Thomas Jefferson stated, “Nothing is so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal people” (Fiedler, 2002). Yet, with the current trends in education, all students are placed in the same educational setting, regardless of their individual needs. Educational trends are leading all students to be placed in one mixed-ability classroom, and specialized classrooms are viewed as a form of discrimination. The disparities between exceptional students’ rights and special needs students’ rights are astonishing. Consider for example, in 1993, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley reported that only 2 cents of every $100 spent on pre-collegiate education in 1990 went to gifted programs. And the 1996 federal budget allocated $3 million for gifted education. We spend far more on education for children with disabilities than on children with gifts (Winner, 1996). Gifted children are usually bored and unengaged in school and therefore not reaching their potential (Winner, 1996). With the current trends to provide heterogeneous classrooms for all students educators are failing to meet the academic needs of the gifted children.
Ability grouping has a long history that began as early as the 1960s (Sharpes, 1999). There are many forms of grouping, which can affect the consistency of research. For example, the most extreme form of ability grouping is tracking. Tracking involves placing students according to their general measure of academic ability and arranging students in tracks ranging from the highest to the lowest. The students remain in these homogenous tracks for all content areas. One difficulty with tracking is the inability of students to move from one track to another, disregarding any changes due to environmental, maturation, or instructional effectiveness or ineffectiveness (Borland, 2002). The academic and vocation tracks can often be found in secondary schools.
Tracking now has a very negative connotation and has been banned in some jurisdictions as racially and economically discriminatory (Borland, 2002). The reasons for the controversy surrounding ability grouping are many. One has to do with the fact that ability grouping is a response to individual differences among students. Anything having to do with differences in ability, especially differences measured by standardized tests, elicits controversy (Borland, 2002). Socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, and gender are social concerns raised when discussing ability grouping. Poor children and children of color are disproportionately placed in low-ability groups early in their educational careers and in non-college bound groupings in junior high and high school. And although girls are placed in ability groups at all levels, the combination of teacher expectations and advising, along with other societal expectations, leaves girls in all tracks with reduced problem solving skills, few math and science courses, and lower self-esteem (Broussard, 1998). However, ability grouping may reflect trends in society and outside factors affecting student learning, rather than causing these trends. Home influences, parental involvement, and other factors directly affecting a student’s achievement may lead to the trends seen in ability groups. Educators must change this situation, seek to understand its causes, while at the same time continuing to provide appropriate ability grouping options for the gifted and talented (Rogers, 2002).
Another social concern is the effect on the students’ self-esteem and socialization. Often discussed are the negative effects on students’ self-esteem not placed in an accelerated class. Students in high tracks tend to have higher educational aspirations and more positive academic and personal self-concepts. Some comparisons of academic self-esteem in mixed-ability grouping or streamed groups indicated that the lower ability pupils tended to have lower academic self-esteem regardless of the way in which they were grouped (Ireson, 1999). And research has shown the practice of homogenous grouping for academically talented and gifted students is not detrimental to the academic, emotional, or social growth of students not included in such a class (Shields, 2002).
Consider the following studies’ results on student self-concept. A secondary school study conducted by Kulik and Kulik reported inconclusive findings concerning the effects of grouping on student self-concept and student attitudes towards school. However, the authors found that homogeneous grouping seemed to affect, in a positive way, students’ attitudes towards subject matter (Shields, 2002). In testing fifth and eighth grade students no significant differences were found on academic self-confidence, autonomy, enjoyment of school, independent development, involvement in school activities, or peer relations (Shields, 2002). The exclusion of academically talented and gifted students from the heterogeneous classes is also a social concern, as it may remove role models for other students. However, this placement did not have any detrimental effect on how the remaining students perceived themselves as learners. What seems evident about the varying research on socialization and psychological effects when grouping by ability is that no pattern of improvement or decline can be established. It is likely that there are many personal, environmental, family and other variables that affect self-esteem and socialization more than the practice of grouping itself (Rogers, 2002).
Ability grouping also fosters friendship groups which may further alienate low stream students, in the strictest form of ability grouping. Peer relationships are more supportive in higher ability groups, although these classes also tend to be more competitive (Ireson, 1999).
Tracking in the traditional sense is difficult to advocate, however less severe forms of grouping improve achievement. For example, ability grouping relates to re-grouping students for the purpose of providing curriculum aimed at a common instructional level. It means placing students with others whose learning needs are similar to theirs for whatever length of time works best (Fiedler, 2002).
