Imagine being unable to enroll in high-level classes due to a label that was given to you early on in your educational career. Hindering your ability to unjustly access opportunities other kids were given because of their socioeconomic status or race. Unfortunately ability grouping the procedure of, “grouping students according to their perceived ability, IQ, or achievement levels,” (NASSP, 2006) creates a biased or stigmatization that follows students well into secondary school. Ability grouping and sorting in schools inadvertently creates within school-segregation which negatively affects peer-to-peer interactions, leaving behind ethnic minorities and socially and economically disadvantaged students which ultimately widens the achievement gap. Ability grouping is the practice in which students are placed into groups based off of their learning abilities. There is a lot of controversy around this method of sorting students because it splits students into one of three groups; the high, middle or low track group. The NEA or National Education Association opposes the notion of grouping kids based off of their achievement because the majority of students in the low group are economically disadvantaged and ethnic minorities. There are many factors that affect school achievement whether it be their family’s income, parents education, or immigration status concentrating students that have similar disadvantages hinders this group from advancing without the presence of their high-track peers.
While ability grouping seems to be harmless its more detrimental to students than many think. Ability grouping is essentially putting a label on a student based off of their performance on an IQ or achievement test and using it as a tool to predict their success. While these controversial tests may or may not measure intelligence, it should not be used as a way to predict how successful a kid can be in school. IQ testing was highly popular in the 20th century, it was said to measure your mental age and compare it to your physical age. (Grohol, 2018) However there was a lot of opposition to these tests as people questioned what abilities it tested and whether it was a fair measuring tool. Essentially it classified people based on how well they could do on a test that was subjective and favored those with more affluent backgrounds.
(Brown, 1978) IQ tests have been said to be cultural specific, meaning that while whites tend to do better on these tests, they are subjective and don’t measure intelligence but education. According to Brown, In addition to being subjective they are also biased against minorities. Using this form of testing students to place them in ability groups is out-dated and unfair. Minority students comprise the majority of middle to low track groups.
They are overrepresented in these lower ability groups and are classified with their peers who share similar disadvantages. Segregating students based off of achievement impedes further growth and stunts the amount of opportunities they are offered due to their label. The NASSP or National Association of Secondary School Principals argues that ability grouping, “unfairly isolates low-income and minority students in what amounts to a resegregation of students within schools.” (NASSP) There is a clear racial and ethnic disparity within each group, where whites comprise the majority of the high ability group, and blacks and latinos are concentrated in the lower groups. An opponent of ability grouping, Phil Ciciora, a business and law editor, who wrote the article, “Ability Grouping in Elementary School Hampers Minority Students’ Literacy,” encapsulates the idea of how this ongoing issue negatively impacts lower track bound kids. The article strengthens my argument by providing examples of students, more specifically African American and Hispanic students, and how grouping them based on their literacy levels impedes growth.
For example, Ciciora states that, “Since we know that low-income and racial minority students are more likely to be placed into these lower groups, and we know that these groups are learning less over time, then not only are schools going to have a difficult time making adequate yearly progress, but minority students’ educational problems will continue throughout the middle grades and high school.” Sorting students this way, creates the self-illusion that they are “less-abled” and even perceive themselves to be incapable of improving. Most of the students in these groups tend to be low-income, and instead of promoting academic improvement, they hinder students by placing a tag on them early-on in their educational career. (Ciciora) When students are sorted in the lower track group, they are more likely to have lower levels of aspiration and motivation to preform better and excel. Sonali Kohli, another opponent of ability grouping and author of “Modern-Day Segregation in Public Schools” argues that ability grouping within the education system is perpetuating a prejudicial cycle of inequality and inferiority towards minorities, mainly blacks.
Kohli interviews a parent of a student, Walter Fields of African American decent, whose daughter is not accepted in the advanced math class. Fields insists that his daughter was misplaced in her lower ability group based off of her race and petitioned to get her re-grouped. Fields observes and states that, “You can … look in a classroom and know whether it’s an upper level class or a lower level class based on the racial composition of the classroom.” This quote demonstrated how racially segregated schools are and how ability grouping hampers equity in our education system. In Figure 1.1 it is clear that there are disproportional and highly minimal amounts of black students in the advanced math class.
