Grouping students by ability level in the classroom is back.

“Ability grouping and its close cousin, tracking, in which children take different classes based on their proficiency levels, fell out of favor in the late 1980s and the 1990s as critics charged that they perpetuated inequality by trapping poor and minority students in low-level groups,” Vivian Yee wrote in The Times’s Education section.

But the practice of separating children into groups according to strengths, weaknesses and achievement has undergone a stealth return: A new analysis from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a census-like agency for school statistics, shows that of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. In math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996.

Along with the rise of the Common Core curriculum, the return of ability grouping marks the swing of the education pendulum back in the direction of rigorous standards and evaluation, and even as a parent of children who may be affected by the swing, I’m still observing it somewhat in awe — because my mother predicted it all in a somewhat off-the-cuff remark made five years ago after a visit to my oldest son’s first-grade classroom.

“They’re at that whole touchy-feely stage of teaching,” she said, after observing the class singing songs about recycling and completing an “animal report” that was supposed to engage them in increasing reading comprehension through investigation. (My son, busy hiding the fact that he couldn’t read, quickly learned that anything that began with a capital letter and ended with that little dot thing, if copied, would qualify as a “fact” and please his busy teacher.)

“By the time he’s in sixth grade, that pendulum will swing back, they’ll start testing them and getting more demanding, and he’s going to be in real trouble.”

My mother spent decades teaching in classrooms across the Midwest before retiring a few years ago, and she has seen the cant of the education establishment run the gamut from learn by doing through learn by testing a number of times.

I am not an education professional, or even a journalist who covers education vigorously. I’m a parent and a layperson — but I’m both awed and dismayed by how easily an experienced teacher with no ax to grind was able to assess exactly where things stood, and predict what was to come.

As a parent, I can see the arguments on both sides of the debate on dividing children by ability level highlighted in Yee’s article (“Grouping students by ability regains favor in classroom”). I have one child who looks at that group placement and declares, “See? I’m not good at math,” and one who’s the bored troublemaker when faced with grade-level worksheets. I also have children who thrive at different ends of that learn-by-doing/learn-by-testing pendulum.

What I see, as a layperson, are no easy solutions and no one-size-fits-all strategies in a nation that loves to standardize and is always on the lookout for things that can “scale.”

What I did as a parent was to put my son in a pendulum-free, single educational philosophy, private school that suited him and that we are fortunate to be able to access and afford.

As a public-school graduate and advocate, I have many regrets about that decision. As, again, a parent, watching that pendulum swing, I’m grateful we could and did make that choice, and my only regret is that it’s one not everyone has.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

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