In Search of Reality:
Unraveling the Myths about Tracking, Ability Grouping, and the Gifted
(Ability Grouping and Acceleration) Ellen D. Fiedler; Richard
E. Lange; Susan Winebrenner.
Spring 2002 v24 i3 p108(4)
Full Text: COPYRIGHT
2002 The Roeper School
are a dime a dozen. Educators want to be on the cutting edge of
educational improvement and are concerned about excellence in education
and about providing programs that help their students. The last
thing any educator wants to do is to be responsible for educational
decisions that are harmful to anyone, least of all to students who
already have had too many disadvantages heaped upon them in their
lives. Thus the pendulum swings again, moving from one extreme to
another, typically without ample consideration of the impact of
the latest trend in education on those
students who benefited the most from some of the approaches being
One recurring trend
that is taking the educational world by storm is the antitracking
movement. In the `90s, antitracking suddenly has become anti-ability
grouping. The side effects of this trend are tippling throughout
the schools, from widespread efforts to implement the Regular Education
Initiative (R.E.I.) for students with learning handicaps to insidious
attempts to eliminate programs for highly able or gifted
students. In both cases, the motivation has been admirable; the
concern is about the negative effects of locking certain students
into unchallenging classes and locking them out of educational situations
that stretch their minds. Unfortunately, all of the relevant research
and its ramifications have not been thoroughly considered. For example,
Slavin's research that recommended heterogeneous grouping for all
ability groups systematically omitted data from those students in
the top 5% of the school population (Allan, 1991). As Robinson (1990)
concluded, the omission of gifted students
in research studies can lead to dangerous overgeneralizations by
those who interpret the results (p. 11).
In our efforts to be
democratic, we have forgotten Thomas Jefferson's statement, "nothing
is so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal people." Although
Oakes (1986) has acknowledged that ability grouping does benefit
the highest ability students, she questions whether we can continue
to meet their needs at the expense of all others. Can it be that
our school systems are actually giving tacit approval to create
underachievement in one ability group so that the needs of the other
ability groups can be served? This, indeed, is egalitarianism at
The purpose of this
article is to roll away the clouds of misconception about ability
grouping and to shine new light on the issues and their impact on
efforts to meet the educational needs of gifted
students in our schools. Six commonly-held myths are examined and
discussed in relationship to providing appropriate educational programs
for all students, including those whose abilities place them at
the upper end of the spectrum.
Myth #1: Tracking
and ability grouping are the same thing.
Reality: Tracking has
been defined as a means of dealing with individual differences whereby
educators decide "to divide students into class-size groups based
on a measure of the students' perceived ability or prior achievement"
(George, 1988). In practice, tracking results in students being
assigned full-time to instructional groups based on a variety of
criteria, including presumed ability derived from achievement test
scores and teacher observations of classroom performance. This often
translates to a high-ability group assigned to Teacher A, a middle-ability
group assigned to Teacher B, and a low-ability group assigned to
Teacher C. Once students are in a certain track, there is very little
movement between tracks during a school year or from one school
year to another. Consistent placement in the low track clearly leads
those students to disenfranchisement in a class system where there
are clear differences between the "haves" and the "have-nots."
The commonly accepted
meaning of ability grouping, on the other hand, relates to re-grouping
students for the purpose of providing curriculum aimed at a common
instructional level. In elementary schools, this often happens when
teachers create more homogeneous reading or math groups while teaching
heterogeneous groups for most other subjects. At the secondary level,
students may be assigned to high-ability groups in the areas of
their strengths and to average or low ability groups in other subjects.
Ability grouping does not imply permanently locking students out
of settings that are appropriately challenging for them; it means
placing them with others whose learning needs are similar to theirs
for whatever length of time works best.
A variation of grouping
practices is called cluster grouping whereby small groups of students
with similar instructional needs are clustered within a primarily
heterogeneous classroom. For example, four to eight identified gifted
students at a particular grade level or in a specific subject area
may be placed in the classroom of a teacher who has expertise in
differentiating curriculum and instruction for them. This practice
is in keeping with the need for gifted
students to be with their intellectual peers in order to be appropriately
challenged and to view their own abilities more realistically (Feldhusen
& Saylor, 1990). With cluster grouping, gifted
students may be the only ones grouped together on the basis of similar
instructional needs. The other students in their class comprise
a heterogeneous mix, and most of the remaining classes in the school
may also be heterogeneously grouped.
