ERIC Identifier: ED390947
Publication Date: 1995-12-00
Author: Burnett, Gary
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Alternatives to Ability Grouping: Still Unanswered Questions.
ERIC/CUE Digest Number 111.
Few strategies for organizing education in the United States are as deeply
ingrained, or as controversial, as that of grouping students according to
ability. Perhaps the most visible form of ability grouping is tracking.
The question at the heart of the tracking debate is how best to educate large
numbers of students whose backgrounds and abilities differ widely. Many studies
of tracking have found that the practice has little, if any, direct impact on
student achievement (Gamoran, 1987; Slavin, 1990; Slavin, 1993). Critics
suggest, however, that ability grouping all too often limits the instructional
experience of lower-track students to little more than rote drill on basic
skills. Further, because mobility between tracks is rare, students placed in low
tracks at a young age may never be transferred to the upper tracks where
higher-order skills are typically taught.
RECENT DETRACKING EXPERIENCE
As a result of the growing
criticism of tracking, schools are increasingly eliminating it. In a 1993 survey
conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half the
schools reported that they had begun to modify their approaches to ability
grouping, and only 15 percent reported using traditional tracking mechanisms
(cited in Carey, Farris, & Carpenter, 1994).
However, the precise magnitude of detracking across the country is less
certain. The same survey found that a full 86 percent of public secondary
schools still offered core courses tailored to differences in student ability.
Similarly, another study conducted by the Educational Testing Service and the
National Urban League (1991) found that even schools claiming not to track often
offered math courses clearly reflective of differences in student ability.
Indeed, some have suggested that schools in the United States rely on tracking
more than schools in any other nation worldwide (Oakes, 1990).
Numerous alternatives to tracking have been proposed. All of them replace
practices that sort students according to ability with practices that group them
without regard to ability or achievement.
In its simplest form, detracking involves little more than a shift in the
makeup of classes. More comprehensive forms of detracking also change the
pedagogy and curriculum. For example, programs may consist of interdisciplinary
or integrated curricula that is built around a theme. They may also include
hands-on projects, attention to social issues, real-world experiences, and
involvement in community projects. Such programs often call on teachers to
personalize their instruction to meet the needs of individual students and to
find techniques that teach study skills and emphasize learning as a process
rather than as rote memorization (Wheelock, 1992). Oakes and Lipton (1993)
outline some of the hallmarks of such approaches. The strategies:
emphasize thinking skills and student responsibility rather than memorization of
treat learning as a complex process;
provide a context within which to learn facts;
allow for multiple right answers; and
are long-term projects.
DETRACKING AND COOPERATIVE LEARNING
Perhaps the most common
model for detracking schools is cooperative learning, where small groups of
students work collaboratively on classroom projects. All students in a group
learn the same coursework together and share responsibility for the success or
failure of their group work. In addition, students learn from each other and
support each others' efforts. For the most part, teachers function as guides and
senior partners, not as dispensers of knowledge; students may even take on
leadership roles. Most cooperative learning projects also emphasize the
development of students' social skills, as well self-evaluation by both
individual students and groups (Wheelock, 1992; Crosby & Owens, 1993).
Cooperative learning is not itself a grouping model and is, thus, often used
in tracked schools as well as in detracked schools (Mills & Durden, 1992).
Nevertheless, it is typically thought of as a form of heterogeneous grouping,
and its advocates recommend that it be used in heterogeneous settings. They
assert that it is the best option for all students, in part because, unlike
tracking, it emphasizes active interaction between students of diverse abilities
and backgrounds (Nelson, Gallagher, & Coleman, 1993). Further, research by
the Massachusetts Advocacy Center (1990) suggests that cooperative learning may
be particularly beneficial for African American and Hispanic students.
Critics of cooperative learning as a replacement for tracking suggest that it
should not be considered a panacea. If cooperative techniques do nothing more
than allow students to work on low-level tasks and worksheets together, they
note, the techniques will do little to improve instruction; put bluntly, poor
lessons taught cooperatively are no better than poor lessons taught using more
traditional methods (Mills & Durden, 1992). Others have suggested that while
cooperative learning is valuable in certain situations, it is not always
appropriate; it can be more effective, particularly with high-achieving
students, when used in conjunction with ability grouping (Nelson, Gallagher,
& Coleman, 1993).
DETRACKING AND WITHIN-CLASS ABILITY GROUPING
particularly in the upper elementary grades, no longer use tracking to make
student class assignments, but they divide a single heterogeneously grouped
classroom into two or three small ability groups for reading or math instruction
(Slavin, 1993). These small groups may or may not use cooperative learning
techniques. While this practice still requires the sorting of students into
different groups for instruction, it may have several advantages over large-
scale methods of tracking. The smaller size of the groups makes them somewhat
fluid, so it is more likely that students will be able to move into higher
tracks as their achievement improves. In addition, using small groups may make
it possible to tailor curricula and teaching methods more closely to the needs
of individual students (Sorensen & Hallinan, 1986).
