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What Are Your Thoughts, & What Has Been Your Experience, With Ability Grouping/Tracking?


Greg Toppo’s article yesterday in USA Today, More teachers are grouping kids by ability, has gotten a lot of attention over the past twenty-four hours.

And it got me thinking that I’d like to explore it further in this blog among readers, and possibly extend it to a post in my Education Week Teacher column.

I personally am generally very wary of ability grouping within classes as well as the tracking of entire classes, though recognize it can be tricky issue.

Here’s what Robert Marzano says about it in the context of cooperative learning in his book, “Classroom Instruction That Works”:

In general, homogenous grouping [organized by ability levels] seems to have a positive effect on student achievement when compared with no grouping….students of low ability actually perform worse when they are placed in homogeneous groups with students of low ability — as opposed to students of low ability placed in heterogeneous groups….In addition, the effect of homogeneous grouping on high-ability students is positive but small…It is the medium-ability students who benefit the most from homogeneous grouping.

I’ve certainly experienced that clear negative impact on students (and on the teacher!) of having a class entirely comprised of students facing major challenges. I’ve seen the slight positive impact on high-ability student groupings, but I’ve also often seen their benefiting a great deal from mixed ability groups and classes, especially if they have a history of being typically with only similarly “high-ability” students in the past. For example, I made a major effort each year of recruiting students into my International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge class each year who have not taken any “advanced” classes in the past, and they contribute a great deal of experience and knowledge to the class that I don’t believe my IB Diploma track students have not been exposed to in the past.

I haven’t necessarily experienced what Marzano says about “medium” ability students being in a homogeneous group. When a very few are in a class with lots of other students who face many challenges, I can see some of these “medium” students being seduced to go on a downward trend and not feel challenged, but it’s hard for me to see them experiencing problems with being mixed with “high-ability” or when there is a reasonable balance of all levels.

I also haven’t experienced problems with mixed grouping with a mixed-ability class. I’ve had lots of students have higher-ability in some areas (technology, writing, reading) and lower-ability in others. I just try to mix-and-match in small groups depending on the assignment, and sometimes I do have higher-level assignments for a higher-level group. In my ESL class, I have groups divided by English-level, but it’s clear to the class it’s just based on if students have learned some English in their native country and by how long they’ve been here, not on intelligence.

What has been your experience with tracked classes and ability groupings within a mixed class? Are there different implications for primary than there are in secondary?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I’ve seen terrible effects of tracking throughout my 15+ years of teaching. Our community is divided by a freeway and on the rich side of the freeway kids aren’t tracked until high school. On the poor side of the freeway the tracking starts immediately after the GATE tests in 3rd grade.
    Working with the low-income students I often hear comments about how they have never been in the “smart” class so clearly they aren’t smart. When I bumped one of my “regular” students into my accelerated class last year he was stunned by the fact that everyone did their homework every night. He’d never seen even 20% of kids in his other class doing homework every night. It’s hard to truly convince kids of the growth mindset when they don’t see it in their classes. Kids in the “regular” and support classes just assume that those who have been in those “smart” classes since 4th grade were genetically born smart. There is almost no movement between those classes and it becomes another case of the rich get richer.
    Our school’s motto is the same as many these days “all kids are going to college” and yet our kids are tracked which doesn’t quite fit that motto. When I express a desire to see us move away from tracking I’m often laughed at by those who have only taught in tracked schools. They believe that of course it works on the rich side because those kids are all smart, but with our low-income EL population where the kids are so far behind we HAVE to track as soon as possible to keep the “smart” kids from being held back in their learning.
    I believe that heterogeneous classes are so much more than just smart kids teaching content to the struggling students. Heterogeneous classes model what our students will encounter in the workplace and in life – people have different strengths and in order to accomplish the task you have to use those strengths and work together. I also think it’s important for all of our students to see models of what strong academic behavior looks like in the classroom. When you put all the students with low GPA’s and/or low test scores into one classroom, they don’t have models that show them how to challenge themselves and question and grow as a student. They’ve never seen that it’s not only OK, but a darn good idea to raise your hand and ask questions if you don’t understand. “Turn and talk to your partner” is significantly less useful if neither partner buys into the concept of school and learning which is often the case when you have the same 10% of a school grouped into the same support classes year after year.
    In my district I truly believe we will not see big changes in our students, especially as they tackle the critical thinking tasks associated with CCSS, until we return to heterogenous grouping in our classrooms.

  2. In 1994-95 during my final year at Amherst College, I student taught at Amherst Regional High School while writing my thesis about the town’s bitter divide over ability grouping. I quickly realized that one faction feared the “dumbing down” that they understood to be the defining principle of untracked classes. The other perceived an inevitable elitism and de facto segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines. Yet what struck me most was that neither camp derived its arguments from best practices, pedagogical theory, or student-centered learning.

    My personal experience and professional study have made me a vocal advocate for mixed-ability grouping, but I am still convinced that the public dialogue about tracking remains one driven by assumptions and bias. During my twenty years in schools, I have had very few opportunities to engage in reasoned discourse about the pros and cons, about teaching methods or the about the long-term effects of grouping. Instead, the conversations degenerate into meaningless pitched battles.

    So what are my thoughts and experiences? I am certainly not naive enough to think that my anti-tracking stance is the “right” one. I would welcome the chance to challenge my assumptions by talking with other educators about what is best for our students. But I can’t find a forum for that conversation. Have you? @maineschooltech

  3. Hattie has the effect size of tracking at d = .09. There *are*, however, large (negative) effects on equity.
    This idea won’t die despite the data because for many people it’s intuitive that it ought to work.

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