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What is Ability-Grouping?
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Date:     3/12/2002
To:     mpls@mnforum.org

In an off-list message, the following questions were put to me

<  I have been confused for a while about what you call ability grouping. It
>  seems you are talking about something a little more than splitting up into
>  groups during reading or math time, or are you? Would you please explain, in
>  detail, what ability grouping is, who does it, when it started, why its bad,
>  etc. I think people, including me might be confusing it with something else.
>  Thank you.

Thanks for the questions.

"Ability-grouping" in a first grade classroom may involve nothing more than splitting up students into high-, medium-, and low-ability groups during reading and / or math time.  The "low ability learners" in a first grade reading class may be doing the same type of pre-literacy activities they did in kindergarten.  The kids in the advanced group cover the most ground, the kids in the lowest level group cover the least.  The middle groups fall somewhere in between.

Whole classroom instruction is generally geared to the more advanced students.  When it's time for whole classroom instruction in spelling and writing practice, for example, the non-reading kids are lost.  For the most part the "low ability learners" are face with school work that is either too easy or too hard. They become demotivated. And they have to accept the idea that they are "low ability," i.e., stupid.  This is a very difficult adjustment for most children.  A lot of these kids act out, are diagnosed as having Emotional-Behavioral Disorders, and are forced to take psychoactive drugs and participate in behavior modification programs.    

Ability grouping kids in kindergarten or grade one is justified with a theory that the learning capacity of a child entering kindergarten or grade one is, by then, an innate, immutable characteristic.  The purpose of ability-grouping is to help children better "actualize" their innate learning potential.

Why, when, and where was ability grouping introduced in the elementary grades?  Ability-grouping became the preferred educational model during the 1950s and 60s.  The departments of education in all 50 states and the federal government promoted it. White supremacists supported ability-grouping as a way to preserve a color based caste system -- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups opposed it.  

The federal courts ruled that ability-grouping is legal because it's "color blind."  It's discrimination based on ability, not race.  The Courts also stipulated that students must be frequently reassessed and have the opportunity to move up and down the academic ladder. However, even where ability-grouping is done nice and legal, you ordinarily see very little movement up and down the academic ladder.

-Doug Mann
<http://educationright.tripod.com>