However, within-class groupings require individual teachers to manage several
different groups of students simultaneously, thereby necessitating that some
groups of students spend considerable time working alone in their seats while
the teacher is working with other groups (Pallas, Natriello, & McDill,
DETRACKING AND INTEREST GROUPING
Rather than sort students
according to assessments of their ability, some schools have allowed students to
sort themselves into groups according to their own interests. The most common
forms of this type of grouping, which occurs most often in middle and high
schools, are magnet schools and schools-within-schools (Fine, 1994). Most
research shows that such schools improve student achievement, but critics are
concerned that they simply replicate the negative aspects of tracking by "creaming" the highest achieving students into them and leaving lower achievers
behind in other schools (Pallas et al., 1995).
DETRACKING AND RESTRUCTURED VOCATIONAL EDUCATION
growing number of high schools have attempted to eliminate the wholesale
tracking of students into discrete vocational and academic tracks by merging the
two into a single integrated program, most often with a specific career- related
theme. All students take a linked set of classes integrating vocational and
academic work, and often work in collaborative groups. The goal of such programs
is to prepare all students either to attend college or to move into the world of
work following graduation. Although they appear very promising, there has been
little solid research into their effectiveness.
Changes in the way students are grouped can
radically change the way they are taught in schools across the nation. Few
educators agree on the nature of the most effective replacement for ability
grouping, however. While cooperative learning has received the most attention,
and experience supports it, its effectiveness can be limited if it is simply
used to provide low-level lessons in a cooperative setting. Similarly,
within-class ability grouping and interest grouping may do little to ease
concerns about equity and achievement. That is, within-class grouping may simply
replicate the inequities of tracking, but on a smaller scale, while interest
grouping may ultimately function as a new form of tracking through its tendency
to "cream" the best students into certain programs.
Both proponents and critics of tracking, thus, concede that more research is
needed, particularly into the impact and effectiveness of specific detracking
efforts. In order to resolve the unanswered questions regarding detracking,
Slavin (1993) recommends several directions for such research, including studies
the use of cooperative learning, within-class ability grouping, and other
models, specifically in schools that are detracking;
the effectiveness of other teaching methods, such as mastery learning and
mixed-age groupings in heterogeneous settings;
methods such as individualized studies and supplementary tutoring for helping
low-achieving students succeed in high-quality, challenging heterogeneous
typical characteristics of both successful and unsuccessful detracking efforts.
Carey, N., Farris, E., & Carpenter, J.
(1994). Curricular differentiation in public high schools. Rockville, MD:
Westat. (ED 379 338)
Crosby, M. S., & Owens, E. M. (1993). The disadvantages of tracking and
ability grouping: A look at cooperative learning as an alternative. Clemson, SC:
National Dropout Prevention Center. (ED 358 184)
Educational Testing Service, & National Urban League. (1991). On the
right track: The consequences of mathematics course placement policies and
practices in the middle grades. Princeton, NJ, & New York: Authors. (ED 365
Fine, M. (1994). Chartering urban school reform. In M. Fine (Ed.), Chartering
urban school reform. New York: Teachers College Press. (ED 374 178)
Gamoran, A. (1987). Organization, instruction, and the effects of ability
grouping: Comment on Slavin's "Best-Evidence Synthesis." Review of Educational
Research, 57 (3), 341-345. (EJ 366 908)
Massachusetts Advocacy Center. (1990). Locked in/Locked out: Tracking and
placement practices in public schools. Boston: Eusey Press.
Mills, C. J., & Durden, W. G. (1992). Cooperative learning and ability
grouping: An issue of choice. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36 (1), 11-16. (EJ 442
Nelson, S. M., Gallagher, J. J., & Coleman, M. R. (1993). Cooperative
learning from two different perspectives. Roeper Review, 16 (2), 117-121. (EJ
Oakes, J. (1990). Multiplying inequalities: The effects of race, social
class, and tracking on opportunities to learn mathematics and sciences. Santa
Monica: Rand. (ED 329 615)
Oakes, J., & Lipton, M. (1993). Tracking and ability grouping: A
structural barrier to access and achievement. In J. Bellanca & E. Swartz
(Eds.), The challenge of detracking: A collection. Palatine, IL: IRI/Skylight.
(ED 369 573)
Pallas, A. M., Natriello, G., & McDill, E. L. (1995). Changing
students/Changing needs. In E. Flaxman & A. H. Passow (Eds.), Changing
populations, changing schools: Ninety-fourth yearbook of the National Society
for the Study of Education. Part II. Chicago: National Society for the Study of
Education. (ED 382 743)
Slavin, R. E. (1990). Achievement effects of ability grouping in secondary
schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Madison: National Center on Effective
Secondary Schools. (ED 322 565)
Slavin, R. E. (1993). Ability grouping in the middle grades: achievement
effects and alternatives. Elementary School Journal, 93 (5), 535-552. (EJ 464
Sorensen, A. B., & Hallinan, M. T. (1986). Effects of ability grouping on
growth in achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 23 (4), 519-542.
Wheelock, A. (1992). Crossing the tracks: How "untracking" can save America's
schools. Boston: Massachusetts Advocacy Center. (ED 353 349)