Study: Sorting students boosts scores

Sorting students by performance “significantly improves” reading and math scores, concludes a study that analyzed  data linked to a cohort of elementary students in Dallas. Sorting helps both high- and low-performing students, though the high achievers showed larger gains.

Tracking went out of fashion a generation ago. Teachers are supposed to “differentiate” instruction for students with varying levels of achievement, English fluency, ability or disability and “learning styles.”

“A wise wonk once wrote that the biggest challenge facing America’s schools is the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom,” notes Education Gadfly.

Analysts attempt to account for unobservable ways that schools might sort (say, by student behavior) and ultimately find that three-quarters of the schools organize students along at least one dimension: Nineteen percent by prior math scores, 24 percent by prior reading scores, 28 percent by “gifted” status, 57 percent by LEP (limited English proficiency) status, and 13 percent by special-education status (further, around 40 percent sort by at least two dimensions).

Grouping all students by prior performance would produce a significant gain in reading and math achievement, researchers concluded. However, school leaders also must consider “the impact of homogeneous classes on classroom culture and the importance of flexible grouping (so that students move out of low-level classes after they demonstrate mastery).”

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Joanne — I so agree with your closing comment about flexible ability grouping! Have been sharing this thought for a while with others. Question is who is doing this and doing it well in traditional schools vs charters? If anyone can point to schools that successfully use flexible ability grouping I would appreciate it. Thank you!

    • lightly seasoned says:

      One of our elementaries does it with the multi-age room (classroom with two grade levels mixed — parents can choose it over the traditional classrooms). I’ve done it informally with my English classes by coordinating with another teacher in my department. We do also move kids around among the levels routinely, but it is a scheduling nightmare. In other words, it isn’t a new idea.

    • palisadesk says:

      If by “flexible ability grouping” you mean “instructional level grouping,” schools organized around a Direct Instruction model will be organized this way, as all the core subjects are taught in groups determined by student performance, and these can change regularly based on mastery tests and performance data. As lightly seasoned pointed out below, the timetabling of appropriate groups is almost impossible to work out, except in a limited way, in a “regular” public school. My school does it within narrow limits –schedules are the issue.However, some public charter DI schools have been quite successful with this model, fully implemented.

      Here are two:

      They don’t specifically say on the websites that they use flexible instructional grouping, but all DI schools do this (it’s impossible to use the programs effectively any other way). Of course, you don’t have to use DI to organize instruction this way; I’ve long wished to see some research on the effectiveness of what has earlier been called the “Joplin Plan” of grouping students by instructional level in the elementary grades. Currently there is very little real data out there.

  2. Was tracking in elementary schools ever that common? I went to school in the sixties, my sister went in the 50’s. Tracking began in 7th grade and was limited to math classes. The closest thing we had to tracking in elementary school were in class reading groups.

    • My husband and I went to elementary school in the 80s in different states. His was grouped by ability, and the classes stayed together all day. Mine was grouped by ability for reading and math starting in first grade.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Tracking was the norm in my elementary school in Minnesota in the late 70’s and early 80’s and is still the norm in my sons’ school in NJ.

        We were tracked for reading and math beginning in first grade. My sons’ school began tracking for reading and math in 3rd grade. They tracked for history, science, and languages (high performers were offered more intensive classes) beginning in 5th.

    • GoogleMaster says:

      My elementary school in the 1970s was tracked. The earliest I was aware of it was fourth grade, but we may have been sorted even earlier and I just didn’t know it. Our groups were named by colors, but everyone knew the order was orange (highest), green, yellow, red, blue. When we moved on to the junior high next door, my orange group cohort were the same kids who ended up in the honors classes.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      My dad’s elementary school back in the 1950’s started tracking into separate classes in 3rd grade for all subjects. The schools I attended in the 1980’s started tracking in 5th grade for English and math and 7th grade for all the other subjects. By the time my youngest brother went through the same schools in the 1990’s. tracking started in 7th grade for English and math and 9th for all other subjects. The schools for which my kids are zoned do not start tracking until ELEVENTH grade.

      So yes, I’d say that we as a society have gone backwards when it comes to appropriately placing bright kids.

  3. Peace Corps says:

    I went to six different school districts in four different states K-12. This was 1965-1978. Only one of them obviously tracked, but it was the most diverse population of any of the school districts that I was at. I didn’t feel like school was moving too slow at the tracked school, but when I left in the seventh grade, I did feel that my new school that didn’t track was repeating stuff that I had already learned. School days started to drag.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Just by way of adding to the historical discussion, In the mid-1980’s, many Southern California school districts tracked their *districts* — putting all the Gifted & Talented classes at a single school (or sometimes clustering at 2-3 schools) in the district.

    I’m pretty sure this is no longer the practice. But it’s anthropologically interesting. The culture at such schools is very, very different.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      LA still has magnet schools for gifted kids. I know someone whose son is at a magnet school for the Highly Gifted (have to test at or above the 99.9th percentile).

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        NYC has been tracking kids via “gifted” schools for generations. They have 9 selective high schools, at least one in each borough. Kids take a test called the SHSAT to apply.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          I’ll add, their test score is by law the only consideration for admission, not race, gender or socio-economic status. They’re very white, very male schools.

          • cranberry says:

            Very asian (and white), according to the data I’ve found online.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            True, but in NYC Asian is the new white.

          • Crimson Wife says:

            I would be interested to see the breakdown of the applicant pool. If fewer females than males are interested in applying, we should not hold it against the school if the student population is skewed male. The flip side is whether the performing arts high school showcased in the movie and TV show “Fame” skews female (as I would suspect it does).

  5. Tracking (i.e. – grouping students by ability) is somewhat of a verboten subject in that I live in the nation’s 5th largest school district, and it is a minority/majority district also.

    When I attended school, we grouped students on the basis of stanines, and in high school, you either had to have the right stanine score, a high enough grade in the pre-req course (or co-req), or a recommendation from the teacher to get in.

    I don’t know how it’s done today, btw