Kansas City updates grade levels

Some school districts are returning to an old idea, AP reports. They’re grouping students by performance rather than age. The boldest experiment will start in Kansas City, Missouri schools this fall when 17,000 students will switch to the new system.

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

Kansas City’s traditional public schools have seen enrollment fall by half as students move to suburbs or enroll in charter or private schools; 40 percent of schools are closing.  The district spent $2 billion in state desegregation case funds without raising test scores. Kansas City is desperate. Superintendent John Covington will start the new system in elementary schools.

“This system precludes us from labeling children failures,” Covington said. “It’s not that you’ve failed, it’s just that at this point you haven’t mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level.”

In a Marzano Research Laboratory study of 15 school districts in Alaska, Colorado and Florida, “researchers found that students who learned through the different approach were 2.5 times more likely to score at a level that shows they have a good grasp of the material on exams for reading, writing, and mathematics.”

Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, recalled that before the switch there were students who had been on honor roll throughout high school then failed a test the state requires for graduation.

Now, he said if students are on pace to pass a class like Algebra I, the likelihood of them passing the state exam covering that material is more than 90 percent.

Teachers love the new approach, Johnson says.

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  1. fmcphee says:

    If students are grouped by ability, won’t this result in the segregation of special needs students and therefore be contrary to laws requiring inclusion?

  2. SuperSub says:

    Well, could inclusion be achieved by grouping special needs students with regular ed students of the same approximate skill level. It might result in 16 year olds being grouped with 8 year olds, but it would likely result in a better experience for the 16 year old.

  3. Judge Russell G. Clark’s dead so I guess the KC school district can’t return to the “blank check” approach to education.

    Might as well see if the kids are actually learning something then, hey?

  4. It might result in 16 year olds being grouped with 8 year olds, but it would likely result in a better experience for the 16 year old.</i.

    And of course, a simply fabulous experience for the 8 year old.

    Or not.

    It cracks me up to see how eagerly the articles on this are saying "It's not tracking! No sir, not tracking! Tracking is eeeeeeeevil!"

    Tracking is ability grouping. It isn't as inflexible as the current articles are casting it. But they're doing their best to avoid the attacks that are coming. It won't work.

    Ability grouping will result in blacks and Hispanics being in lower groups, whites and Asians in higher groups. That will lead to protests. The proponents are going to point to the flexibility and accuracy. Good for them. Hope it works.

  5. This looks like a good idea that needs to be tried, especially as the type of groupings we are using is not working. Let’s meet individual needs–those on track, those behind, and those ahead. Let’s teach kids what they need, no matter what the age.

    Inclusion does not bar this as inclusion is supposed to be used when appropriate for learning, not just as a legal right. It is to the ‘maximum extent appropriate.’ It is not an absolute. Let’s bring back good pedagogy and go for what works for students. Good luck with this, Kansas City!

  6. palisadesk says:

    Grouping by instructional level is not necessarily the same as grouping by “ability” especially at the elementary level.

    You could have a child with an IQ of 120 in the same group as one with an IQ of 80 because they tested at the same instructional level. Typically the lower-ability student will need more practice and repetition to move up, but some intellectually gifted children (99th percentile and up) can also have difficulty with rote learning, memory and retrieval, which holds them back in learning basic reading, written language and math skills. I’ve had students with low IQ’s in the same reading and written language groups as very gifted kids and since they were taught at their instructional level, they all made good progress.

    Not many schools allow this type of grouping, however, on any large scale.

    Direct Instruction, when done whole-school (or whole-division, say grades K-3) groups students by instructional level, and “ability” crosses groups. Data from those schools show that in general, low-ability students progress at the same rate as higher-ablity students, but they start at a lower baseline and end up at a lower point. I found this counterintuitive but have seen the data from some examples.

    Whether it will lead to apparent racial differences will, I suspect, depend on the school population. My school has very few whites or Asians (and oddly, many of the whites are in remedial groups) so if we were to institute such a policy schoolwide it would not have those deleterious effects.

