When McREL delivers professional development on cooperative learning, we often talk about the tangent topic of ability grouping. The discussion is often fraught with misconceptions and strong opinions. Needless to say, it’s a controversial subject.
Lately an old form of mixed-age ability grouping has been given a closer look by schools and districts that are moving toward standards-based grading. This old form of ability grouping began in four elementary schools in Joplin, Missouri in 1954 and is known as the “Joplin Plan” (Cushenbery, 1967). Essentially, forms of the Joplin Plan include careful diagnosis of each student’s proficiency level in a given subject (reading level, math level, etc.), placement in a mixed age group at similar proficiency levels, and structural changes to the school’s schedule to accommodate teaching multiple levels/groups of different aged students. The big difference between this type of grouping and what most educators think of as ability grouping is that Joplin Plans are not based on homogeneous aptitudes in a given subject at a uniform age or grade. In other words, it does not group all of the 4th grade students “good at math” in one group. It groups students ages 9-11 that are performing at the 4th grade level together.
Now consider the mixing in of standards-based grading. It uses a form of assessment that mixes summative and formative data based on proficiency criterion for standards of what every student is expected to know, and a score is set compared to these benchmarks rather than a ranking compared to a norm. It is fully expected that every child will become proficient in all areas by the end of a period. If they are not, the data will show more precisely which areas are in need of improvement and which areas are at acceptable levels of proficiency. For instance, instead of a “C+” in writing, a student would have a report card with 8 difference areas of writing assessed by rubric score. Combined this with other indicators of proficiency, students can be grouped more effectively into Joplin Plan structures. For instance, learning structures like these have been recently incorporated by Adams County School District 50 in Colorado. (see http://www.sbsadams50.org/content and “Adams 50 skips grades, lets students be pacesetters” at http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_11280071.)
I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking that in your experience, ability grouping has not worked and that it hurts those students at the bottom the most. If you are thinking this, you might be right, but dig deeper. Do some searching at http://scholar.google.com and find out more. Think of the psychological dynamics of traditional ability grouping compared to Joplin Plan grouping. The type of ability grouping that many researchers have discounted tends to group same-age students together by aptitude in a given topic. Thus, all of the 4th grade students that are good at math are in a group and all of the 4th grade students struggling with math are in another group. Most of us intuitively know what is going to happen. The teacher will unconsciously have lower expectations for the students in the low group. In general, the students in the low group have poor vocabularies, work habits, and attitudes toward the subject. Thus, intellectual discourse is weak. As students are influenced by their peers, an environment is created in which it becomes “cool” to not work hard, not know what you are doing, and dislike the subject. While the upper level group doesn’t experience the same ill effects, they may become elitist, perfectionist, and intolerant as they compete against the “best and the brightest.”
In a Joplin Plan group, a 9 year old with a keen verbal ability and strong work habits could be in the same class with an 11 year old who struggles. The 11 year old may take example from the 9 year old and improve his/her performance. With varied levels of aptitude, but standardized proficiency levels, intellectual discourse tends to be of a level that promotes critical thinking and improves understanding. Maturity and proficiency level determine your group, not age or aptitude. An 11 year old could be in a 9-11, 10-12, or 11-13 year old’s grouping. All of which are at the same proficiency level. Hence, if a particular 11 year old like’s to tease 9 year olds, he/she can be put in the 11-13 grouping. Assessment is ongoing, so students can be regrouped on a quarterly basis if needed. This allows us to make up lost time for students who are behind in their proficiency.
My own son is in such a grouping. I volunteered in his group just the other day and was impressed with how skillfully the teacher managed to deal with students of different age, but similar proficiency. Still I wonder. This is a complicated topic. Does your school use some form of a Joplin Plan and/or standards-based grading? If so, how does it work in your school? Do you think it improves student achievement for all types of students?
Written by Matt Kuhn.