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Ability Grouping at the College Level

Posted By: William Brown on January 8, 2003
In many respects, ability grouping happens quite frequently at the community college level, without all of the political baggage that it carries in K-12 schools.

There is a natural fear among elementary and secondary educators that ability grouping will lock children into "tracks" from which they will not be able to move later on (perhaps after they catch on to reading, for example). Such tracking, as has been common in many European countries, would not be tolerable in this country. "Grouping for instruction" is more palatable, but still is not accepted by many who prefer a more democratic approach to education.

We did some research last year at the community college where I work, in our efforts to determine the value of our course placement tests and the developmental education that students must take if they do not pass the tests. In the fall 1998 semester, we implemented higher passing scores than had been required previously for placement into college-level courses in mathematics, reading and writing. This greatly increased the number of students who were placed into developmental courses. As a result, students who previous to fall 1998 would have been placed into college-level courses were removed from that "track" and placed into the developmental track instead.

The immediate effect of this action was to increase the average ability in both developmental and college-level classes, since the lowest-functioning "college-ready" students were removed from college-level courses (thereby increasing the average ability in those classes) and placed instead into developmental classes (thereby increasing the average ability in the developmental classes, also).

Long-term, the effect was a substantial increase in the completion and graduation rates of both "college-ready" and developmental students at our institution, evidenced by a significant increase in the number and percentage of students who completed courses and who earned certificates, Associate Degrees, and/or transferred successfully to four-year institutions.

The practice of placing unprepared students into groups of well-prepared students does a disservice to both. The job of teaching is difficult enough without requiring teachers to attempt to provide for the needs of students whose skills are so disparate that they require totally different levels (and often different kinds) of instruction. My personal experience with group work is that those who were already well prepared learned little while doing the bulk of the work for the group, while those who were not prepared learned little because others did most of the work.

We are hoping to publish our research in the near future, to make the results available to a wider audience. I appreciate the opportunity of participating in this discussion, and hope that others will do likewise.
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 Tracking....good or bad? by Christina Rhoades on November 24, 2002
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