  7. Generally, ability grouping also benefits that chunk of general education students classified as “slow learners”–the group that doesn’t qualify as learning disabled under any model (discrepancy, Patterns of Strengths and Weaknesses, Response to Intervention) but also is not performing at grade level. There are kids who just don’t qualify for sped because they fall into that low average cognitive cohort–but given work at their performance level, will work their butts off and do well.

    I’ve been in a program that does tracking well (including the flexibility to move up a kid who developmentally kicks in and is able to perform) and when done correctly, it shows performance results. The lower-level students aren’t afraid to ask for help because they don’t look stupid, and they show measurable growth in academic performance. At the middle school level, it also accounts for those kids for whom abstract thinking and reading interest/ability suddenly kicks in at some point during the 7th grade year (rarely the 8th). I’ve seen it happen often enough and when it does happen, the flexible ability to move a kid based on their own mastery is priceless. The kicker is that it’s less likely to happen with a kid who has shut down because they’ve always been at the low end of a heterogeneous group and they feel stupid. But a kid who hasn’t had the TAG kids intimidate them into silence for fear of looking stupid will spend more time engaging with the subject and actually learning rather than struggling with the concept that “if I ask this question I’ll look stupid.” In my experience, you’ve got to overcome that mental ability block with sped and slow learner kids. When you do, then they often turn out to be the hardest workers of your group, harder than their TAG peers.

    (My sped students are generally viewed by my general ed colleagues as hard-working trier students, especially after the middle of the 7th grade year. I have high expectations of them. Most of them live up to those expectations)

  8. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Of course the Gifted kids don’t work very hard–they’ve spent a lifetime learning laziness, since minimal effort gets them the maximum grade!

    If they could accelerate when they worked hard (Which the new KC program seems to allow), they’d work harder.

    There’s a big difference between “If I do my best I’ll blow the curve, and since the max is 100, why bother” and “If I do my best, I can graduate at 16”

  9. My grandfather went to a one-room schoolhouse for elementary that grouped students by where they were in the curriculum and he always said it was great. It makes way more sense to have a range of ages all at the same level than range of levels all of the same age.

  10. As a teacher I find myself with some questions about how this is being implemented. Sending a child off to a corner to practice making change all by himself doesn’t sound like much of a reward for being faster than the rest of the class. It doesn’t even sound like a very productive use of time. Most kids I know would get bored of this solitary activity after only a few minutes. I know that I’m picking on one small example. It may be a wonderful program. I just want to point out that the quality of implementation can make all the difference.

    It’s also worth noting that the highest achieving school systems (Finland, Singapore, Japan) do not ability group in the early elementary years.

  11. The one room school house is exactly what I though of when I read about this approach. You could work ahead but were shamed if you fell behind. Students who had never been to school were able to start at the bottom and work up quickly. Promotion was a very defined goal, related to the textbook you worked out of. I wish Kansas City the best of luck in this venture but I wonder how it will work out in the end.

  12. It’s also worth noting that the highest achieving school systems (Finland, Singapore, Japan) do not ability group in the early elementary years.

    All of them have extremely homogenous populations. No need to do so.

    It will probably play out here first in the homogenous populations (Maine, KC) for the same reasons.

    As is usually the case with these stories, there’s no way to work it prettily in high school. You aren’t going to send a kid to the computer to learn algebra or read Shakespeare. So all the flexibility that gets the reporters so excited goes away. Not that it matters, really, if we can stop pretending that all 8th graders can learn algebra or that all freshmen can read Shakespeare.

  13. *shrug*

    Kansas City Public School District is almost entirely black, so it is very homogenous. People can’t really cry “racism” too hard when there aren’t many people around of other races who are entering into gifted ed, etc. in the first place. The schools there are considered un-useable.

    Any superintendent who can be brave enough to close nearly half the schools within his first year is someone who is brave enough to try new things that just might work. If it doesn’t, I hope he sticks around long enough to try something else. This district has gone through a BIG bunch of superintendents in the last 20 years or so.


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