Ability grouping, or tracking, is the practice of separating students into achievement groups and tailoring their curriculum accordingly.
Ability grouping became widely used in American schools of the 1920s as an influx of immigrants entered the school system. IQ tests were administered to determine the ability levels of students, who were then placed in programs that matched their scores. Low-scoring students were given instruction that would prepare them for vocational or unskilled labor, and the high scorers were given college-preparatory work.
Tracking is still the standard practice in most schools in the United States, although current tracking tends to place more emphasis on separating the slower learners from faster learners. Students who need more attention—either because they have trouble keeping up with their schoolwork or because they are ahead of the class and need extra stimulus—are separated and given a curriculum more suited to them. Schools can begin to group students by their abilities at any stage in the educational process. Some schools use psychological and educational testing to group students by their respective abilities before they start kindergarten. Many elementary schools have a loosely organized tracking system of different level reading or math groups that operate within the same classroom. Ability grouping is used most in high schools, where some students follow a college-preparatory track while others take basic skills courses.
Proponents of ability grouping argue that a single, generalized curriculum short-changes both high-achieving and low-achieving students. They point to the advantages it offers to gifted students, who may not thrive unless they are challenged, as well as to slower learners, who may tire of trying and failing to keep up with their peers. But critics of ability grouping cite evidence that students placed on a lower track may be discouraged from achievement. Low-track students are often wrongly placed—a disproportionate number of African American and Latino students end up on a low track. Low-track students can be closed out of educational opportunity because they are not signed up for college-preparatory classes, and they do not realize that they cannot enter college without certain math and languages courses. It can also be very difficult for a student to get out of a low ability grouping once he or she is placed in one. The reasons children are placed in a particular grouping may on occasion be arbitrary, yet the decision has enormous repercussions for individual students. Low expectations for the students placed in a lower track seem to affect these students' confidence, and they are at highest risk for dropping out of school.
Many schools or school systems are trying to eliminate ability grouping. These schools help both the lowand high-track students adjust to one curriculum. For example, high-achieving students can tutor slower students, thus reinforcing their knowledge of a subject. Untracked schools may use more hands-on activities and interdisciplinary projects that students of differing abilities can respond to in different ways.
Untracked schools encourage students to have high expectations for themselves, and let students see how their own educational choices lead to different career paths. Guidance counseling has been shown to be extremely important in untracked high schools. Counselors encourage students to choose courses that will help them meet a specific job-related goal. These schools teach all students what going to college requires in terms of preparatory course work, study skills, and financial planning. Some of these schools have had exceptional results. One program in San Diego decreased its high school drop-out rate by almost 40%, and nearly 100% of the graduates of the program went on to college.
If parents are concerned about ability grouping in their child's school, they may want to meet with school officials and discuss their child's placement. If a school is untracked, parents may need to make sure their child is getting appropriate individualized instruction. Most children will probably benefit from an egalitarian system. But very gifted students may still be unchallenged, and students with learning difficulties may still need extra instruction. Magnet schools or specialized programs may provide more suitable instruction for children with particular educational needs.
Oakes, Jeannie. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
Wheelock, Ann. Crossing the Tracks: How "Untracking" Can Save America's Schools. New York, NY: New Press, 1992.
Barko, Naomi,"Tracking: Does It Hurt or Help Kids?" Parents Magazine 71, January 1996, pp. 125+.
Daniels, Lee A. "Derailing a System." Emerge , September 1996, pp. 64+.
de Vinck, Christopher. ""I Am Not a Turtle' and Other Tragedies of Tracking." Education Digest 59, February 1994, pp. 40+.
Holmes. C. Thomas, and Thomas J. Ahr. "Effects of Ability Grouping on Academic Achievement and Self-Concept of African-American and White Students." The Clearing House 67, May-June 1994, pp. 294+.
Brandt, Ron, et al.
Tracking: Road to Success or Dead End? Al exandria, VA: Association for Supervision Curriculum Development, 1992.
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