Skill-Based School Groupings Gaining Popularity

A new analysis from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a Census-like agency for school statistics, shows that of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. In math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996.

"These practices were essentially stigmatized," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who first noted the returning trend in a March report, and who has studied the grouping debate. "It's kind of gone underground, it's become less controversial."

The resurgence of ability grouping comes as New York City grapples with the state of its gifted and talented programs — a form of tracking in some public schools in which certain students, selected through testing, take accelerated classes together.

These programs, which serve about 3 percent of the elementary school population, are dominated by white and Asian students.

Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker who is running for mayor, has proposed expanding the number of gifted classes while broadening the criteria for admission in hopes of increasing diversity. (The city's Education Department has opposed the proposal, saying that using criteria other than tests would dilute the classes.)

Teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement.

Image: School children, via Shutterstock

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