What Our Students Thought of Ability Grouping

A month ago I wrote about Ability Grouping and within that week asked my students for their thoughts, but I’ve been swamped with work to share any sooner. My teaching assignment was:

Geometry: 32 students. All were 8th graders, largest group we’d ever had, 45% more than the year before. A handful of them were not ready for the rigors of this high-school equivalent course; it was more due to scheduling that they ended up here. (We have about 200 kids in the junior high, 2 sections of each level, so it’s not easy to be flexible with our schedule.)

Algebra 1: 38 students. Ten were 7th graders, the rest were 8th graders, and 3 of the 8th graders worked independently out of the Algebra Readiness textbook at midyear as they struggled to continue on, but they joined the rest of the class for all problem-solving group tasks which happened about twice a week.

Math 6: 69 students in two classes, but 2 of them were in RSP for math, so I only saw them on Fridays.

My colleague Erin helped me give her students the same survey questions. I don’t know her exact roster counts, but she taught two classes of Pre-Algebra (all were 7th graders) and one class of Algebra Readiness to 8th graders.

I began by telling the kids a little bit about ability grouping at our school, that it existed in grade 7 and grade 8, that we tried to place them based on several measures (grades, work habits, CST scores, benchmark tests). I did not tell them how I felt previously or presently about ability grouping, but I wanted to learn what they’d thought.

I gave each student this strip of paper and asked them to check one box.


I then added these three questions:


I’m going to summarize what boxes the kids checked for both parts above like this:


From the Geometry kids (there was some city-level academic competition going on that day, so more absences than usual):


From the Algebra 1 kids:


From the Algebra Readiness kids:


From the Pre-Algebra kids:


From the 6th Graders:


So, about 83% (151/183) of the kids said YES to ability grouping. Sure, there were a few kids who seemed to have conflicting responses by checking NO to the first question but had more YES responses with the 3 questions that followed, and vice versa.

I don’t know.

I do know this: Erin and I really love our students and love what we do. She has a math degree, I do not, but we both love problem solving and are proud math enthusiasts. She let me talk her into going for a week-long training in Palo Alto to jump start — actually it was more of a revival of — a Math Teachers’ Circle in our area.

I want to believe that Erin and I made a difference in how our students felt about their learning of mathematics. Doug left a comment on my Ability Grouping post. His last paragraph strikes the perfect note of what I want to say right now:

I wonder if the bigger problem is teaching students to not be so concerned with who is “ahead” of whom. Maybe the problem has less to do with what class you put the students in, and more to do with how you treat them once they get there. We need to foster the growth mindset. Maybe our fixed-ability mindset (ala Carol Dweck etc.) primes us to be unnaturally sensitive about placement. Most of us will live and die always knowing there is someone, lots of people, more competent/talented/accomplished than we are at everything we do. But we have to live for ourselves, and pursue what we care about, regardless. The bigger issue is making sure every classroom has a good teacher presenting quality material. Then it doesn’t matter who is in what room with whom.

Thank you, Doug.

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