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Ability Grouping, tracking, etc.

Posted By: Louise Epstein on November 25, 2002
Tracking has been criticized on social policy grounds for decades. Meanwhile, professional educators often disregard meta-analyses of all the tracking studies, such as the one done by Kulik and Kulik. These studies show that tracking has significant benefits (academic and social) for all children as long as the curriculum is adjusted (accelerated, not just enriched) to match the ability levels of the children in each ability group. But if the same basic curriculum is taught to the bottom, middle and top tracks, then tracking is ineffective.

The most efficient way to educate children is to group them by ability for all academic subjects, then adjust the curriculum to match the kids' abilities. For example, highly gifted kids can learn algebra II/trig by the time they're 13 and 14, if they are placed in accelerated programs starting in elementary school. Highly gifted students who receive "differentiation" in mixed ability classes will be lucky to study algebra I when they are 13 or 14.

Anti-tracking studies often claim that tracking hurts the self-esteem of average and below-average students. But other studies have found that removing gifted students from a regular classroom increases the self-esteem of the regular kids, who suddenly become the "best" students in that class. An experienced middle school teacher long assumed that she needed a few above-average students in each of her classes, to keep things moving. Recently, she taught her first class with only average students. After a few months, she was amazed to see these "average" kids blossom academically, because they realized that if they didn't answer her questions in class, nobody else would.

Studies on group projects with students of mixed ability show that gifted or above-average students spend most of their time teaching and doing the work of other children, rather than learning new material themselves. The argument that teaching slower children helps solidify their understanding of the material doesn't make any sense if the brighter children already have mastered the material. Meanwhile, average and below-average students learn that their group project efforts often are unnecessary or futile, because the brighter students can do the project better and quicker.

Students with a wide range of academic abilities meet each other in sports, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, church and temple groups, and music groups. Thus, there is no merit to the argument that children need to be placed in mixed ability classrooms to ensure that they meet people with varying levels of academic ability.

In sum, the effort to reduce or eliminate ability grouping within schools is counterproductive, from both an academic and social perspective.
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 Tracking....good or bad? by Christina Rhoades on November 24, 2002
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