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The great "Ability grouping" misnomer

A flurry of headlines in the education media has recently announced the return of "ability grouping."  The news stories cite a recent study by the Brooking Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy that found a major resurgence of "ability grouping" after the practice had fallen out of fashion for many years.

But what the Brown Center study describes is simply good practice and should not be called "ability grouping," a term that does indeed need to remain on the scrap heap of history.

The Education Week story on this topic is a good example.  It defines "ability grouping" as "the practice-primarily in elementary grades-of separating students for instruction within a single class."  Reporting findings from the Brown Center study, the story goes on to describe the increasingly common practice of using assessment data to flexibly sort students for intervention and enrichment.  In the best-case scenarios, these groups are truly flexible: students move in and out of the groups based on their progress toward benchmarks.

I've seen some pretty poor and primitive excuses for flexible grouping, like assigning students to groups based on a single assessment measure, and then leaving them in a group for an entire semester or longer before reassessing their progress.  And in many schools "enrichment" groups don't provide much meaningful enrichment. 

But the effort to do flexible grouping is still an important step toward implementation of a truly "balanced" assessment system.  Ideally, schools should be constantly measuring student progress toward learning targets (using frequent, ungraded formative assessments) and making immediate instructional adjustments based on this progress.  Adjustments could include grouping students based on their progress to provide additional (or differentiated) instruction (or enrichment). 

This practice, however, has nothing to do with a student's "ability," a word which suggests a child's innate capacity to learn.  On any given day, any student could require some intervention or enrichment based on progress toward a particular learning target. 

It is not splitting hairs to make this distinction.  Much of the tracking that took place in past decades had everything to do with educators' perceptions of children's innate capacaties to learn.  With relatively little meaningful data to go off (and lots of prejudicial attitudes based on race, poverty, or family education background), teachers assigned students to groups based on "ability" and the vast majority of students never left their track.  "Lower" tracks were distinguished by profoundly lower expectations for what students would ever be able to achieve.  And this probably explains as much about historical achievement gaps as nearly anything.

Tracking practices like this have greatly declined at the secondary level in recent years, and rightly so.  For adults to decide on a child's behalf - when that child is 14 years old or younger - whether he or she is "college material" reeks of paternalism and a profound unfairness, and sets up those who might desire more for themselves to be perpetually unprepared for learning at the next level.  Most high schools have replaced multiple tracks (for students without disabilities) with two today: "honors" and "regular."

But even these distinctions seem problematic to me.  When I ask high school educators the difference between their honors and regular courses, uncomfortable squirming often ensues.  The honors classes move "faster" and "go deeper," I'm usually told, but the content is the same.  I have trouble seeing how the content could be the same if the class is moving "faster."  There's no way getting around the fact that our expectations for "regular" classes are lower.  Are none of these students capable - or worthy - of higher expectations?

Lest readers misunderstand, I do believe there are differences in students regarding their "ability."  Like almost all human characteristics, intelligence (in all its forms) falls along a bell-shaped curve pattern for large populations.  And these innate capacities do shape the rate at which students learn, and for a few perhaps, a maximum capacity for achievement.  But when educators use these differences to make decisions that profoundly shape the entire curriculum and learning program for vast numbers of students, we have given "ability" far more prominence than it deserves and institutionalized low expectations and a reluctance to do what truly needs to be done: meaningful individualization and differentiation for all students.

Would we even need "honors" classes if we knew how to really differentiate?  And could the institutional structures of schooling ever allow us to differentiate in this way if we actually knew how?

This is the kind of debate we need to have in education.  Misnomers like "ability grouping" are a major distraction.

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