After Decade of Criticism, Student Grouping Rises

Yahoo! News, March 18, 2013

Teachers say they are grouping students of similar abilities with each other inside classrooms and schools are clustering pupils with like interests together—a practice once frowned upon—according to a review of federal education surveys.

The Brookings Institution report released Monday shows a dramatic increase in both ability grouping and student tracking among fourth- and eighth-grade students. Those practices were once criticized as racist and faced strong opposition from groups as varied as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to the National Governors Association.

“Despite decades of vehement criticism and mountains of documents urging schools to abandon their use, tracking and ability grouping persist—and for the past decade or so, have thrived,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the centrist Brookings Institute’s Brown Center on Education Policy, who wrote the report.

Ability grouping was common during the 1960s and ’70s in elementary school and allowed educators to put their students already in the same classroom into smaller clusters based on their understanding of the lessons. For instance, students who already had mastered their basic multiplication tables could go ahead and start working on more advanced calculations.

Tracking is similar, but happens between academic years and divvies the high school students up into schedules based on their records. An example would be to send some sophomore students into honors courses while others remained in basic courses.

Both faced criticism because they exacerbated racial and socioeconomic differences.

“What happens is ability groupings create stigma and stigma is a bad thing,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in an interview. “The moment that you create a label that says ‘this is a slow learner’ or ‘this is a fast learner,’ that’s a stigma you’ve created for a kid.”

In response, educators moved away from the practice.

But they didn’t stay away for long — if, in fact, they really ever disappeared in practice.

In 1998, for instance, only 28 percent of fourth graders were put into ability-based reading groups. By 2009, that number rose to 71 percent, according to Education Department data that Loveless reviewed.


In math, that number rose from 40 percent of students in ability groups in 1996 to 61 percent in 2011, according to the same surveys.


It’s possible that increased demands on teachers led to more grouping to help students catch up in reading and math skills ahead of tests mandated in the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law. Teachers perhaps identified students on the cusp of passing those tests—which in some places determines teachers’ evaluations—and worked more closely with the pupils they could pull to a passing grade.

Asked why grouping was returning, Weingarten said she had little doubt: “I think the answer is because of this increased fixation on testing and accountability,” she said. “We hear it all the time when you start talking about the bubble, in how they inch kids over the mark of proficiency or not proficiency.”


Not everyone is convinced that tracking really ever faded.

“People don’t like to admit they were tracking. But if you look at what they’re doing, they were clearly tracking. It was politically incorrect to say they were tracking, but they were doing it,” said Kevin Welner, an educator professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a critic of systems that group students.


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  • Andy

    Good news for children of all abilities and races! (Especially bright kids and white kids, since one-size-fits-all is really aimed at poor students.) The liberals must be up in arms.

  • The__Bobster

    Students were tracked for centuries because it worked. Schools classes only progress as fast as the worst student.

  • HadEnough

    “Both faced criticism because they exacerbated racial … differences.”

    No, they did not exacerbate the differences; they just laid them bare.

    • Oil Can Harry

      Exactly, And if these leftards feel that tracking the top students causes “stigmatization” and hurt feelings among the less bright, why do they still issue test scores and report cards?

      After all, when some kids get an A+ it may upset the D- students. Oh, the humanity!

  • sbuffalonative

    “What happens is ability groupings create stigma and stigma is a bad thing,”
    Concerning ourselves with self-esteem issues hasn’t improved grades while grouping has.
    It’s time to admit that “diversity” extends to academic achievement.

    • jambi19

      They’ve never wanted diversity of thought. They will never allow it because it would expose the failure that is liberalism.

      • Jesse_from_Sweden

        Actually, liberalism as a ideology has very little to do with it, but then again, what we commonly talk about as liberalism is actually a form of marxism.
        But thanks to marxisms legacy as a failure wherever it has been treid, they prefer to use “liberalism” as a label instead.

        But marxism is a failure now just as it has always been a failure, because the basic premise for marxism is that everyone is inherently equal and all differences are created by nurture alone, and that if you only change society so that everyone gets the same chances, then everyone will be equally successful and there will be no crime or misery.

        A lovely thought really, but then again, so are most utopias based on dreams.

        It just doesn’t work, since we are not equal from birth, some people are better at some things than others are, and this differences are inheritable and genetic.

  • dd121

    Maybe our school madness will go full circle and someone will suggest separate but equal schools.

    • Tom Iron

      nah, never happen gi. The liberals are still very much in charge. If it gets out of hand, which it will, theyll put the kibosh to it likeyty split…

      • dd121

        I kind of meant it as a joke. But I have heard some of the loony left blacks assert that black chimp children should only be taught by black chimps. Seems almost poetic to me.

    • joesolargenius

      The problem with that is the non white teachers will not want to work in the non white schools ,and so they will then get paid to harm white children .