A special emphasis will be placed on the benefits of ability grouping to academically talented and other students’ achievement. Research generally demonstrates for high ability students, homogeneous grouping has a significant, positive effect on academic achievement. Gifted students in homogeneous classes achieve “far more” than their gifted counterparts in regular, heterogeneous classes (Shields, 2002). Ability grouping research indicates this positive effect for academically gifted students, with fewer effects on other students. A classroom-oriented research study reported in the Winter 1996 Harvard Educational Review confirmed findings on the advantages of tracking for advanced students, and much inconclusiveness on other groupings of students (Tice, 1997). In a review of literature, Ireson indicated enriched classes for the gifted and talented had the clearest effect on attainments. In 22 of the 25 studies students in enrichment programs achieved more. Some programs allowed students of high academic ability to enter accelerated programs which enabled them to proceed more rapidly through their schooling (Ireson, 1999). The multitude of studies indicating the positive effects of grouping for the gifted and talented cannot be ignored.
There is inconclusive and inconsistent data concerning ability grouping in elementary school. Slavin reported the effects of ability grouping were essentially zero, whereas Luhn reported that students homogenously grouped achieved less than heterogeneously grouped students of the same ability (Ireson, 1999). These studies indicate either there is no effect, or it may be harmful. However, studies reported increased achievement in ability grouping in the elementary grades can also be cited. Kulik and Kulik concluded the clearest effects on achievement are obtained in enrichment programs and accelerated classes, which involve the greatest curriculum adjustments. Generally, higher ability groups benefit, but their do not appear to be negative effects on the achievement of middle and low groups (Ireson, 1999). There are conditions under which ability grouping has been found to be associated with substantial gains in student achievement, and conditions under which it has been found to be associated with marked reduction in student achievement. When ability grouping is compared to heterogeneous classes, it appears to be more associated with a very small increase in average student achievement, but no decline (Brewer, 1995).
Ability grouping is not without its critics. Robert Slavin, an educational researcher at Johns Hopkins University, has found that high and middle achievers do just as well in heterogeneous classrooms as they do in classes populated by kids just like them. (Ratnesar, 1998). Providing students with an appropriate peer group with similar levels of motivation, involvement, and achievement may be a strong factor contributing to the development of positive attitudes and perceptions on the part of all students. Homogeneous grouping for academically talented and gifted students was associated with positive student perceptions of themselves as learners and their total school experience (Shields, 2002). Overall, the evidence indicates the different effects on achievement related to pupil grouping depend mainly on the degree of access to the curriculum (Ireson, 1999).
Another form of ability grouping is within-class grouping, used daily by thousands of classroom teachers. Most elementary teachers utilize reading and math groups, based on ability. This practice is widely accepted because educators and parents acknowledge some children read more fluently and with greater comprehension than others, that some students have progressed further in the mathematics curriculum than others, and that whole-class instruction would likely be inefficient and ineffective (Borland, 2002). A more structured format, often utilized in junior high is flexible ability grouping. This method allows students to be grouped on a subject-by-subject basis according to their current levels of performance. Ability grouping based by subject with the option to make changes to a students schedule allows for students’ individual needs to be addressed. Flexible grouping focuses on two to three classes, so a moderate range of ability and pupils may be placed either into mixed ability classes or regrouped into sets within a group for different subjects. Students are grouped into classes on the basis of their attainment in a particular subject (Ireson, 1999). Flexible grouping is imperative because education is seen as a vehicle for social mobility. Children are socialized at home and at school to believe that their chances for success rely almost entirely on their ability to do well in school (Borland, 2002). It is crucial to provide a program that allows students to be placed for their current ability level, providing the opportunity to move between groupings to foster the positive effects of socialization.
If educators are to benefit gifted and talented students through ability grouping, we need improved methods to identify these students. Gifted and talented students are those blessed with exceptional ability that manifests itself in the highest levels of human achievement or performance, making up one to five percent of the population (Sharpes, 1999). Gifted students have general intellectual ability, specific academic aptitude, creative and productive thinking, leadership, excel in the visual or performing arts, and psychomotor abilities. Gifted students also have a wide vocabulary range, more mature social and intellectual capabilities, and more intense curiosity about learning (Sharpes, 1999).
Among the gifted there are many varying ability levels including profoundly and mildly gifted students. Profoundly gifted students are years ahead of their peers, learn rapidly and independently, and often have a strong will to master the area in which they are exceptionally talented. Mildly gifted students, or bright children, may score around 130 on an IQ test, can achieve highly, but do not exhibit the strong will of the profoundly gifted student (Winner, 1996). Without regular encounters with challenging material, gifted students fail to learn how to learn and have problems developing the study skills they need for future academic pursuits (Fiedler, 2002). “Gifted and talented students are the brain trust for the future, and without neglecting service to all students it is important that schools and teachers make special attempts to assist exceptional children to advance in knowledge and learning (Sharpes, 1999).
