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  • Writer's pictureRachel Langan

Heterogeneous Grouping: A Race to the Bottom

Before the pandemic, college preparation ranked 10th in a list of 57 possible priorities. Now, it ranks 47th.

What happened? How did we get here?

In the pursuit to level the playing field, our district has lowered the bar for all students by neglecting to tie equity to academic performance, and our test scores are proof.

Have you heard that our district is planning to do away with leveled classes in Reading and Language Arts at the middle schools? Instead will group students heterogeneously. (See 3rd bullet point here.) Heterogenous grouping means that students will no longer be grouped by reading level. Instead, students of all levels will be placed in the same classroom at the same time.

The district claims that the push for heterogeneous grouping is coming from teachers, and then states that heterogeneous grouping would bring the district into line with research (dating back to the 1990s) which shows that heterogenous grouping is best practice. (Watch here at minute 34:27 for an explanation.)

We need to ask some fundamental questions, such as:

  1. Where is the documentation to support this decision? Specific research from multiple sources should be cited.

  2. Who funded the research and what implicit bias may have clouded the viewpoint of the researchers?

  3. If heterogeneous grouping has been best practice since the 1990s, then why has it taken the district 30 years to implement best practice?

  4. Is this decision an attempt to disguise learning loss? It is no secret that students who scored advanced in reading on the PSSAs is decreasing, while the numbers of students who scored basic or below basic is increasing. Perhaps this change has less to do with research/best practice, and more to do with covering up learning loss that has accelerated since schools were closed and hybrid from March 2020 to March 2021?

Let's look at ELA (English Language Arts) PSSA scores for Peirce 6th graders:

  • In 2019 33% of all 6th graders were above grade level, with 18% scoring basic or below basic.

  • There were no PSSAs in 2020 due to the pandemic.

  • In 2021, 16% of all 6th graders were above grade level, with 30% scoring basic or below basic.

  • In 2022, 25.3% of all 6th graders were above grade level, with 30.8% scoring basic or below basic.

Do you see a trend here? The number of students who are reading on grade level is decreasing, while the number of students reading basic or below basic is increasing.

Perhaps the heterogeneous grouping is not about best practice, but instead about economy of scale? It does not make sense to pay a teacher to teach reading to a handful of students who are above grade level, when the classroom next door is overcrowded with below level readers. It makes more sense to have two classrooms with equal number of students in each classroom, regardless of their ability.

Never mind that it's difficult for the teacher to attend to so many students who are reading on different levels. In a classroom of 25 readers, 2 of whom are above grade level and 15 of whom are below grade level, the bulk of the teacher's time is going to be spent getting the lower level kids up to speed. Which is important and necessary work! However, the students who are reading at or above grade level will most likely not have their needs attended to, and this is a disservice to those students.

If WCASD is committed to helping students achieve their personal best, then shouldn't this extend to ALL students? Shouldn't kids who are below level and thus needing more help, be placed in a smaller class so that they can receive individualized attention? Don't above level readers likewise deserve to be in a class where they will be challenged to read and discuss material that will help them to continue to read and comprehend at a higher level? And those students who are reading on grade level also deserve to be challenged, instead of lost in the shuffle as teachers try to navigate helping so many varied levels of readers decode, comprehend, and discuss what they are reading.

If heterogeneous grouping is not beneficial to teachers nor students, then why is the district moving in this direction? When education is treated as a business, student performance plummets. When equity is focused on social justice issues, rather than on academics, academic disparity grows.

We have a problem.

Fixing this problem starts with voting out the current school board on May 16.

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