    • Tom Iron

      Interesting you bring that up. There were some real good schools for blacks back in the 1950s. Dunbar H.S. was an excellent black school in Washington DC. But that went by the wayside in the 60s with intergration. Anyway, those days are gone. The blacks are too far gone in every way to learn enough to have a reasonable chance of making it in this society.

  • jay11

    I am in the trenches. Militant, leftist ‘social justice’ looney bins hate tracking and ability grouping. They rail against it and I have personally seen such leftists lose their minds over this issue. Teachers are routinely threatened with “U” ratings if they don’t toe the line, and many younger teachers naively believe it is proper to have mixed-ability groups.

    What happens on the ground? For groupwork, which is promoted heavily, the one smarter kid in the group does the hard work while the others contribute next to nothing or even just goof off. The teachers, even the ones who believe in it, get frustrated and pretend they don’t see what they see (a liberal disease!). Then there is a group ‘grade’ and the slackers get credit and move on.

    What happens to the classroom atmosphere? The ‘slower’ learners also tend to be the disruptive students. It can be mild from sitting there with their heads down to severe situations where they talk across the room, make animal noises, play music on their ipods or throw things constantly. The average students are PREVENTED from learning and advancing, and the talented tenth roll their eyes and are bored out of their skulls and mainly become lethargic and give up. I have seen this over and over and over again.

    And this is not even a racial thing. In my high school I had a few general level classes with mixed ability students (all white) and just 3-4 bad apple ‘slower’ learners created chaos daily. When I got in honors classes, voila! – no more problems because everyone was on the same page. I think mixed classes hurts minorities a lot more, because there’s far fewer students on track to begin with. I teach in an ‘urban’ setting and I see it all the time. I literally have ‘students’ who are 2-3 years older than they should be (for the grade level) and who come in every day with no intention of doing any schoolwork and every intention of putting on a new ‘Dequan’ show for the day.

    The better behaved black and latino kids get mesmerized by the ‘show’ and almost none do any work. Lest someone may think I’m a ‘bad’ teacher: I get the best scores on the floor (which isn’t saying much, I know) and both I and the ‘good’ kids know that nothing ever happens to the bad kids because the admin is ‘social justice’ minded and never wants to punish delinquents because – get this – they are the ‘victims’ of white oppression! (Even though the only white people any of them EVER meet are kind-hearted liberal teachers and the occassional social worker!)

    • ncpride

      My daughter will only take honors or AP classes for the reasons you decribed. Of course, she is a very serious learner and can’t tolerate kids goofing off, excessive talking..etc.. She says in honors classes, pretty much all of them take it seriously and everyone can keep up. She hasn’t taken a ‘regular’ class since her freshman year.

      • GeneticsareDestiny

        That’s good, it sounds like her school isn’t completely off the rails. In my high school, some AP and honors courses were required for all students, so you’d end up with 60-IQ Bantus in advanced courses when they couldn’t even handle a regular course.

        This generally resulted in the teacher having to spend half the class time, every day, just disciplining and trying to maintain order. We would end up weeks behind where we should have been because so many of the low-IQ kids couldn’t keep up, and if the teacher failed them all she’d get in trouble with the administration.

        So everything got slowed down until the work was below the level of a regular course and the kids who actually wanted to take an advanced course were bored out of their minds and massively frustrated with idiots who didn’t know how to sit down, shut up, and study.

        Despite this massive dysfunction, most of the ‘smart kids’ passed the AP test at the end of the year. IQ means everything.

        • ncpride

          Yes, we are lucky the schools our kids attend are not PC nut-houses, but then again they are in very rural areas, and are probably around 96% White. They don’t have to worry about dumbing anything down, and the graduation rate is terrific as well. These type of public schools are on the endangered list, as we are seeing mexicans slowly creeping in. I just hope I can get both of mine graduated before they ruin them, but no doubt any grandkids I am blessed with will need home-schooling or private school when the time comes.

          • Andy

            My school system has maybe ten total minorities in it, and yet it *is* a PC nut-house. My brother was told he could be “re-educated” if he said anything racist, all students are forced to attend pro-gay seminars (and there is constantly pro-gay propaganda up), and the high school hosts a “Diversity Day” each year where they import blacks and Hispanics from nearby towns to talk about the minority experience. The social studies and English classes are nothing but social-justice nonsense (my US History textbook routinely referred to all whites as WASPs), and my nephew came away from the place with the idea that it was illegal to criticize the government. It’s plenty dumbed-down, too. Not only do the students graduate incapable of writing at a fifth grade level, the teachers are no better. I never intend to send my children to public schools, and as much as I love living in my hometown, I may leave New England.

