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Ability grouping and tracking make a return to U.S. schools

Is grouping students by ability an effective learning model?
Is grouping students by ability an effective learning model?
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The concepts of ability grouping and tracking are familiar even to those who haven’t experienced them firsthand. Ability grouping is the practice of splitting a versatile classroom of children into groups based on skill level – advanced and lower-level reading groups or fast and slow math groups are common in elementary school classrooms, though they may go by different age.

Tracking, which builds whole classes based on ability, is more common in middle and high school, where honors courses and AP and IB programs are popular. Even though ability grouping and tracking are part of modern U.S. education, they have been less popular in recent decades than they were at the outset. Ability grouping and tracking fell out of favor in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s after being stigmatized as racist and classist. But these programs have had a resurgence of late, as new studies reveal that students who are grouped by ability test better than their peers – regardless of whether they are placed into upper or lower level performance groups.

What are the benefits of ability grouping and tracking? What are the potential drawbacks? How do programs that rely on ability grouping work in LAUSD?

Tom Loveless, former sixth-grade teacher and Harvard policy professor; Currently Senior Fellow, Governance Studies at Brookings Institution - focusing on student achievement, education policy, and reform in K-12 schools.

Brandon Martinez, Assistant professor of Clinical Education, USC Rossier School of Education, expert in K-12 education with an emphasis on student engagement