There has been a movement in some school districts to group students in elementary and middle schools according to their ability and not according to their age. Methods of grouping students vary; usually, school records and test scores are the main factors for forming student groups.
Ability-grouping reforms are based on the belief that students who are advanced in math should be with other advanced math students. Similarly, those students who are working below grade level should be grouped together.
There is a difference between ability grouping and tracking. Ability grouping places students in a class based on their skill and achievement level instead of their age. Tracking places students of the same age or grade level in different levels of courses.
Advantages of Reform
The goal of this reform is to give students exactly what they need and not arbitrarily group them because they all happen to be the same age. If used correctly, this method allows teachers to create curriculum to directly meet the needs of their students. Advanced students will not get bored with easy classes and unchallenging material, while students who are getting behind will get the extra help they need.
Disadvantages of Reform
Obviously, the advantages to a well-developed system of ability grouping are huge. In fact, research shows that an effective program has positive effects on student self-esteem and performance. However, the disadvantages to this system must be addressed.
First, teachers must create different curriculum units for the different classes so that the high achievers will continue to be challenged. Further, if ability grouping is instituted across grade levels, the difference in ages of the students in a class can be significant. If a very advanced first grader can work at a sixth-grade math level, should she be placed in a group that has a different maturity level, where she might find it hard to be accepted?
Finally, it can be difficult to control the progression of students through the school. For example, you may have a third-grader who has completed all levels of math offered in the school but is still reading at a second-grade level. Do you create new math classes for that student? Do you send him to middle school for math and have him stay in elementary for the rest of his courses? These types of questions are not easy to answer because of the way that most schools in America are presently organized and the way that most educators presently think.