Having over 47.4% of blacks enrolled in the school with only 11.7% in advanced math compared to a 44.1% white enrollment rate with 73.2% of whites being in advanced math show a clear racial disparity in the advanced class. Grouping disadvantaged students, whether they be economically or socially disadvantaged, depresses these students further as they are deprived of opportunities, and any potential advancement since they tend to get stuck in their group unable to move up. (Kohli)Opponents of ability grouping agree that the quality of education as the group gets lower, becomes worse.
With less opportunities to offer these students they are rewarded not on academic achievement but on good-behavior. Ability grouping neglects all benefits to lower achieving students, where they receive a lower quality of education with little to no chances of learning a more challenging curriculum. Kohli’s data shows how whites are overrepresented in high ability groups and are given the opportunity to take more challenging classes like IB and AP college level courses. In Figure 1.2, the percentage of white students to black students who take AP courses is almost 4 times as much. With more than half of the school being black, you would expect to see a higher number of them taking more rigorous courses, yet the data seems to show a racial disparity.
While AP and IB class enrollment doesn’t necessarily determine intelligence, it does determine opportunity. Data released by NASSP, in the article, “Promoting Rigorous Courses for all Students” shows that challenging coursework improves analytical thinking and ensures better readiness for college level classes. High level courses are typically only offered to a few select, the gifted and talented.
However these “gifted and talented” students are those that preform better on achievement testing and are placed in higher ability groups, leaving out the middle and low groups from having the opportunity to enroll in these classes. The NASSP recommends, “Raising expectations for all students to enroll in rigorous courses, including AP, dual-credit courses, or the International Baccalaureate, is crucial, particularly for students who have historically been under-represented in those courses”, because rigorous courses challenge the mind and promote faster learning rates. In Figure 1.
3, Kohli’s data exemplifies the inequality between ethnic groups and the difference in enrollment rates. Excluding Asians, minorities are vastly underrepresented in high level courses and this could be partly due to ability grouping and within school segregation. The inequality in this chart represents a problem that is seen throughout the country, which is the lack of opportunities presented to minorities. This problem only keeps on widening the achievement gap.The ESEA, or Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed by Lyndon B Johnson in 1965 was a government program that offered school districts in low-income areas more funding. This was an effort to provide equal access to education regardless of the area you reside in. Providing schools with a large minority enrollment some extra funding could vastly improve the quality of education in the area.
More funding could provide better technology, more qualified teachers, and even offer more high-level classes for kids of all races and backgrounds. As stated in VCU’s article explaining the ESEA of 1965, “The original hope was that, once schools received money, the school systems would reform and reach out to those children neglected the system for so long.” However it wasn’t as successful as hoped as issues regarding other national problems kept arising. (VCU, 2017) In 2001, George W.
Bush amended the ESEA and passed the No Child Left Behind Act. This policy would help reform education and set accountability standards for each state to ensure which schools were falling behind in instruction and which schools excelled. This policy aimed to shine light on under-served groups of children of “major racial and ethnic subgroups” and offer equal opportunities to all students. However this reform imposed standardized testing on all children leading to the much controversial topic of ability grouping.
Ability grouping was once again a ‘popular solution’ to helping under-served children, with minorities still getting lower scores compared to whites. Unfortunately since states were now being evaluated based on accountability, the standards for each state diminished drastically. Schools were now focusing on attaining high scores to keep federal funding and ignored whether students were getting an actual education. Valerie Strauss, a correspondent of The Washington Post, analyzed and compared scores between whites, blacks and hispanics. She compared students of different races and their improvement over the years after NCLB was enacted. In Figure 1.4 it is clear that bylowering standards, all racial groups regardless of any disadvantages were improving.
Funding schools based on their test scores seems like it would incentivize higher level curriculums to be taught. Instead standards fell and so did the achievement gap. While NCLB seems like it fixed problems, Strauss writes that Education Secretary Arne Duncan, was hoping to, “replace it with one that expands opportunity, increases flexibility and gives schools and educators more of the resources they need.” Even though the achievement gap became smaller, minorities and disadvantaged students still weren’t gaining access to important high level classes.