SOME schools used numbers, some letters, and some colors. Yet whether it was Group 1, Group A, or the Blue Group, schools have sorted their students by ability for at least 70 years.
Now that is beginning to change. New research and the push to reform schools have prompted educators to rethink the traditional school structure, particularly at the middle-school level.
More and more schools are grouping high-achieving and low-achieving students together in the same classroom. The trend is known by several labels: detracking, heterogeneous grouping, and mixed-ability grouping. The goal is to provide the greatest learning opportunities for students at every level.
"We've lost generations of kids through courses that never go beyond a remedial level," says Anne Wheelock, author of "Crossing the Tracks," a new book on schools that are grouping students heterogeneously.
Segregating students by ability is also a civil rights issue. In December, the Amherst, Mass., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a federal lawsuit against the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District. The district has refused to implement mixed-ability grouping, and the case charges that minority students are disproportionately placed in the lower tracks.
"This is not a new issue for groups like the NAACP," says Ms. Wheelock. "They've pushed it for a long time."
The strongest opposition to heterogeneous grouping comes from the parents of high-achieving students. Some parents worry that their children will be less challenged when put in classes with lower-achieving students. Organizations such as the National Association for Gifted Children have spoken out against mixed-ability classes.
Despite such critics, several state education departments are encouraging districts to restructure schools without student tracks. In 1990, Massachusetts issued a policy advisory against tracking. A recent survey found that about 60 percent of all middle schools in the state have increased heterogeneous grouping of students during the past two years.
Although the state does not have the authority to mandate these policies, it offers incentive grants to schools that are moving toward mixed-ability instruction. "Most of the funds go toward professional development of teachers and technical assistance," says Daniel French, director of the Bureau of Student Development and Health at the Massachusetts Department of Education.
Changes in classroom grouping of students are taking place alongside other reform efforts. "I really worry when schools group [students] heterogeneously but don't make any changes in curriculum, or school routines, or expectations for teaching," Ms. Wheelock says. "It's got to all happen together in some kind of synchrony."
MANY teachers say that it's more difficult to teach in a mixed-ability classroom. "You have to learn different styles, different ways of explaining things," says Joanne Hatem, a seventh-grade teacher at the Bartlett School in Lowell, Mass., which began mixing students about six years ago.
Wheelock recommends that schools reconsider curriculum, classroom materials, and teaching strategies when introducing mixed-ability classes. "The thing that would kill this fast is if teachers are thrown into heterogeneous classes with no preparation and no materials," she says.
Carrie Powers, a sixth-grade teacher at Bartlett, says she is supportive of heterogeneous classes. "But it breaks down if you have more than 24 students," she warns.
Many teachers point to advantages from having students with different skill levels in the same class. "The others really want to help when someone is slower," says sixth-grade teacher Jean Wilkerson. "Some of them take great pride in helping others."
"If I just had lower-ability students, I wouldn't be able to do many of the projects we do," Ms. Powers says.
But some teachers view the changes prompted by mixed-ability classes negatively. Linda Almeida, a math and science teacher at Bartlett, had to stop basing her students' grades on tests. "I give them tests, but their grades are based on drawings and lab reports. Most of them can't pass the test."
Changes such as this are hurting top-level students, Ms. Almeida says. "It's pulling them down."
Mr. French of the state Department of Education disagrees. "All students can benefit in a well-structured heterogeneous classroom - even high-achieving students," he says. "What ends up happening is that they are exposed to diverse kinds of thinking."
French acknowledges, however, that it's a difficult process to change student-grouping practices. "It takes a lot of dialogue, discussion, and planning to make it happen well," he says.