1 classroom, 5 achievement levels: The learning chasm
Trying to teach students who are way above and way below grade level in the same classroom puts an impossible burden on teachers, reports Vince Bielski on RealClear Investigations (RCI).
In 70 percent of fourth-grade classrooms, student performance varies from second- to sixth-grade levels, a 2021 study found.
It gets worse each year. In a 2014-15 study of sixth graders in two large and racially diverse urban school districts, 59 percent of math classrooms and 82 percent of English classrooms had a gap of five or more grade levels.
"Pandemic lockdowns widened the spread even more" with "low-income students of color who spent more time in remote instruction" dropped even farther behind, according to a 2022 study, Bielski writes.
Reformers pushed to end ability grouping decades ago because students placed in remedial classes made little progress. Instead teachers are supposed to "differentiate" instruction for various achievement levels.
“If you want to be called a racist, go out and say that you're for ability grouping,” says Jonathan Plucker, a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University who studies and consults with schools on this issue. “But I’ve spent my career trying to help every kid grow academically, and I think the research says that ability grouping is a better way to do it.”
In recent years, school districts have eliminated honors classes and exam schools in the name of diversity, write Bielski. Top students make less progress in mixed classrooms.
Some schools are trying “schoolwide cluster grouping” to motivate gifted and high-achieving students while avoiding the stigma of a remedial track, he reports. In one version of the model, a teacher would have three levels of students to handle. A cohort of gifted students and another of high achievers share a classroom with grade-level students. Another classroom might mix high achievers, average and below average students. The approach can motivate lower achieving students to advance to higher levels, he writes, and is "backed by an important paper that synthesized the results of 13 meta-analyses on ability grouping."