Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Should Schools Group by Age or Ability Level?

"Teach them where they are, not where we expect them to be."

That adage around adjusting and differentiating instruction has stuck with me for years, especially now that I am a parent. One of the biggest problems and challenges in education is the notion that schools group children by birth date. While there is some validity to determining "what a five -[or eight or ten or fifteen or eighteen]-year-old should know or be able to do, there are wide variances in the reality of children and peer groups. This has become even more complicated in the era of Common Core State Standards, even as many people argue that "Grouping Kids by Age Should Have Vanished with the Little Red Schoolhouse." The idea of a "peer group" is complicated when kids of the same age are at different points. And one should not be slowed down any more than the other should be pushed to move beyond readiness.

It's been a fairly accepted standard that girls mature faster than boys, and for this reason, many critics argue that boys and girls should start school at different ages. Certainly, the growing dominance of females in education seems to indicate some credibility to this view. And, in an era of increased emphasis on standardized tests as the barometer for all that's good in education, there is a problem with testing students outside of what they actually know. Having just come off a spate of mandated standardized tests, I was frustrated by the mis-application of the idea. At my school, we have some ninth graders who are already taking Calculus classes, while others are still struggling with multiplying fractions. Yet, each is required by law to take the ninth grade test where Algebra I is the standard.

What a waste of time for both groups of kids.

That said, society may need to seriously reconsider what a "peer group" is and how we assign and test students. Certainly, there is much evidence to support students being challenged by advanced material. And a student who remains "behind" with all the other students who are "behind" may not catch up. Though perhaps it's better to look at why and how. Advanced students can elevate the game for all classmates .... though they can also dominate and discourage those who struggle. Fortunately, more schools are beginning to consider alternatives and "grouping by skill, not age." It seems that the idea of "ability grouping" which was dismissed - with good reason - as tracking that held down disadvantaged students is now making a comeback.

Surely, there are implications associated with whatever system, such as not grouping by age. But in an era of standardization and people confusing access and opportunity with expectations of uniformity, it's important to understand that all kids are not the same simply because of the year in which they were born.

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