas and so forth of what used to be the Chell team) will attend social studies and science classes, at least, that feature mixed ability groupings.
I am of two minds about this. On one hand, there is a big difference between a moderately gifted kid whose needs can, in fact, be met in a good, challenging, grade level classroom, and a profoundly gifted kid whose needs cannot. At a normal middle school, it makes far more sense to keep the gifted program rather small, and not get into one of these politically untenable situations where 25% of students are suddenly labeled gifted.
But Ligon is already a magnet school -- the 200 or so students on the Chell team had applied from all over Wake County. The school system, total, has a pool of several thousand 6th graders. We are still talking only a small percentage being served in this gifted program. One of the things I liked best about Ligon is that we weren't just tracked for math and reading. You could do more advanced work in science, for instance, and have better discussions, because of the tracking. Creating more mixed ability classes has already had the predictable effect. According to the N&O article, "David Gaudet, a sixth-grade science teacher, said the main difference for him has been how he paces his lessons. He said he spends more time reviewing material in the mixed classes than in the classes exclusively with gifted students."
In other words, the moderately gifted students at Ligon are simply going to be bored under this new scenario. But hey, according to Scott Lyons, Ligon's principal, "This is more in keeping with Wake County's values." I guess at least they're explicit about what those values are.