Ability grouping in its basic form involves dividing a class into, say, "red birds" and "blue birds" based on their skills in reading, math, or some other subject matter. Both theoretically and practically, this kind of subdivision in a classroom allows a teacher to concentrate his or her teaching effort on the different abilities and learning patterns that the children have.
Ability grouping is also the underlying concept in the advanced placement (AP) classes offered in high schools, although in most cases these classes are chosen by the students. Remedial classes, while not usually voluntary, are inherently ability grouped, both at the high school and college level.
At its best, ability grouping allows more effective teaching by focusing effort on students' needs. At its worst, it becomes the keystone in a rigid educational structure where early grade test scores are destiny.
Long ago, large urban public school systems were comfortable with the ability grouping idea, which was then called "tracking," and enjoyed the efficiency that it brought. The idea of anything that could get in the way of what we wanted clashed with the hubris that accompanied mid-20th century prosperity, though, and some began to question the value of the system.
The questioning, along with the sudden availability of colleges willing to adjust to under-prepared students, set the stage for the final act. It became increasingly clear that tracking systems perpetuated racial discrimination. The bell began to toll for ability grouping and it wasn't long before it disappeared.
We might wonder what possible force could bring back an educational structure with such a bad reputation, but maybe we knew the answer all along. It's our old friend, economics.
It would not be the first time that economics has rescued a reputation from the dumpster. No force on earth is more experienced in this line of work, or more successful at erasing blemishes and character flaws.
Economics got some help from the proliferation of standardized tests, of course. Concept by concept, skill by skill, their diagnostic information left no doubt about who "got it" and who didn't. If you wanted to improve test scores, then, you focused teaching efforts on those shortcomings by creating groups or classes tailored to student needs.
The motivation behind the desire to improve test scores was given a strong impetus -- economics lingo for a kick in the pants -- by economic incentives at the personal and institutional level. Individual teachers and principals were financially rewarded for improved test scores, and in some cases a school's very survival could depend on them.
For the most part, though, the lasting result of the standardized tests has been the disinterment of ability grouping and its wingman, the AP class.
We've come a long way since the ironclad, test-driven tracking systems that placed some students in academic programs that prepared them for college, and other students in vocational training. Or is the distance between old fashioned tracking and today's ability grouping smaller than we imagined?
Some of the improvement in national test scores may be due to the post-testing ability grouping and focused effort that have been overtaking K-12 education. But we have not even attempted to address what former president George W. Bush called, "the soft bigotry of low expectations" that accompanies these programs.
Bigotry, soft or hard, is not limited to racial differences, of course, and race may at the moment be of lesser significance from an educational standpoint than other characteristics such as parental wealth and economic class. There is little doubt, though, that being assigned to a low-performance class or group can lower the expectations of teachers and contemporaries -- even parents. This raises a risk of economic predestination that, rightly or wrongly, will haunt ability grouping despite its intentions and efficiencies.
Ability grouping does offer one opportunity that we have not yet made good use of: students learning by explaining -- acting as instructors. When students explain a concept to other students, both gain understanding. Students hear things differently when they are spoken by their contemporaries and are often more likely to remember them.
Preparing more successful students to help with those who are struggling with math, English, history, or science can be a rewarding experience for all concerned, including teachers -- and boost test scores at the same time.
The ability grouping generated by standardized tests, then, could ensure wider use of a practice of student-instructing that good teachers have used, more informally, for generations. It cannot solve all of our educational issues, but it could help, and that would be a good thing.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.