If all of the teachers
at a given grade level are prepared to provide appropriately differentiated
curriculum, the principal may decide to rotate faculty who work
in classes where there are cluster groups of gifted
students. This strategy can reduce the perceived association between
a certain teacher and the "smartest" class (McInerney, 1983). Teachers
who work in schools that use cluster grouping report that they have
found that new academic leadership emerges in the classes without
the cluster group of gifted students;
i.e., a new cream rises to the top from among the heterogeneous
Myth #2: Ability
grouping is elitist.
Reality: Elitism might
well be defined as arbitrarily giving preference to some group based
on a misperception of superiority. Often it is related to an offensive
attitude of some group that is or purports to be socially, politically,
or militarily superior (P. Plowman, personal communication, January
However, being able
to function at an advanced level intellectually does not, automatically,
make an individual better than anyone else. It merely implies a
difference that requires an educational response that may be erroneously
interpreted by some as giving one group an unfair advantage. Gifted
students may be better at many academic tasks, but this does not
imply that they should be seen as being better than anyone else.
The truth is that most educators of the gifted
work diligently to help develop an understanding of giftedness in
the context of individual differences rather than as an issue of
superiority versus inferiority. This is totally consistent with
newly-emerging approaches, such as the middle school philosophy,
that consider cognitive and affective development as equally important
In reality, keeping
one or two highly gifted students in
a classroom of mixed abilities actually may have the effect of creating
snobbery. Scattering gifted students
throughout all of the classrooms in the school may lead them to
feel far superior to their classmates and promote arrogance. Imagine,
if you will, the gifted student repeatedly
getting the answers right and being able to offer complex ideas
far ahead of the other students in class discussions. After a while,
the gifted student may well surmise
that he actually does know more than all the others. Unless gifted
students are placed in situations where they can be challenged by
intellectual peers, the possibilities that they will develop an
elitist attitude might well be expected to increase.
However, when gifted
students are grouped together for instruction, the experience of
studying with intellectual peers may actually lower self-esteem
somewhat (Feldhusen & Saylor, 1990). There is nothing quite
so humbling to bright individuals as discovering that there are
other students in the group who are equally capable or even more
knowledgeable about given topics than they are. If one goal of education
is to help all students develop a realistic appraisal of their own
ability, students need to measure themselves with appropriate yardsticks.
Comparisons are more likely to be accurate when made with others
of similar abilities. Sicola (1990) pointed out the relationship
between the unique affective and academic needs of gifted
students, indicating that these are "... best met through the provision
of homogeneous grouping in the areas of giftedness for this segment
of the school population" (p. 41). This is why many school districts
have chosen to continue to group high-ability students together
via such strategies as cluster grouping while grouping all others
have no qualms about identifying outstanding talent in athletics
and providing specialized programs for students who excel in that
area. As Tammi (1990) commented,
Not all students have the ability or desire to participate on a varsity
sports team, yet I have never heard any school official argue that singling
out talented athletes for team membership to the exclusion of others is
elitist. In fact, school districts and local community agencies go to great
lengths applauding these athletes' efforts and supporting them in their
development. (p. 44)
A similar (though not
quite so well-funded) example exists in relationship to giftedness
in music. If support for students who demonstrate extraordinary
talents in these areas is not considered elitist, why should intellectual
giftedness be given short shrift?
Myth #3: Ability
grouping inevitably discriminates against racial and ethnic minority
Reality: For too many
years, the inequitable use of assessment procedures did result in
minority and economically disadvantaged students being underrepresented
in high-ability classes and programs for the gifted.
However, educators of gifted students
have made great progress in refining their identification methods.
Wide-spread efforts are being made to overcome the inequities of
overreliance on standardized test score data and assumptions that
too often have been made about students who, although gifted,
may not fit the stereotype of high achievers with positive attitudes
toward school. The direction is away from sole reliance on standardized
tests and toward improved approaches that include studying the behaviors
of students for indicators that gifted
potential exists (Richert, Alvino, & McDonnell, 1982). For instance,
methods devised by Frasier (1987), Gay (1978), Silverman and Waters
(1988), Swenson (1978), Torrance and Ball (1984), and others are
being implemented in order to better identify minority children
who are gifted and/or talented. Moreover,
significant attention is placed on training teachers to identify
gifted students by observing their
behavior. At the same time, behavioral descriptors are used to identify
other underserved populations, who also have not surfaced due to
a heavy emphasis on standardized test scores and classroom performance.
