Sunday, November 04, 2007

Closing the Achievement Gap

When I was in elementary and middle school, lo so many years ago, it was common practice to track students, that is put them in courses based upon their academic ability. This was fine, so far as it went, but it did mean that some students who were generally basic in some classes, like math or science, could get tracked in to classes beneath their skill level in say English or History or some other mix. Since my time in school, tracking fell out of favor. The funny thing is that tracking only took place for some courses, allowing for advanced education in some subjects. But in other subjects, say required courses, like government, students of all abilty levels were put in one class.

However, the idea of grouping students based on their ability makes a great deal of sense. The fears of tracking are real and relevant. But at least in one school in Montgomery County, it looks like performance based grouping is closing the achievment gap.
The technique, called performance-based grouping, is uncommon in the region. Some educators believe it too closely resembles tracking, the outmoded practice of assigning students to inflexible academic tracks by ability.

Educators say Rock View, however, is using the same basic concept to opposite effect, and the results have been positive. While some other Montgomery County schools serving low-income populations have posted higher test scores, few have shown such improvement or consistency across socioeconomic and racial lines.
What strikes me as odd is the basic logic of the system, logic that is often lacking when it comes to education.
Roberson decided that regrouping students by performance level would make the most of her limited staff, which was struggling to deliver lessons to a student body with wide-ranging abilities.

"When you have all the students who are academically alike for 90 minutes and you don't have to split them up and give 30 minutes to each group, you get more bang for your buck," she said.

School system administrators were uncomfortable with the arrangement. Nothing resembling tracking was going on in the county. Few, if any, elementary schools grouped children into classrooms by ability to the extent that Roberson was proposing.
The school's principal implemented the program in 2001 and test scores throught the school improved significantly. Still school officials worried, so they ordered the school to stop performance based grouping in 2004 and 2005, what happened? Test scores declined.

So the practice was reimplemented and test scores have soared to an all time high. The achievement gap still remains but for far fewer students than even last year.

So why isn't the practice being replicated all over the county or even the whole country? After all, performance based grouping occurs in high school, for example not every student takes calculus. Simple, it looks too much like tracking and it can be interpreted as labeling kids. However, when dealing with limited resourced, it makes the most sense. Students don't spend the entire day in grouped classes, but they do spend a great deal of time in grouped classes. By focusing on performance levels, the school leadership can use their teaching skills to the greatest effect as well. The results appear to bear out the theory.

What schools like Montgomery county or other counties serving mixed populations would be to study the Rock View example and replicate it on a larger scale, say a dozen elementary schools. If the results enjoyed by Rock View are seen on a wider scale, then we have a localized phenomenon. If the results are replicated, then maybe we might be on to something.

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