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					 Alex McConville
Ability Grouping and Tracking Midterm Paper

  Social and Cultural Foundations of Education

             Education Department

                   Jeff Claus

                  Muller 214
            What’s the deal with ability grouping and tracking?

       The continuous discussion about how our nation can bridge the educational gap is one

that has been debated for many decades and will continue until one straight solution to the

problem has been found. The main problem is that there seems to be no one straight answer or

solution that has discovered that can bridge the educational gap and ensuring equal education for

all, or whether equal education is even obtainable. The debate consists of two things ability

grouping and tracking and whether we would like to begin a national reform of detracking. One

may ask why ability grouping and tracking needs to be detracked. Or can we just reform ability

grouping and tracking instead of using resources to redefine the system? Another may ask, is

ability grouping and tracking the problem, or is it the way it is brought out and used in the

system? The controversy over ability grouping and tracking lies in the argument that children in

lower groups and tracks do not have the opportunity to the education that children in upper

groups or tracks obtain, making education unequal, and children in these lower groups and

tracking systems underperform. A quote that summarizes ability grouping and tracking is;

“grouping and tracking do not increase overall achievements in schools, but they promote

inequity... To reduce inequality, we should decrease the use of both practices, and, where ability

grouping is retained, improved its use” (Gamoran & Cloyd, 1992). In this paper I will be

discussing the use of ability grouping and tracking, whether it should be reformed, whether we

should reform, arguments from both sides, and providing detail upon my own personal

experiences in high school and come to my own conclusion upon ability grouping and tracking. I

will also be molding all of the practices in to how they affect children’s right to equal

educational opportunities and how they can be fulfilled.
       What is ability grouping and tracking? Are there differences between the two? And what

is detracking and what are its goals? These are three questions many of American parents do not

know the answer to and questions many children do not even know when they leave high school.

Ability grouping and tracking both deal dividing groups of children across subjects in schools.

However ability grouping and tracking defer in that ability grouping is “within class grouping

and grouping for specific disciplines” (in class notes), while tracking is considered “grouping

across disciplines” (in class notes). Ability grouping is different in that students remain

heterogeneous most of the time but are regrouped in class by performance, group assignments

are flexible and often reassessed, and teachers adapt their level of learning based on their speed

(Slavin, 1987). Tracking is really considered “a practice in which high schools tested students,

typically with both achievement and IQ tests, and used these scores to place their students into

separate curricular tracks” (Loveless, 1998). Ability grouping is splitting children in classes into

small groups.

        Detracking is a push to reform education in school systems by moving away from ability

grouping and tracking. The purpose of detracking is because there has been a noticeable gap in

the education system between higher tracks and lower tracks. A push for detracking reforms is

taking place because “the established ideas that higher achievement follows from a more

rigorous curriculum and that low track classes with unchallenging curricula result in lower

student achievement” (Burris, 2005). There are many arguments in favor of reform for

detracking. A major argument is that tracking and ability grouping do not allow students to move

up amongst the tracks in a system that is based on the thought that students have the

responsibility to motivate themselves and move forwards in the tracks. Lower tracks tend to
receive teachers who are not as motivated as higher track teachers or who are not as good a

teacher, lower tracks produce inequality amongst tracks, and most importantly who tends to be in

the lower tracks. Students in the lower tracks of ability grouping and tracking tend to be minority

students, and students of lower socioeconomic status families (SES). Having the trend of lower

track students being minorities and low SES students creates a question of whether the practices

of ability grouping and tracking do not allow or affect people’s right to equal education and

opportunities. The question is does ability grouping and tracking need to be detracked or

reformed in order to make sure students of low SES and minority students obtain their rightful

education. A great example of detracking is showed in the Preuss School, which is a leading

example of how schools can be detracked successfully. Detracking strategies include redoing the

organization of curriculum, instructional style organized curriculums, mastery learning, and

cooperative learning. Another important argument in the detracking debate deals with the

question of educational funding, and how much funds states or the nation would want to

contribute into rebuilding the educational system that has been throughout our nations and states

education’s history.

       What are some of the arguments in favor for and against ability grouping and tracking?