          • ncpride

            Just… wow. See, that would drive me crazy, and I would never allow my kids to attend a school like that either. I have always kept a close eye on what my children are taught, because I refuse to have the ‘ole White guilt trip, one sided view preached at them like I was as a kid. So far, I’ve only had to correct a few things they were told, but other than that, I’ve been satisfied with the curriculum. Good for you for not allowing your kids to be exposed to such nonsense. We need more parents to be vigilant in this, as these kids are our future and my save us from past generations, including ours, who have made such a mess of things in this country,

          • pcmustgo

            Wrong. I grew up in a NY suburb that was 98% white or so and “group learning” was all the rage. We had our dumb white kids too, usually it all broke down along social class lines.

    • purestocles

      If I could vote your contribution up a thousand times I would. Thanks for telling it like it is.

    • pcmustgo

      I grew up in a place with such group learning, and anti-tracking attitudes. It was about 98% white. Yes, I agree with what you have to say on it.

    • Wayne

      Not to worry! A lie cannot abide forever. China is sharpening her claws, investing in the smart and talented while America invests in the mediocre and dumb. This will no end well.

  • MekongDelta69

    Just another (of endless) “No Government Programs Left Behind.”

  • Conrad

    Things like the schools, the economy, taxes, etc. will only continue to get worse until we responsible whites take this country back and give ALL of the others THE BOOT.

  • tjs3023

    Just throttle back on that intelligence of yours a little bit white child, we don’t want the black kids to be stigmatized.

  • Shattered

    Cultural Marxists… always holding everyone and everything back at the point of the lowest common denominator. It wasn’t until public outrage at their greedy corrupt public unions and dismal performance and substandard results reached a level that their pay and jobs have begun to be jeopardized have they suddenly realized they need to change what they are doing. Shameful.

  • MBlanc46

    Bring back tracking. Kids will learn sooner or later that some people have more on the ball than others. It’s not something that they can escape. Better to find it out in school when they’ve still got a chance to make the best of what they’ve got. Race gaps be damned.

  • QuinnTheEskimo9

    “that’s a stigma you’ve created for a kid.”

    Well, boo hoo hoo. Get used to it kid, life is full of disappointments and your mommy and teachers won’t be around to bail you out when you get off the academic reservation.

    • Luis

      Who said life is fair? One learns that at an early age.

  • Michael_C_Scott

    If “tracking” is bad, does this mean we should mainstream clumsy, weak, athsmatic and obese students into demanding athletic events?

    If Shitavious can’t spell at the age of 14, that’s not the fault of the bright kids in his class. Maybe his mom should have bought him “Hooked On Phonics” instead of “Air Jordan” afawete shoes and clown clothes five sizes too big.

  • Luis

    Exactly how is a “fast-learner” of a student, a stigma? Shouldn’t that student be celebrated, not stigmatized?

    Imagine if Albert Einstein were “stigmatized”, because he promulgated his Theory of Relativity at the age of 26. The world would be a far different place.

    When I was in school, I didn’t care if the student sitting next to me learned the material or not – I only was concerned with MY learning the material. This was true in elementary school, high school and college.

    School is like a shark tank – the sharks are thrown in the tank, and they either sink or swim.

    • Wayne

      It is not a stigma and this leftist liar knows it. His objective is to make the dumber kids equal the the smarter by bringing the intelligent down to the level of the dull.

  • a multiracial individual

    Liberals may never admit that humans have different ability. They have invested too much on this farce, there is no going back now. Can you imagine it? Every education textbook, every study, every television pundit, every unscrupulous plaintiffs’ attorney, every commission ever formed for the purpose of erasing the achievement gap(s), every liberal teacher, every education think-tank, etc. All would have to admit that they were completely and utterly wrong. Unfortunately, this scenario is probably a fantasy.

  • Tom Iron

    Just a thought on this. In my own case, I was always in the slow group, and I think, at the bottom of the slow group. But I think there’s a different way to education that nobody has looked at. If the day can be split up between indoor and outdoor activities, they will actually reach some of these blacks. I say this because I was very much like them I think. I never wanted to be indoors/school. I always wanted to be outdoors and excelled at anything and everything that took place outdoors. But noone ever thought of grading about tree climbing, stickball, running, playing marbles, kick the can, and the thousand other games we played. But, as it turned out, I was doing fine for the work I did in my life, USMC and Structural Ironworker. It’s worth a try i think.

  • Sloppo

    The social justice enforcement community isn’t ambitious enough. They need to apply their principles internationally. There will always be racism as long as European, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean children are allowed to advance academically at a faster rate than the least intelligent Bantu.

    • Wayne

      They have no problems with Asians excelling and maintaining their own cultures and societies. Only whites. They hate us and our children and need to felt with on those terms. That’s the bottom line.

      • Sloppo

        I know. I just made that comment because I like to imagine how Asians would ridicule that kind of stupidity. If only our people would do that.