Education report: School’s revised tracking program merits a look

The Rock View Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md., has broken ranks with current educational

The Rock View Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md., has broken ranks with current educational orthodoxy. It has committed what amounts to heresy by reinstating ability grouping in an attempt to lift some of its students out of the achievement gap separating poor and minority students from other students.

You may remember ability grouping in elementary school. This was the practice that created the Bluebirds and the Robins. It led to the generally outmoded practice of tracking in our schools.

Bluebirds, Robins, Sparrows and other designations were given to different reading levels. Teachers used these names to avoid labeling kids as below average, average and above average; labels that some viewed as disparaging or, possibly, prophetic.

Not fooled

The names didn’t fool anyone, especially the kids. Kids knew the Bluebirds were the fast readers and the Sparrows were the slow readers, even if their teacher never said so.

A now generally discarded system of tracking operated along the same lines. Students in mathematics who were quick to learn concepts moved into an accelerated track where they could cover material commensurate with their ability. Slower students were scheduled into a class that adjusted the pace of instruction to their ability.

The idea was that “faster” students would not be forced to sit in class while the teacher re-taught something for the third time to “slower” students. The intention was honorable. Unfortunately, students were sometimes placed in a track more on the basis of their skin color than their ability.

How has the administration of Rock View Elementary School gotten around this problem? Rock View dealt with the matter by grouping all students into “classrooms according to reading and math ability for more than half of the instructional day,” according to Daniel de Vise in The Washington Post.

Performance-based

Educators at Rock View call the technique performance-based grouping.

As this technique is practiced at Rock View, says de Vise, “class assignments are fluid and temporary.” That alone marks a change from the tracking systems in practice during the 1960s and 1970s. Once you were put in a slower track back then, you stayed there.

For instance, General Math in the 1970s was generally a dead-end course. That is, there was no chance of moving into a college-prep level course such as Regents Math 9 even if you got all A’s in General Math. It just wasn’t done.

That sort of thinking was wrong, of course, and eventually led to the demise of tracking programs as then implemented. Under political and social pressure, educators started letting students take almost any course they wanted, regardless of their ability. Failure rates rose; teachers adjusted their grading so that A’s and B’s are the norm today.

Rock View administrators wanted to avoid having students trapped in remedial classes with no way out. They recognized that tracking programs of the past often consigned some students to second-class status with second-class teachers, textbooks and educational opportunities.

Hence, the Rock View performance-based grouping plan has one immutable rule: “No child goes back. They go up,” says Principal Patsy Roberson. “Struggling students get the help they need to catch up,” de Vise reports in his article.

How? Principal Roberson personally monitors any of her 497 students who have failed to attain proficiency on Maryland’s statewide exam.

Those students are “pulled from classes for 45 minutes each day for extra math and reading instruction that revisits and extends the regular lessons.” Think of it as special tutoring.

In addition, parents are informed by letter at the start of the academic year into which ability groups their children have been assigned. But this track assignment is not fixed and unchanging.

“Teachers,” according to de Vise, “test students regularly in each subject; students who show sufficient improvement are promoted to a higher group between marking periods.”

How is the program working out? Again from de Vise: “Five years ago at Rock View, proficiency ranged from 8 percent (for the limited English population) to more than 80 percent (for whites). Today, proficiency exceeds 72 percent for each subgroup.”

Apparent success

Rock View’s revisited (and revised) tracking program seems to be working. At least, it is a step in the right direction. It is helping students move from below proficiency to proficiency.

I’m sure that the students still know whether they are in the “needs help” group or not, but so what. They are not treated as second-class citizens, nor are they trapped in any program for the rest of their school life.

Other schools should take a look at what they are doing at Rock View Elementary.

Charles Cummins, Ed.D., is a retired school administrator. Send questions to him at: [email protected]

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