There are many arguments for ability grouping and tracking and the effect it has upon higher

achievers in the high track classes or higher ability groups. Grouping and tracking allow for

choice of students and teachers, in whether the student or teacher believes that they are capable

of being in a higher track or group, and allows a student to be challenged or comfortable in their

learning setting. It also allows students and groups to move along in the subject at their

respective speed with appropriate paces, some paces being faster than others; a faster pace allows
students in an accelerated group to learn at a quicker pace and more information, while mixed

grouping would cause a slower pace. Tracking is believed to increase motivation in students to

work harder and learn more in upper tracks while encouraging students in lower tracks to want to

work hard to move up in the tracks. Some supporters of ability grouping and tracking believe

that mixed classes hold back top students, while making teaching easier and more effective. It is

also believed that it prepares students for the way society really works and how life is, that

everything isn’t completely equal. However, ability grouping can positively affect students in the

upper tracks, students find greater self-concept, and achievement for students in upper tracks has

been reported to be greater in homogenous groups (Segro, 1995). There are many ways to

improve ability grouping and tracking in order to make sure that students do not get

discriminated and left out or obtain an unequal education. One way to do this is by grouping

across age groups, so students of similar ages and levels work together and interact. There have

been some pushes towards the reform of ability grouping and tracking. These reform ideas

include: having fewer levels, closer and more monitoring, more mixed classes, mastery and

cooperative learning, block scheduling, and redesigning schedules to encourage movement. A

main push in reform is the ability to have more flexibility amongst groups and tracks in order for

students to be able to move up in the educational system.

       Although people in the field of education are pushing for and trying to reform the use of

ability grouping and tracking in the school systems, there are still many good arguments against

the use of ability grouping and tracking. The arguments against ability grouping and tracking are

generally in favor of doing away with grouping and are in favor of detracking which has been

discussed earlier. What are some of the creditable arguments against ability grouping and
tracking? One argument is that there is no room for people to move up throughout the tracks and

students get left behind or lost. There is also an unequal distribution of resources and quality of

teacher in lower tracks. Segregation of students and their abilities are created by choice and this

segregation of the students creates a hierarchy and tension amongst groups. Most students in

lower tracks tend to be minorities and these students tend to be of a lower SES. Having a higher

number of minority students and low SES students create inequality, and it has been shown that

“at the elementary level... Fast paced reading instruction in high level groups and slow moving

progress in low groups. This occurs for both within class and between class grouping” (Gamoran

& Cloyd, 1992) this shows that there is a creation of unequal education opportunities for students

in lower tracks. The use of mixed grouping abilities allows students to gain experience working

together and teaching each other, and creates social and academic benefits.

       I attended a very small public high school in the lower Hudson Valley between Beacon

and the Bear Mountain Bridge. It was a small school that was not a very diverse; it was a

predominately middle working class Caucasian community. The school had one side of a

building with an elementary, middle school and junior high wing, and a high school wing; it later

built a new building for the high school. The elementary school was not very tracked, but they

would split students up into certain groups for certain subjects within the classes; so the

elementary school system relatively represented ability grouping at times. The middle school

was relatively the same with more ability grouping for certain subjects and for students with

disabilities. However, once students reached junior high which consisted of two years seventh

and eighth grade tracking begun. In junior high we had four main subjects; mathematics,

sciences, social studies, and English. In each of the four subjects they began to introduce three
different levels of classes; honors, regents, normal level. Children with disabilities were also

taken out of their relative class for certain subjects for extra time, special learning needs, and

extra help from their special education teachers. Upon arriving in high school the tracking

system remained, where honors became advanced placement classes, regents became honors, and

the normal level classes became regents.

       My experience in the way our elementary school and middle school systems were run

was very positive. Students were not split up from their friends even if they had disabilities, and

the whole class seemed to thrive through working together and joint learning. At an early age I

was diagnosed with a learning disability and speech disability and was placed in certain

programs in elementary and middle school to help the needs that were required. We had specific

time for our special education class in which we worked on all subjects and a certain period in

which we would meet with a speech teacher to develop our speech. Upon middle school children

in the special education department would be taken out of class and would work as a group for

mostly English, reading and writing. In this class we would take every step very slowly and

precisely until all students were able to obtain the same level. My friends and I remember always

being done with our respective task and having to wait for other students who were having more

difficulty with their readings and writings. At this point I felt as if we were able to work in

smaller groups within our abilities we would have been able to obtain a certain level of reading

and writing that was equal to our other classmates much quicker. I also felt as if we were

excluded and unable to see our friends in other classes and other tracks, which was a huge

problem at that age. In junior high students were strictly split up into tracks, I was placed in the

regents level class while many of my friends were moved into the honors level classes. However,
we were allowed to be in different tracks in different subjects, for example in seventh grade I

was in all regents level classes while in eighth grade for English I was placed in a lower normal

level class, a regent math and science classes, and an honors history class.

