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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)

At first, there were only enough advanced students to fill one accelerated class in most grades. Most teachers served children who were at or below grade level.

Undeterred, Roberson sent one teacher from each grade level to visit the county's centers for highly gifted instruction to see what those teachers were doing. They came back and embarked on a two-year, schoolwide unit on Shakespeare, culminating in a performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The school is now focused on science exploration, including study of a spacesuit.

Test scores rose dramatically in 2004 and 2005. But official discomfort persisted. In the 2005-06 academic year, Roberson was instructed to halt performance-based grouping, for at least one year, "to see if it really had an impact on student performance." Students returned to mixed-ability classrooms. Test scores fell.

The next fall, performance-based grouping resumed. Scores rebounded to all-time highs.

Today, only a small percentage of students remain in "basic" classes. Teachers credit the nowhere-but-up philosophy.

In an accelerated fourth-grade math class on a recent day, students wrestled with an assignment that required each child to schedule appointments with 12 other children without creating time conflicts. In an adjacent fifth-grade classroom, students labored to express the fraction 319 ten-thousandths as a decimal.

"Should we know decimal places by now?" asked Hudson, the teacher. She then supplied the answer: "Yes, we should."

Heath Morrison, the community superintendent who oversees Rock View, said that what sets the school apart is how closely the staff follows the progress of every child, starting with the colorfully annotated notebook on the principal's desk.

"They're really, really precise in the way they monitor students," he said. "So they know exactly where kids are, and they know where they want them to be."

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