Preschool and kindergarten children (Rogers & Silverman, 1988),
creative thinkers (Davis & Rimm, 1985), nonproductive gifted
students (Delisle, 1981), and gifted
students with learning disabilities and other handicaps (Whitmore
& Maker, 1985) are among those groups who are being screened
more accurately using improved methodology.
grouping because of inequitable identification procedures is tantamount
to throwing out the baby with the bath water. Furthermore, singling
out racial and ethnic minority students as the only disenfranchised
group is misleading. The intent of gifted
programs has not been to exclude certain populations. However, the
identification procedures used in the past clearly needed revision,
and improved methodologies are already being implemented.
Myth #4: Gifted
students will make it on their own; grouping them by ability does
not result in improved learning or achievement for them.
Reality: Studies by
Feldhusen (1989), Kulik and Kulik (1984) and Oakes (1986) confirm
what gifted educators have known for
years: gifted students benefit cognitively
and affectively from working with other gifted
students. Oakes specifically reported on the beneficial effects
of the advantages that many high school students in top tracks receive
from their classes. Feldhusen (1989) reviewed data from several
studies conducted by himself and his colleagues and concluded that
... grouping of gifted and talented students in special classes with a
differentiated curriculum, or as a cluster group in a regular heterogeneous
classroom (but again with differentiated curriculum and instruction), leads
to higher academic achievement and better academic attitudes for the gifted
and leads to no decline in achievement or attitudes for the children who
remain in the regular heterogeneous classroom. Gifted and talented youth
need accelerated, challenging instruction in core subject areas that
parallel their special talents or aptitudes. They need opportunities to
work with other gifted and talented youth. And they need ... teachers who
both understand the nature and needs of gifted youth and are deeply
knowledgeable in the content they teach. (p. 10)
Although some studies
have been done (Slavin, 1990) that indicate no increase in achievement
test scores for high-ability students who have been grouped together,
the omission of gifted students from
such studies makes generalizing to this population highly questionable
(Featherstone, 1987). Also, ceiling effects make it extremely difficult
to determine whether or not students' learning was enhanced by homogeneous
grouping unless off-level testing was used to assess achievement.
In other words, grade-level achievement tests fail to reveal growth
for students who already perform in the top percentile ranks because
they have reached the ceiling of the test--the highest scores attainable
for that age group. Only by administering instruments designed for
older students can the actual achievement gains be determined for
students whose performance places them in the extreme upper range.
Another critical issue
needs to be considered: the goals of the gifted
program and whether its purposes are actually focused on increasing
academic achievement. What gifted students
learn should be measured by far more comprehensive criteria than
increased achievement test scores. Equally important are the development
of socialization and leadership skills, experience with complex
concepts and challenging learning, and opportunities to pursue topics
in great depth. If such a program is more concerned with helping
gifted students work together to grapple
with global concerns that are complex and substantive, increases
in achievement test scores in specific subject areas are not really
appropriate for measuring Success.
Myth #5: Providing
heterogeneously grouped cooperative learning experiences is most
effective for serving all students, including the gifted.
Reality: Every student
has a right in a democratic society to learn something in school
in every class. However, it is possible that the students who may
actually learn the least in a given class are the gifted.
So much of what they are asked to learn they may have already mastered.
When teachers discover this, they may be tempted to use gifted
students as classroom helpers or to teach others, thereby robbing
the gifted students of consistent opportunities
to learn through real struggle. This situation can have a negative
impact on them in many ways, including lowering their self-esteem
(Rimm, 1986). Without regular encounters with challenging material,
gifted students fail to learn how to
learn and have problems developing the study skills they need for
future academic pursuits.
is designed to be used with either homogeneous or heterogeneous
groups. Johnson and Johnson (1989) noted "There are times when gifted
students should be segregated for fast-paced accelerated work. There
are times when gifted students should
work alone. There are times when gifted
students should compete to see who is best" (p. 1).
Slavin (1990) stated
that "Use of cooperative learning does not require dismantling ability
group programs.... In a situation where acceleration is appropriate,
cooperative learning is likely to be effective if used within the
accelerated class" (p. 7).
A further point was
made by Silverman (1990) who said,
As children veer from the norm in either direction, their educational needs
become increasingly more differentiated. A child three standard deviations
below the norm (55 IQ) could not profit from placement in a cooperative
learning group in the heterogeneous classroom; neither does a child three
standard deviations above the norm (145 IQ). (p. 6)
What seems reasonable
is to allow teachers the flexibility to determine which lessons
lend them-selves to heterogeneous cooperative learning groups and
which to homogeneous cooperative learning groups and make professional
decisions to place students accordingly.
Myth #6: Assuring
that there are some gifted students
in all classrooms will provide positive role models for others and
will automatically improve the classroom climate.
