Grouping Students for Instruction in Middle Schools.
by Mills, Rebecca
Teachers and schools use a variety of ways to group students for instruction;
most prevalent in middle level schools seems to be some form of ability
grouping. TURNING POINTS, the middle level reform document of the Carnegie
Council on Adolescent Development (1989), recommended the elimination of
all tracking that groups young adolescents with others of similar ability
and referred to tracking as one of the most divisive and damaging school
practices in existence. Arguments once considered persuasive for grouping
students by ability for instruction are losing their influence in light
of a growing body of evidence that the practice results in few achievement
benefits and several negative effects. This Digest discusses attitudes
toward tracking and prevalent practices, summarizes recent research on
ability grouping and tracking, and provides suggestions for further research.
There is an obvious conflict between research and practice in middle
level schools where students are tracked for instruction. Proponents of
tracking argue that tracking helps schools meet the varying needs of students,
provides low-achieving students with the attention and slower work pace
that they require, allows high-achieving students to be sufficiently challenged
by faster-paced, more-demanding lessons, and permits teachers to provide
different materials for high achievers and more support to low achievers.
Those opposed to tracking are concerned about the perceived psychological
damage to low achievers, the slower pace and lower quality of instruction,
the more inexperienced or sometimes less-capable teachers assigned to teach
lower-ability students, the low expectations for student performance held
by teachers, and the absence of strong behavioral peer role models in classes
for low-ability students. Many middle level theorists believe that young
adolescents cannot meet goals related to their personal development through
tracking (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Fuligni, Eccles,
& Barber, 1995; Stevenson, 1992). They argue that young adolescents,
naturally inclined toward learning from their peers, need to be grouped
with individuals who are different from themselves. Additionally, young
adolescents are vulnerable as they struggle to establish a sense of their
own identity; tracking often creates negative perceptions of lower-ability
students that affect the students' self-perceptions. Tracking, the literature
says, has a negative effect on lower-tracked students' motivation and opportunities
to learn as well as on their life chances. It also perpetuates class and
racial inequities (Oakes, 1992).
Epstein and Mac Iver (1990), using data from the Johns Hopkins Center
for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools survey of 1,753 middle level
schools, wrote that principals reported that over 40% of the middle grade
schools used some between-class grouping, and over 20% assigned students
to all classes based on their ability. Wheelock (1992) reported that there
is great variation in grouping practices in all grade organizations of
schools containing grade seven. Whole-class ability grouping increased
as students moved from fifth through ninth grades (Epstein & Mac Iver,
1990; Lounsbury & Clark, 1990), and in grades five and six, reading
and mathematics are the subjects in which students are most often grouped
by ability. In grades seven through nine, the subjects are mathematics
and English; whereas science and social studies are subjects in which students
are least often grouped by ability at all middle grade levels. A 1993 National
Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) survey revealed that
82% of the responding middle level schools reported that they used some
degree of ability grouping (Valentine et al., 1993).
Despite continuing the practice of ability grouping, 36% of the schools
in the 1993 NASSP survey reported that they were considering eliminating
ability grouping. George and Shewey (1994) studied schools where serious
attempts had been made to implement middle school concepts and found that
85% of the respondents selected a "mostly yes" response to the statement
that "flexible grouping strategies, primarily heterogeneous, have contributed
to long-term effects of our middle school program" (p. 75).
In 1993, Slavin authored a review that summarized what is known about
the achievement effects of ability grouping in middle grades (6-9) and
other approaches to accommodating student diversity. Drawing on his earlier
work, he re-asserted that "if the effects of ability grouping on student
achievement are zero, then there is little reason to maintain the practice"
In Spear's 1994 qualitative study, he focused on understanding how and
why teachers think the way they do about ability grouping and found that
teachers who wish to retain ability grouping are more subject centered,
and those who wish to eliminate ability grouping are more student centered;
that teachers believe that teaching is easier in ability grouped classes;
and that parents are important and powerful influences in decision making
about ability grouping.
Urdan, Midgley, and Wood (1995) worked collaboratively for three years
with a middle school staff who wanted to examine and change their policies,
procedures, and practices. The staff and researchers concluded that "tracking
affects the way teachers think about instruction" (p. 25) and realized
that ability grouping makes the entire school schedule less flexible. They
concluded that it was particularly important to provide in-service training
for teachers in middle level schools to help them teach in new and challenging
Roe and Radebaugh (1993) examined one middle school's elimination of
tracking in mathematics, English, and reading classes. They found that
shared decision making is important to a successful transition from tracking
to de-tracking and that the teachers felt that heterogeneous grouping improved
classroom culture. After the elimination of tracking, teachers reported
positive social benefits, positive behavioral implications, and less parental
competition. The teachers also felt that de-tracking had academic benefits
due to the social nature of learning and the strong influence of the adolescent's
Hoffer (1992) examined whether ability grouping during middle level
schooling does act as a "sorting" event with long-term consequences. Using
mathematics class enrollment as an indicator that placement during junior
high school affected the types of mathematics classes in which students
enrolled in high school, Hoffer found that the main effects of ability
level and ability grouping were significant; they also significantly interacted
in affecting student performance. Hoffer found no positive long-term effects
for low-ability students who were placed in low-grouped mathematics classes.
In fact, when compared to low-ability students in non-grouped classrooms,
those placed in low-grouped class-rooms appeared to fare worse. In one
study focused on the effects of tracking in mathematics (Mason et al.,
1992), researchers placed 34 average-achieving eighth-graders into high-track
pre-algebra classes with their high-achieving peers. Several of the average-achieving
students did better than their high-achieving classmates and "took substantially
more advanced mathematics during high school" (p. 597). The high-achieving
students "suffered no decrease in computation or problem-solving achievement"
(p. 595), and they scored higher in concepts than their cohort peer groups
from previous years. The average-achieving students increased their achievement
in concept development and did just as well in computation and problem
solving as did their previous "average" classmates.
Theorists and researchers suggest the need for much further research
on the topics of ability grouping and tracking. Specifically, we need long-term
studies that consider the effects of ability grouping on children's development
(Fuligni, Eccles, & Barber, 1995); give systematic accounts of particular
schools' efforts to de-track and reorganize (Oakes, 1992; Slavin, 1993);
provide documentation of promising alternatives to tracking (Roe &
Radebaugh, 1993; Wheelock, 1992); and discuss ways to help low-achieving
students keep up with more demanding content and higher expectations (Slavin,
1993). In short, we need to provide what Oakes (1992) called the "technology
of tracking," useful guidance to establishing school cultures where tracking
no longer makes sense.
ADAPTED FROM: MILLS, REBECCA. (1997). GROUPING STUDENTS FOR INSTRUCTION:
ISSUES OF EQUITY AND EFFECTIVENESS. IN JUDITH L. IRVIN (ED.), What current
research says to the middle level practitioner (PP. 87-94). Columbus, OH:
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