Thursday, April 11, 2013
Is ability grouping back?
A few weeks ago, the Brown Center released its report on education called "How well are American students learning?" This report looks in particular at the practice of ability grouping in 4th grade, and the acceleration of students into advanced math in 8th grade. The campaign to "detrack" schools -- vocal, if nothing else -- pushed the decreased use of grouping in early grades, and the idea that as many students as possible should take algebra in 8th grade. Some previous writings have labeled algebra as a "gatekeeper" course, and the idea is that if kids took the course in 8th grade, they'd then be able to fit all of college prep math into high school. Kids who didn't take algebra in 8th grade risked forever being left behind. While grouping became something of a dirty word in educational circles, it never disappeared. According to the report, in 1998, 28% of fourth grade teachers were grouping students by ability for reading. Some 33% used some other grouping (like "interest") and 29% did not do grouping. Now, it seems, ability grouping is experiencing a resurgence. In 2009, 71% of fourth grade teachers reported grouping for reading by ability, with 21% reporting some other kind of grouping and only 8% not grouping. It's interesting to ponder why that might be. Between 1998 and 2009 there was increased emphasis on reading test scores. There have been small increases in reading scores in benchmarked assessments over this time. Certainly, teachers asked a few years ago about teaching mixed ability classes were quite likely to report that classes were so heterogeneous that they couldn't teach effectively. Grouping -- whether it is treated as an educational no-no or not -- may be done simply as a practicality. Theory is nice, but how do you actually help kids learn? You give them material matched to their level of preparation. How do you do that? You group by ability. As for 8th grade algebra, the Brown Center reports that states with widespread acceleration into 8th grade do not do better on the NAEP than states that don't push as many 8th graders as possible into algebra. Earlier claims that algebra was a gatekeeper course suffered a bit from the correlation/causation problem. Stronger math students selected into 8th grade algebra, and these students were more likely to take and succeed in college prep math in high school. Students who wouldn't have selected into algebra in the past did not magically become stronger students by taking it. It's an interesting report in general. What it reminds the reader is that moving the needle on education -- an undertaking that involves millions of students with very different backgrounds -- is hard. Various simple solutions (get rid of grouping! put kids in algebra in 8th grade!) can not, by themselves, change much. Why do you think ability grouping is back?