Ability grouping for mathematics and reading instruction is common at the elementary and junior high levels. A large national survey of 1988 found that about 86% of U.S. public-school students in middle and high schools are placed in ability-grouped classes for math instruction. Grouping is typically arranged for subjects like mathematics, where marked differences in readiness, interest, and skill are evidenced among students (Tice, 1997). Substantial differences in mathematics performance as a function of mathematics course content have been well documented as early as grade 8 (Brewer, 1995). Ability grouping for the acceleration of the curriculum has shown substantial achievement gains over the gifted counterparts who were not accelerated (Rogers, 2002).
Once the curriculum is in place, educators must determine which students will participate in the program. Placing students in the accelerated math program based solely on their IQ addresses their overall score, rather than their math achievement. Studies on the gifted and talented including Terman’s Study and the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth have found the students’ motivation often is foremost affected by their parents, followed by the school, and finally by a teacher or coach (Sharpes, 1999). Knowing the important motivation factors, parents must be involved in the placement of gifted and talented students. A variety of assessment tools including parent and teacher input should be utilized to ensure proper placement for the students.
After determining to offer an accelerated program or ability grouping for gifted and talented students and the mechanics of organization are determined, educators and administrators must remember the concern is not playing with classroom organization, rather improving what happens once the classroom door is closed. Teachers training, background, and innovations in the classroom have a greater impact on the students’ achievement than ability grouping.
Teachers’ encouragement of support and talent which promote individual differences with those unique abilities plays a key role in determining the success of a grouping program (Sharpes, 1999). The advantages of mixed ability teaching are seen largely in social terms, while the disadvantages related to the difficulty of providing appropriate work for pupils of high and low ability in the same class (Ireson, 1999). Ability grouping is seen as one way of reducing the range of needs, thus making the teacher’s job easier (Ireson, 1999). However, educators must remain aware of the varying abilities, even within ability grouped classes.
Educators must work diligently to remove social stigmatisms associated with ability grouping. In a review of literature Ireson discussed how instruction varied for ability groups. For example, pupils in high ability groups were given more analytical and critical thinking tasks, more responsibility, opportunities for discussion, and independence. Students in lower ability groups were given more work sheets and repetition work with fewer opportunities for individual learning, less discussion, and more structured work. “Based on stereotypes and past experience, teachers hold low expectations for low ability students. Perceiving these views, the students lower expectations for themselves, confirming and further reducing expectations. Some researches have suggested there is a hidden agenda for the low ability student concerned with conformity, getting along with others, working quietly, improving study habits, punctuality, co-operation, and conforming to rules and expectations” (Ireson, 1999). Educators must displace the emphasis on the order and focus and place emphasis on enabling each student to grow significantly and substantially (Tice, 1997). School effectiveness studies have not identified pupil grouping as a key characteristic of effective schools (Ireson, 1999). However, the organization of the pupils does effect the learning environment, concentration on teaching and learning, purposeful teaching, high expectations, positive reinforcement, monitoring progress, pupil rights and responsibilities, and home-school partnerships, which affect achievement levels.
Administrative practices should mirror individual differences by forming ability grouping practices (Sharpes, 1999). Schools will need to take into account what will be acceptable and most appropriate for their staff, pupils, parents and the wider school community. Flexibility within the school may also be beneficial, with different procedures being adopted within different subject domains (Ireson, 1999). Teachers of students in heterogeneous classes would be well advised to ensure they communicate appropriately high standards and expectations through interactions with students, meaningful homework, and appropriate feedback (Shields, 2002).
The needs of gifted students may best be met by homogenous grouping in the areas of giftedness and grouping all others heterogeneously (Fiedler, 2002). This enables all students to benefit from advanced curriculum when necessary, without the severe social consequences associated with tracking.
In conclusion, “The grouping of gifted and talented students leads to higher academic achievement and better academic attitudes for the gifted and leads to no decline in achievement or attitudes for the children who remain in the regular heterogeneous classroom. Gifted and talented youth need accelerated, challenging instruction in core subject areas that parallel their special talents or aptitudes. They need opportunities to work with other gifted and talented youth. And they need teachers who both understand the nature and needs of gifted youth and are deeply knowledgeable in the content they teach. While the educational community moves toward heterogeneity for students who would benefit more from working in mixed ability groups, it should not deny gifted students the right to educational arrangements that maximize their learning (Fiedler, 2002).
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