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Ability grouping (also known as tracking, setting or streaming) is an aspect of educational placement and is the practice, in education, of placing students into groups or classes based on their abilities, talents, or previous educational achievement or educational attainment level. For example, an eight-year-old who could do complex mathematics would be placed in a more advanced class than another child of the same age who was struggling with basic mathematical concepts. Such grouping may be very fluid and temporary, such as when elementary reading teachers place children into small reading groups whose members may change several times throughout the school year. Other grouping systems, sometimes known as “tracking,” (a more controversial system) can become effectively permanent, freezing students into higher-level and lower-level tracks.
Before assignment into ability groupings some assessment of the ability required for each level must be achieved. This is usually done using aptitude measures or educational assessment tools. Sometimes adaptive testing procedures are used.
The ways by which students are assigned to tracks and the amount of fluidity within the tracking system varies by school. While some schools assign students to a particular track and do not allow for mobility between tracks, other schools allow students to be placed into an advanced class for one subject and a lower-ranking class for another. The types of tracks have also changed over the years. Traditionally, there were academic, general, and vocational tracks, but many schools now base track levels on course difficulty, with tracks such as basic, honors, or college-prep. "School policies determine three structural qualities of the tracking system: extensiveness(the number of subjects tracked and the type of distinct curricula offered); specificity(the number of track levels offered); and flexibility(whether students move from one track to another)" (Oakes and Lipton 194). Although, in theory, track assignment is based on academic ability, other factors often influence placement. Non-academic factors such as schedule conflicts often affect students’ track assignments. Secondary schools, in general, tend to assign students to high tracks based on objective criteria, while low-track students are often placed using more-arbitrary measures. In some cases, placement is based entirely on student decision.
Tracking has had positive results, which explains why the system continued to exist. Tracking addresses the needs of individual children, improves the academic achievement of the higher level track, and prepares students for colleges or careers.
Unfortunately, these positive results only affect the already high achieving students. Some students in the lower groups may remain there for an extended period, as mobility in some educational institutions may be low. The correlation between race and ability level must also be considered. Statistics show more minority students in lower ability levels, and a disparining number of white students in higher ability levels, including, at the high school level, Advanced Placement courses and IB programs.
In a heterogeneous class with students of different ability, it is difficult to provide an adequate environment of teaching to everyone. Since students differ in knowledge, skills, developmental stage, and learning rate, one lesson might be easier for some students, and more difficult for the others (Slavin 110). Tracking addresses the needs of individual children whereby all students are allowed to advance at their own pace with students of similar ability. For example, four to eight identified gifted students at a particular grade level or in a specific subject area may be placed in the classroom of a teacher who has expertise in distinguishing curriculum and instruction for them. This practice is in keeping with the need for gifted students to be with their intellectual peers in order to be appropriately challenged and to view their own abilities more realistically (Fiedler, Lange, and Winebrenner 109).
Tracking also improves the academic achievement of the higher level track. Studies have shown that grouping of gifted students in special classes with a differentiated curriculum leads to higher academic achievement and better academic attitudes for the gifted (Fiedler, Lange, and Winebrenner 110). Slavin verified gifted students’ mathematical achievement with an overall positive effects (Median Effect Size = +0.34) (118).
Ability grouping serves as an allocation mechanism that sort students into college preparatory or vocational programs. Vocational programs are designed to develop specific occupational skills that lead to direct entry into the labor market. Academic programs are designed to develop the more advanced academic skills and knowledge that are prerequisites for postsecondary schooling prior to labor force entry (Braddock and Dawkins, 329-330). Thus, ability grouping and tracking prepare students for colleges or careers.
Tracking places students on two different academic paths. Tracking limits a student’s opportunity to learn by restricting the quantity and quality of course material provided in lower tracks. For example, tracking allocates the most valuable school resources including a high currency curriculum, effective instruction, and positive teacher expectations, to students who already possess the greatest social, academic and economic advantages (Ansalone and Frank, 251). In the lower track, fewer curriculum units are covered, the pace of instruction is slower, fewer demands are made for learning higher order skills, and test and homework requirements are taken less seriously (Braddock and Dawkins, 326). Furthermore, tracking creates a feeling of inferiority among the lower track classes. Numerous cases studies point out that the lower track classes are often stigmatized by a generalized feeling that their students are not capable learners and cannot be expected to master the same kinds of skills that are demanded of other classes (Braddock and Dawkins, 326). Slavin attributed feelings of inferiority and worthlessness as one of the outcome in low achieving groups (Aydin and Tugal, 3).
Proposed Reforms to the Tracking System
Maureen Hallinan offers many suggestions for reforming the tracking system and counterbalancing its perceived negative consequences. Although tracking can segregate students by race and socioeconomic status, she says that, by ensuring that students are engaged in integrated settings during the school day, some of the negative effects of the segregation could be avoided. Some studies suggest that low-track students often have slower academic growth than high-track students, but Hallinan says that providing more-engaging lessons in class, altering assumptions about students, and raising requirements for students’ performance could help. In order to prevent stigmatization of low-track students, Hallinan suggests that schools challenge low-track students to achieve highly and should offer public rewards for gains in academic achievement.
- Ability level
- Academic aptitude
- Educational attainment level
- Educational placement
- Grade level
- Special education
- Placement exam
References & Bibliography
- ↑ Slavin, Robert E. (1990). Achievement Effects of Ability Grouping in Secondary Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis. Review of Educational Research 60 (3): 471–499.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Hallinan, Maureen (1994). Tracking: From Theory to Practice. Sociology of Education 67 (2): 79–84.
- Ansalone, George and Frank Biafora. “Elementary school teachers' perceptions and attitudes to the educational structure of tracking.” Education 125.2 (Winter 2004): 249-57.
- Aydin, Emin and Ilker Tugal. “On The Influence of Grouping Practices on Classroom Teaching.” 2005. University of South Carolina. 26 April 2006 < http://www.usca.edu/essays/vol142005/aydin.pdf>.
- Braddock, Jomills Henry II and Marvin P. Dawkins. “Ability Grouping, Aspirations, and Attainments: Evidence from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988.” Journal of Negro Education 62.3 (Summer, 1993): 324-36.
- Fiedler, Ellen D., Richard E. Lange, and Susan Winebrenner. “In search of reality: unraveling the myths about tracking, ability grouping, and the gifted.” Roeper Review 24.3 (Spring 2002): 108-11.
- Slavin, Robert E. “Grouping for Instruction in the elementary School.” Educational Psychologist 21.2 (Spring 1987): 109-27.
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