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Monday, November 5, 2007

Montgomery School's New Take On Ability Grouping Yields Results

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007; A01

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.

"Here, the children know that if they work hard, they can move," said Yvonne Hudson, a fifth-grade teacher of accelerated reading and math. "I've had children tell me, 'Ms. Hudson, I'm going to be in your class next year.' "

Last week, the school held a Closing the Gap dinner, with a five-course meal for families of improved students and a speech by the school board's president, Nancy Navarro. Parents of students who exited the gap told how they got out.

In spring 2006, 113 black and Hispanic children at the school were rated basic, the lowest of three performance levels, on the Maryland School Assessment. Last spring, the number shrank to 51.

Ability grouping, the generic term for what Rock View is doing, is a controversial practice in public education. Nonetheless, most elementary schools in the region group students by ability within classrooms for reading instruction, and a growing number place students in performance-based classes for math.

The technique is most effective, and most palatable, when teachers are "genuinely, constantly reevaluating the students' performance and particularly moving them forward when they show positive growth," said Robert Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who has studied the practice.

Roberson, a former special education teacher who was raised in Hampton, Va., moves around campus on an electric scooter, which she uses because of rheumatoid arthritis. She stops to greet students with hugs.

She arrived at Rock View six years ago and found that students' families had a range of incomes and education. Some parents worked at NASA, some cleaned houses and others collected welfare. Test scores were in the dumps across the board. "They shouldn't have been," she said, "because you had bright children."

The school served a growing immigrant population, and nearly half of all students qualified for subsidized meals.
Roberson decided that regrouping students by performance level would make the most of her limited staff, which was struggling to deliver lessons to a student body with wide-ranging abilities.

"When you have all the students who are academically alike for 90 minutes and you don't have to split them up and give 30 minutes to each group, you get more bang for your buck," she said.

School system administrators were uncomfortable with the arrangement. Nothing resembling tracking was going on in the county. Few, if any, elementary schools grouped children into classrooms by ability to the extent that Roberson was proposing.

"I told the powers that be, 'Just let me do it,' " Roberson recalled.
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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