Reality: Classroom climate
is far more dependent on factors other than having gifted
students in attendance who supposedly will provide role models of
motivated learning for other students. (See Fraser, Anderson, &
Walberg, 1982.) The notion that placing gifted
students in low ability classrooms will automatically have a beneficial
effect on students who are performing at lower levels rests on several
questionable assumptions: that the performance discrepancies will
be perceived as alterable by the less capable students; that gifted
students are consistently highly motivated high achievers who will
inspire others to similar accomplishments; and that gifted
students placed in low ability or heterogeneous classrooms will
continue to perform at their peak even when they lack regular opportunities
to interact with intellectual peers who can stimulate their thinking.
Research indicates that
students model their behavior on the behavior of others who are
of similar ability and who are coping well in school (France-Kaatrude
& Smith, 1985). As Feldhusen (19891 stated, "watching someone
of similar ability succeed at a task raises the observers' feeling
of efficacy and motivates them to try the task" (p. 10).
grouping may have negative side effects both on the gifted
students and on the others in the classrooms. Gifted
students who are a minority of one or who only have, at best, one
or two classmates whose ability level approaches their own find
themselves either feeling odd or arrogant. If all the other students
watch from the sidelines while the smart one provides all the answers,
their perceptions of themselves as competent, capable learners suffer.
One former student described it this way:
When Bill (the gifted one) was in class, it was like the sun shining on a
bright, clear day. But, when he went out to work with other gifted kids, it
was like when the sun goes over the horizon. The rest of us were like the
moon and the stars; that's when we finally got a chance to shine. (Fiedler,
As Walberg (1989) indicated, Educators should be realistic about
individual differences. Teaching students what they already know or are as
yet incapable of knowing wastes effort.... Yet our ideal is equality, of
opportunity if not results, and we should take each student as far as
possible. (p. 5)
Equality in education
does not require that all students have exactly the same experiences.
Rather, education in a democracy promises
that everyone will have an equal opportunity to actualize their
potential, to learn as much as they can.
in a free society should not boil down to a choice between equity
and excellence. Providing for formerly disenfranchised groups need
not take away appropriate programs from any other group. As the
research clearly indicates, gifted
students benefit from working together. Therefore, it is imperative
that ability grouping for the gifted
be continued. While the educational community moves toward heterogeneity
for students who would benefit more from working in mixed ability
groups, it should not deny gifted students
the right to educational arrangements that maximize their learning.
The goal of an appropriate education
must be to create optimal learning experiences for all.
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Guest Editors' Comments
on In Search of Reality: Unraveling the Myths about Tracking, Ability
Grouping, and the Gifted
Fiedler, Lange, and
Winebrenner argue that the antitracking movement of the 1990s led
to the anti-ability grouping movement that locked some gifted
students out of the challenging programs they needed. The authors
also point out that much of the research on ability grouping has
not included gifted students among
its subjects, yet some critics of ability grouping have overlooked
this fact and used the results to make recommendations about gifted
students. They argue that the emphasis ought to be on equality of
opportunity, rather than equality of experiences, for all students.
Fiedler et al. address
six pernicious myths that crop up regarding ability grouping. They
counter the myths with logical argument and reference to research.
Their arguments return again and again to a theme you will hear
in many of these articles: That a student's academic achievement
should guide educational placement decisions.
Reasoned analyses such
as this one go a long way toward cutting through some of the rhetoric
and confusion, partly generated by changing views within the field
of gifted education
and education in general, about what
constitutes the need for differentiated educational provisions.
in Roeper Review 16(1), September 1993, pp. 4-7.
At the time of this
article's original publication, Ellen Fiedler was Associate Professor
in the Gifted/Talented Masters Degree
Program, Northeastern Illinois University, a contributing editor
of this journal and author of Curriculum for the Gifted:
A Practical Guide. Dr. Fiedler is presently a Professor of Gifted
in the Gifted Master's degree program
at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. She is the author
of numerous articles and a book chapter entitled "Giftedness: The
Promise of Potential/The Problems of Potential." Dr. Fiedler is
currently co-chair of the Global Awareness Division of the National
Association for Gifted Children. As
in 1993, Richard Lange is the Director of Gifted
Staff Development, and Assessment for Prospect Heights Public Schools,
Illinois and an adjunct faculty member in the College of Education
at National-Louis University in Evanston, Illinois. Susan Winebrenner
was an independent consultant in staff development when this article
was originally published. She is presently a full-time consultant
who works with school districts to help them translate current educational
research into classroom practice. She is author of Teaching Gifted
Kids in the Regular Classroom, Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties
in the Regular Classroom, and Super Sentences.