        In seventh grade we began a block scheduled class with nine periods. The most

important class for me and some of my friends was a resource room in which we had help for our

special needs from the special education teacher. This is where as a student I finally gained a

sense of what I was doing. In eighth grade I was able to develop better reading skills and able to

move into mostly honors classes for high school. At this point one of my best friends from

middle school into high school got left on the wrong path. He was a child from a lower SES and

had a number of family problems. In eighth grade I will always remember our two students on

one teacher class for English, in which the teacher was vividly fighting to keep him on the right

track and give him the motivation to move out of the lower tracks as I was able to do. Upon

entering high school I was able to pull everything together and fall into the right path with the

motivation I gained from our two on one class with this teacher. It gave me a good work ethic

which I used to excel through the different tracks into higher level classes. The friend that I had

was unable to pull himself out of the track. He was one of the smartest children I knew but

unable to become motivated enough to get through and move up through the tracks. He fell

deeper and deeper into a whole in which teacher showed no interest in him and were not willing

to help. Unable to receive the help he needed he fell in to the wrong crowd of people which

brought him further and further down to the point where he got suspended a number of times and

simply became fed up and dropped out of school. What bothers be the most is looking back now

knowing that if the high school was run a little bit differently, or there was one more teacher that
realized he was at risk for these problems due to the family situation he was in, he would have

completed high school and moved on to higher education which would help him and his family.

       Prior to high school another best friend of mine changed school districts due to his father

teacher at another school in the area. The high school he attended was a little bigger in size and

was way more diverse. His new school was heavily tracked, with little opportunity to move up in

the tracks. Luckily for him and his own personal experience he went to this school for their

advanced placement classes that would help him get into the colleges he wanted apply to. He

told me numerous stories in which fellow students of his were in lower tracks with great grades

and high standardized test grades, but could not move up into the upper classes until their parents

fought for the movement. He had numerous stories of friends that were minorities and placed

into lower tracks just because of their families SES, and what they were perceived to be. These

students had no awful teacher, no motivation to move up in the tracks, and had no desire to do

better than average. While on the other hand, some of the students worked as hard as they could,

did very well in the classes, but could not move up through the tracks, to where they should be.

       Through my own experience and seeing what has happened to my friend I have realized

that something has to be done to the way our educational system is ran. I am personally not a fan

of detracking for a number of reasons, but I favor and realize that ability grouping needs to be

reformed. It has been successful for higher level learners and thrives on motivation of the

students and the teachers. I believe done correctly with reforms ability grouping will be

successful. One of the main things that have to be done is bridge the gap between higher groups

and lower groups; this can be done many ways. I would recommend providing experienced good
teachers in all levels of the ability groups, provide good opportunities to move up into higher

groups, have teachers thrive to motivate students to be motivated and want to move up into other

classes, and use new ways of teaching and learning. These include mastery and cooperative

learning, peer teaching and learning, grouping across age groups, and redeveloping scheduling.

Redeveloping ability grouping and tracking so that it works for everyone is the best way to fix

the educational gap, and is able to save funds and time associated with the introduction of

detracking. Whatever we decide to do to insist equality in the educational system has to be done

soon to move students who are normally low in the educational system up towards the top.

Burris, C. (2005). Closing the Achievement Gap by Detracking. Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappan.

Gamoran, A., & Cloyd, H. (1992). Is Ability Grouping Equitable? Wisconsin : Educational Leadership.

Loveless, T. (1998). The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate. Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

Segro, G. (1995). Meeting The Needs Of All Students: Making Ability Grouping Work.

Slavin, R. (1987). Ability Grouping and it's alternatives.

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