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?