Thursday, November 8, 2007

DCMM: Thinking Outside the Track

A few days ago a friend of mine called my attention to an article that had run in the Washington Post about "ability grouping" at the school that my oldest son, Sam, attends.

Ability grouping, as it operates in this school, means that students are tested and put together in ability-based groups for math and english. The kids are reevaluated over the course of the year and can be transferred to higher ability groups. It is the school's policy that children are never demoted to a lower ability group.

After I read this article, things became much clearer for me about an interaction at back to school night. Before Sam started in public school this year, I wasn't in the loop at all about school policies in general. I didn't do a whole lot of research about Sam's school because, frankly, we live where we live and we can't afford private school, so this is where he's a-gonna go.

Ah, yes. Call me a model citizen and parent.

At back to school night the teachers started talking about testing the kids and putting them in groups and I, in my uninformed and self-righteously indignant manner, said, "Is this like tracking?"

You've never seen teachers fall all over themselves faster to assure me that no, this is not tracking; yes, the groupings change year to year and even during the year; and please don't worry, children aren't put in remedial classes for all of elementary school based on one test they took on a bad day.

Okay, they didn't actually say all of that, but that's the gist of it.

What the Washington Post article said was that these ability groups had raised test scores dramatically across the board, but that this practice was controversial and that the school district had even made the principal stop the program for a year, only to see test scores fall dramatically.

I don't know (I told you I was ill-informed) what the down side is—and there always seems to be one—but I'm happy that my son is going to benefit from this system. And, no matter what I feel about No Child Left Behind and "teaching to the test" and whatnot, I'm happy that more and more students are learning more. And I'm happy that my children will be getting their start at a school that is willing to try new things and that seems to have come up with a system that works.

Because my middle son, who goes to a special ed preschool program, is spending the year at a different elementary school in the same school district that doesn't seem to be faring quite as well. Their test scores, while not actually above the required proficiency levels for some groups, qualify as passing for some technical reason that has to do with the number of kids in a given group. I am so grateful that when he heads to kindergarten, he will be going to a school that will be able to give him a better start—to Sam's school, where the test scores are well above merely passing.

Because the more students who are doing well, the better all the students will do. And, honestly, if we expect our kids to learn to think innovatively and come up with new ideas, isn't it a good idea for parents and school administrators to do the same?

Jean is also ill-informed at Stimeyland.

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