Altered Classrooms: Tracking

By Judy Molland

Tracking Students By Ability

While advocates of single-sex schooling and looping speak glowingly of students’ overall improvement, a third option, tracking, is undergoing some changes at the elementary school level.

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Tracking has traditionally been defined as the practice of placing students in different classes based on perceived differences in their abilities. It still exists in middle and high schools, but the practice has been reduced or eliminated in most elementary schools. Instead, in recent years, tracking has been supplanted by ability grouping: clustering students by achievement in specific subject areas, such as math and reading, within the same classroom, for part of the day.

No reliable national surveys of ability grouping in elementary schools have been conducted, but a consistent picture emerges form several local studies. Grouping for reading appears nearly universal, especially in the early grades, and somewhat less universal for math.

Supporters of ability grouping believe that it increases student achievement by allowing teachers to focus their instruction. Others disagree, pointing out that average and slower students do not benefit from it, and that slower students are stigmatized before they have had a chance to develop academically.

But with the advent of NCLB, educators around the country are adopting a different approach to this type of grouping.

“Research tells us that each child’s needs are specific, so in reading, we do assessments of our students and group them, based upon that assessment,” says Tony Knight, assistant superintendent of education at the Oak Park Unified School District near Los Angeles. But, he adds, the grouping is temporary, or “fluid.” At Red Oak Elementary School, for example, the teachers pretest students for individual reading and math skills and then group them across the grade level.

Third-grader Jenny Slocum is with students from other classes for math; she already knows how to do multiplication, so she doesn’t need to sit through learning it again. And she’s with an entirely different group for language arts.

“It’s great!” she beams. “I get to meet different kids throughout the day and hang out with them.”

Fluid grouping involves a lot of planning time among teachers. At Red Oak, teachers spend an hour and a half each week discussing this grouping. Parents seem to like this much better than seeing their children stuck in one group all day, and the students like having their individual needs met. Knight also notes that standardized test scores rose dramatically throughout the district after the system was implemented.

A variant of fluid grouping is “differentiated instruction,” a term which is increasingly coming into use around the country. Essentially, this means that students are divided heterogeneously into classes of about 25, and then it’s the teachers’ responsibility to meet the needs of each of those kids. All students are regularly given choices and matched with tasks compatible with their individual learning abilities.

Because of NCLB, teachers can no longer put kids in groups and ignore them, which may have happened before, notes middle school teacher Pat Bailey. Under NCLB, school districts are now required to show improvement among all groups of students, including those with limited English proficiency or other characteristics.

“Differentiated instruction is here to stay,” Bailey says, “because we have to look at all children and find out what their individual needs are and decide how we are going to teach them.”

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