During the fourth week of school, the form came home, stuffed into my daughter’s backpack:
Your student scored a XX on his/her DIBELS literacy test, administered this Fall/Summer. Based on this score, your child will be placed in Open Court Level XYZ [with] TEACHER A...
My partner and I knew when we selected this kindergarten  that grouping wasn’t just used in the school, it bordered on being a core value. A mandate to use ability grouping had been written into its original charter. This emphasis was a major negative for us, but a long list of positives more than balanced it out.
I thought I had made peace with it.
When the sheet finally came home though, I cried — and my response had nothing to do with how Zoe placed. Whatever way, I’m confident about my child’s curiosity, desire to learn and willingness to work.
I was sad because I knew Zoe and her little homeroom peers worked really hard to get to know each other and create a new and shared community during those first weeks of school, and now they’d be divvied up for sizable parts of their day. I was sad, too, because these young children, just five years old, had entered the world of testing and assessment, and would probably never experience education without it again. It’s a rite of passage that sometimes can suck the joy and love right out of learning.
There was a queasiness behind my tears, too, a queasiness that stemmed from the years I spent on staff at Teaching Tolerance developing tools help educators improve instructional practice, particularly with students of color like my daughter.
Ability grouping is among the practices the Initiative interrogates. Done badly, or too rigidly, (some researchers would say, done at all), it not only can stifle learning among students (regardless of their grouping level), but also can stigmatize children and bolster stereotyping.
Zoe’s school embraces grouping for the right reasons. Its entire academic program is designed to challenge every learner and close the achievement gap. The administrators and teachers are dedicated to providing the best possible instruction for the children in their care. They believe grouping supports these goals.
Further, they’re well aware that grouping is no panacea. They know the downsides and work to apply emerging research, and their own experiences, to better meet the needs of students. A recent change within the community, for example, was to abandon the term “ability grouping” in favor of “performance grouping.”
Although this may seem a matter of semantics, it’s an important shift. “Ability” conveys a fixed mindset: children come with innate and static capacities for learning and achievement. “Performance” recognizes that what teachers are actually doing is measuring students on how they are currently responding to a certain set of tasks.
This is a line of inquiry I certainly support, as a parent and as an educational advocate. And I trust these educators’ motivations and respect them as professionals.
So why won’t this queasiness in my stomach go away?