Ability Grouping

– Elementary school (Saigon)

My father is a well respected and loved math teacher at the local Catholic high school (grades 6-12) where my older siblings attend. The “grade” we get is simply where we are ranked in the class. Kim, 3 years older, is always ranked #1 in all her classes. My teachers, upon learning that I am my father’s daughter and Kim’s sister, openly express their disappointment that I don’t measure up. Kim must have taken all the smart genes and none was left for you, haha.

I think I know my times table, but when my teacher asks me for a multiplication fact and I don’t answer fast enough, my palm gets a big whack with the stick. If I — by sheer reflex of not wanting to be hit — pulled my hand back and made the teacher miss, then I would get double the whacks. So I have to use my left hand to hold the wrist of my right hand to keep it extended in place. I never cry even though it stings a lot.

– Middle school (Minnesota)

I’m learning English, so I have no clue what’s happening in any of my classes. I remember just copying word for word everything I see in the textbook onto my notebook. The longest word I remember copying is be-cau-se — because. I don’t know what it means, but it sure looks funny.

I remember seeing the words “thank you” in print for the first time. I already know the meaning because I even hear people say it back in Vietnam. I’m really confused though because if I had to guess its spelling, it’d look more like thang-kew. I mean I don’t hear the “you” part at all. People already talk so fast in this country, and now I learn they don’t even pronounce words correctly.

But math suddenly becomes my favorite period of the day because it’s the only thing I understand, and I’m even ahead of the class. I know this stuff already.

– High school (Oregon)

Freshman year I’m on my own in algebra class – meaning I work through the book by myself. I don’t know why, maybe because I’d passed some pre-assessment with a high score. Sophomore year, the same thing happens in geometry. I don’t remember anything except for my teacher’s jokes. When someone asks him an obvious question, he asks back, “Is the Pope Catholic?”

A month into my sophomore year my English teacher transfers me out of his class and into the TAG (talented and gifted) class. He tells me my writing is really good. I don’t get it, but I’m not supposed to argue with the teacher. How can it be good when I just write three short paragraphs for homework each night about some dry prompt like What do you know about the Three Mile Island accident?

So I get into this TAG class and quickly learn that it’s a big fat mistake. Kids in here actually have talent, for God’s sake. They can play a musical instrument – you can hear them play. They are on the debate team – you can watch and listen to them argue with fancy rhetoric and big arm gestures. They can draw – you can stand back and admire their amazing handiwork. They can play a sport – everyone shows up to their games and screams out their names. In other words, they can all perform!

Who wants to read a 3-paragraph account of a nuclear meltdown? I’m such a loser.

But Joe is in TAG, and he makes the class bearable. He calls me beautiful. It does not matter that he’s the fattest boy in the school. Joe is an orator extraordinaire, and he’s sweet. I want to marry him someday because when someone calls you beautiful while no one else in the room sees you, then you just have to marry that person.


The above memories kept flashing through since our UCSB Math Project workshop last Thursday. My friend and co-presenter Jeff led us in a discussion about ability grouping. In dyads, we shared our thoughts on the what-when-where of leveling children in school. But first, he wanted us to share our own experiences when we were in school.

I held these beliefs about ability grouping:

We group kids all the time in sports, and no one thinks twice about this. You’re not playing on the varsity team if your skills are not of varsity quality. Why shouldn’t we group by math abilities too?

It’s easier to teach a class of students who have a common base of content knowledge. We should demand excellence at every level anyway. I don’t care what level you’re at, but wherever you are — and when you’re all at about the same level — I can focus better on your needs.

Students will fall even farther behind if we don’t help them shore up their skills and fill in the gaps. Now that would be even more criminal — pushing kids through when they’re not ready.

The 7th-grade math curriculum is a waste of time. Just take a look at how well my 7th graders do in algebra without a lick of 7th-grade math, and they continue to do well in geometry as 8th graders.

It’s easier to keep up with the curriculum pacing guide.

I no longer hold these beliefs. I’ve read enough about the detriments of ability grouping and tracking, especially for students of ethnic minorities.

I’m ashamed and surprised that I was part of the problem by supporting tracking because I’ve faithfully implemented problem-solving into every math curriculum that I teach. But I don’t want to beat myself up too much about this because I’ve always tried to do right by my students. I know math ability doesn’t define them. It doesn’t define anyone. What defines any human being is our level of kindness.

I need to learn more, read more, pay attention more. I need to define my beliefs more clearly for me — so I may serve my students better.

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