The debate over ability grouping has continued for many years, with the same research used in support of both sides. To shed some light on this important topic and its impact on gifted learners, the Duke Gifted Letter posed a series of questions to Susan Demirsky Allan and Ellen D. Fiedler, experts who have researched and written on this topic. Their thoughts follow.
What is ability grouping?
Fiedler: Ability grouping is a method by which teachers group and regroup students according to common needs for intellectual challenge and type of instruction. The grouping can be a self-contained class, a subgroup within a classroom, or a cluster of students that moves between classrooms. Placing students of similar ability together makes sense and allows for the most effective use of educational resources, including the teachers themselves.
Allan: Ability grouping has always been a problematic phrase. Readiness, a combination of the student’s ability and current achievement, is a much more potent concept: “What is this child ready for now, and how rapidly may he or she progress?”
Grouping students by ability or other traits provides them with learning partners with whom they share readiness, interest, and learning style. It also focuses teacher expectations by identifying a group of students who need greater challenges in a content area.
How does ability grouping compare with tracking?
Fiedler: With tracking, students are typically assigned full-time to groups according to presumed ability, prior achievement, or teacher observations. Students are often locked into tracks and labeled “low,” “average,” or “high.” Often they cannot move between tracks during a school year or from one school year to another, leading to a castelike system that can cause discrimination against students in the “low” tracks and that can exclude them from learning opportunities.
Allan: Tracking is the practice of identifying students by a single factor or a few factors and using that measure to group the students homogeneously for all or most of the school day. Some gifted students benefit from some forms of tracking; others do not. It’s important to keep in mind that tracking is less common than other forms of grouping and should be the core of the debate only rarely.
Why has ability grouping been so controversial over the years?
Fiedler: Because it has been confused with tracking. Educators have opposed ability grouping for many of the same reasons as those who have opposed tracking. These educators have largely focused on discrimination and the ways that grouping has locked some students out of education al opportunities that would have allowed them to develop their potential fully.
As a result, some gifted students are kept from working with other students who would challenge them and thereby help them appraise their own abilities realistically.
Allan: The ability-grouping debate swirls around two concepts: equity and excellence. Americans want schools to exemplify equity by enabling all students to succeed and grow regardless of their financial resources, family status, and so on. But we also want our schools to nurture excellence and to foster innovativeness, progress, and ultimately the nation’s economic growth. When ability grouping, with its myriad meanings, encounters these values and is regarded superficially, it appears to bring them into conflict.
Fiedler: Until America accepts individual learning differences and provides appropriate educational experiences for all of its students, the controversy is likely to rage on. Parents and educators need to learn about the differences between tracking and ability grouping, be able to cite the research accurately and effectively, and advocate for gifted students, who may be seriously affected by the biases of decision makers who do not understand the issues adequately.
Allan: Educators and parents must reframe the argument in terms of the truly important issues in our classrooms. There are alternatives to the ability-grouping debate. Differentiated instruction provides an umbrella concept for thinking about meeting the needs of individual students in classrooms and schools while encompassing various flexible grouping options. It avoids the “one size fits all” approach and supports a broad range of learners. Encouraging educators and parents to grapple with the complexities of differentiated instruction is far more fruitful than arguing about terms that may have outlived their usefulness.
Susan Demirsky Allan, PhD, is assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment, and instruction in the Grosse Pointe, Michigan, public school system.
Ellen D. Fiedler, PhD, is a professor in the gifted and talented master’s degree program at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.