Brookings: Ability grouping is back

Elementary teachers are using ability grouping once again, according to the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education by Tom Loveless.

Ability grouping was very popular from the 1960’s through the 1980s, but came under attack as inequitable in the 1990’s. In 1961, 80 percent divided children into robins, bluebirds and sparrows, or the like. (I was a bluebird in 1958.) By 1998, only 28 percent of fourth graders were being placed in reading groups by ability. That shot up to 71 percent by 2009, Brookings finds.

Math ability grouping rose from 40 percent of fourth graders in 1996 and 42 percent in 2003 to 61 percent in 2011.

With more computers in elementary classrooms, teachers may be “more comfortable with students in the same classroom studying different materials and progressing at different rates through curriculum,” writes Loveless.

Although ability grouping is coming back, efforts to de-track middle school math are continuing. However, pushing more eighth graders into algebra isn’t raising achievement, the report finds.

States with rising percentages of eighth graders taking Algebra I, Geometry, and other advanced math classes were no more likely to raise their NAEP scores from 2005-2011 than states with declining percentages of eighth graders in those courses.

When more students take pre-algebra and algebra, the courses appear to be watered down, writes Loveless. However, there’s no watering-down effect for geometry.

The U.S. is often exhorted to emulate the high-scoring  “A+ countries” — Belgium (Flemish), Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore — in math instruction. However, “the average A+ country made no more progress in math achievement than any other country in TIMSS” since 1995, the report finds.

And the Finns may do well on PISA but they’re nothing special on TIMSS.

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  1. I know this isn’t a popular point of view, but I am all in favor of ability grouping. I think it’s far more fair to all concerned, parents’ ego issues notwithstanding. (It MUST be possible to move from group to group as a child advances along, though) (move up, move back, as indicated by performance)

  2. Miller Smith says:

    It’s back?! When did it ever stop?

    Since I started teaching in 1988 I have had summit kids, honors kids, general kids, co-taught kids, and on and on. In Prince George’s County, MD we have never had any school that did not track kids from very early in k-5 and all the way through graduation from high school. We even code their class numbers on their transcripts.

    430003 is general chemistry
    430093 is honors chemistry.
    430049 is summit chemistry (the top students).
    430023 is co-taught very low ability kids.
    And the very best top kids don’t even attend in their own district…they go to a magnet school.