Montgomery School's New Take On Ability Grouping Yields Results

Fifth-grader Nelsa Garcia reads during her language arts class at Rock View Elementary School in Kensington. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007

In a notebook on her desk at Rock View Elementary School, Principal Patsy Roberson keeps tabs on every student: red for those who have failed to attain proficiency on Maryland's statewide exam, an asterisk for students learning English and squares for black or Hispanic children whose scores place them "in the gap."

Roberson and the Rock View faculty are having remarkable success lifting children out of that gap, the achievement gap that separates poor and minority children from other students and represents one of public education's most intractable problems.

They have done it with an unusual approach. The Kensington school's 497 students are grouped into classrooms according to reading and math ability for more than half of the instructional day.

The technique, called performance-based grouping, is uncommon in the region. Some educators believe it too closely resembles tracking, the outmoded practice of assigning students to inflexible academic tracks by ability.

Educators say Rock View, however, is using the same basic concept to opposite effect, and the results have been positive. While some other Montgomery County schools serving low-income populations have posted higher test scores, few have shown such improvement or consistency across socioeconomic and racial lines.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools must show adequate proficiency among eight student "subgroups": five racial categories, special education, those speaking limited English and those who qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. Five years ago at Rock View, proficiency ranged from 8 percent (for the limited English population) to more than 80 percent (for whites). Today, proficiency exceeds 72 percent for each subgroup.

"We're a little school, struggling with resources," said Roberson, 55, the principal since 2001. "You've got to kind of use what you've got to get where you want to be."

As performance-based grouping is practiced at Rock View, class assignments are fluid and temporary. Students are tested regularly in multiple areas and are promoted to more challenging course work as their skills improve. No one is ever demoted.

That differs from tracking, which fell from favor amid fears that it consigned those in lower tracks to a second-class education. Students could be trapped in remedial classes for years based on a score on a single standardized test.

Since Roberson initiated performance-based grouping five years ago, there has been one immutable rule, she said: "No child goes back. They go up." Struggling students get the help they need to catch up.

Students in the gap, and others scoring below proficiency on the statewide test, are pulled from classes for 45 minutes each day for extra math and reading instruction that revisits and extends the regular lessons.

Letters go out at the start of each academic year telling parents to which ability groups their children have been assigned. Teachers test students regularly in each subject; students who show sufficient improvement are promoted to a higher group between marking periods.

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