Indiscriminate inclusion — mostly for the poor

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A quote from an academic article on why instructors need to differentiate classroom instruction, “Differentiating Instruction For Advanced Learners in the Mixed-Ability Middle school Classroom” by Carol Ann Tomlinson:

“A single seventh grade heterogeneous language arts class is likely to include students who can read and comprehend as well as most college learners; students who can barely decode words, comprehend meaning, or apply basic information; and students who fall somewhere between these extremes.”

I have taught these classes. Almost every teacher who is not specifically teaching special education or gifted classes deals with these classes. I’m convinced that at least part of the reason why schools are throwing students together so indiscriminately lies in our distaste for grouping students by academic mastery — or, as it has often been called, tracking. Tracking traditionally sorted students into classes based on their previous academic performance and has been perceived as a trap for lower-performing students who were placed in less rigorous classes.

Yet, as Eliza Krigman noted in a NationalJournal article, “many schools still practice tracking in varied forms. In 2007, 75 percent of schools nationwide tracked 8th-grade math classes and 43 percent tracked 8th-grade English, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And, despite tracking’s negative reputation in the research community, its presence has remained relatively stable: From 1992 to 2007, the number of schools that track math in 8th grade increased by 3 percent; the number who tracked English classes dropped by 5 percent.” (December 14, 2009, updated January 2, 2011: http://www.nationaljournal.com/njonline/no_20091214_5320.php)

Why does tracking continue? I suspect because tracking has some formidable advantages for teaching and learning. Most importantly, tracking allows a teacher to direct lessons at the bulk of the class and not just subgroups within the class. Specifically, if my students are close in ability, I can spend my whole 50 minutes addressing one lesson. As I get a wider range of understanding in my classroom, I end up breaking the class into groups. Instead of one 50 minute lesson, I might now be teaching 3 different 15-minute lessons. In the first case, my students got a full 50 minutes of my time. In the latter, they effectively received 15 minutes instead. This one difference can be guaranteed to have a huge impact on student learning. Students are likely to receive substantially more useful instructional time when they are at similar learning levels.

I’d like to make a word substitution here; Instead of “tracking,” I now intend to use “ability grouping” to describe the process of putting students together based on similar academic performance levels. I have entered tricky territory here. These terms are not exactly synonymous, depending on sources. Questions of semantics abound when the topics of tracking and ability grouping hit the table.

A few of these semantic differences are worth noting. Many sources would agree that one significant difference exists between ability groups and tracking: Assignment to an ability group can be more easily changed than traditional tracking allowed. Traditional tracking placed a student into a preplanned, curricular sequence. In the past, this sequence might even have been listed on a transcript. Tracking represented a set of prospective classes into which a student would be placed.

Ability grouping often takes place on a classroom level with students placed into small groups based on previous academic performance. As such, ability grouping becomes one available grouping strategy, an alternative to mixed-ability groups. Groups can be readily changed from year to year and even semester to semester, based on test scores and other academic indicators.

While I may be leaping off a semantic cliff at this point by substituting ability grouping for tracking in most of what follows, these terms are used interchangeably by some sources and I prefer to use words that carry less historical baggage. While we should learn from the past, we are never locked into our past. Besides, educators are great at making up and changing words and acronyms. Look at the opener -> bell ringer -> do now, for example.

Modern districts are fully capable of creating classes based on academic mastery. Realistically speaking, most districts are drowning in data  — frequently more data than teachers and administrators can process during the little time remaining after all the spreadsheet preparation, meetings and tests. If administrators of the past could separate out students based on past performance, today’s administrators ought to be able to do so in a heartbeat, at least once they locate the right Google Docs.

Why group by academic mastery? Studies amply document the benefits of tracking for our highest academic achievers. Grouping produces academic gains for gifted students in no small part because these students then have to waste much less time listening to material they already know. Those students who “exceed expectations”? They deserve to see the more demanding material for which they are ready. They deserve an opportunity to answer critical thinking questions appropriate for their learning levels.

Studies are less clear on the academic benefits of grouping less-gifted students, but I believe a few essential observations are needed at this point: Studies don’t show that widespread inclusion, mixed grouping or more homogenous lower-level grouping improves education for our lower students. They tend to show that one system does not work appreciably better than the other systems in terms of increasing test scores.

Let me note that I believe a great deal of bias exists in these studies, much of it intended to prove the benefits of more universal inclusion. Let me also note that giving academically-lower students material at their learning level may not increase test scores – if the test does not match the material and their learning levels. Absent cheating, a student operating at a fourth-grade level in math will always bomb a test at a seventh-grade level, even if that student has technically advanced two or more years in mathematical mastery. Thus, ability grouping of lower students may be producing solid results that remain unproven due to faulty measuring instruments.

Some better studies use more appropriate tests and still find a lack of learning in mixed-group or lower-level classes, suggesting that academic problems within these lower classes remain intransigent whether higher-ability students are thrown into the mix or not. The quick reaction to these studies has usually been a demand for increasing academic rigor, despite a lack of evidence for the overall success of the greater-rigor approach. Too often, I fear, we are taking students who cannot jump the 6 foot hurdle and trying to solve their problems by giving them 8 foot hurdles instead.

To sum this up, ability grouping has not been proven to decrease learning overall for our academically-lower students. We have not yet found any win for those students other than intensive interventions that are more difficult in mixed-group classes than in similarly-grouped classes. Ability grouping has been proven to increase learning for our academically-stronger students. Given that high-achieving students clearly lose under the current trend of widely inclusive class placements, while lower-achieving students do not appear to gain, I suggest that America needs to begin seeking alternatives to our long-running inclusion experiment.

Eduhonesty: I have gone sideways in this post. I did not say what I had intended to say. The missing financial component in this post that I have not yet addressed has potent implications. The district where I live has a great deal more money than the district where I worked with those mixed-group classes. Where I live, students are grouped by ability and four different levels of high school math are available to students, depending on past performance. Where I worked, two levels were available but most students were place on the same track. Juniors took geometry. Stronger juniors might have a more demanding geometry class if their schedules permitted.

One problem with detracking, with moving toward widest-possible inclusion and mixed-groups, is that financially-disadvantaged school districts are more likely to choose this strategy simply because consolidating classes eliminates some classes, reducing offerings and thus saving money on teachers, books and supplies.

The research shows benefits to higher-achieving students from ability grouping, but in poorer districts that grouping happens less frequently, when it happens at all. This becomes yet another hidden obstacle to success for higher-achieving, financially-disadvantaged students.