Abandoning Age-Tracking

Tamara Fisher:

In the school district where I teach, we do a moderate amount of within-grade-level ability-grouping with our students, particularly in reading and math. Occasionally I hear a teacher bemoan this practice as “tracking,” despite the fact that the groups are rather flexible and, particularly in reading, the students are re-grouped often (every few weeks) according to their learning needs. It is not “tracking” in the way groupings were created decades ago in our district in which students were irreversibly placed into, or rather locked into, a track. These are flexible groupings far more than they are tracks.
Ironically, the grade-level, whole-class groupings apparently preferred by these teachers who bemoan ability-grouping are the most restrictive form of tracking, that by age. For a century (-ish), schools have “tracked” students based on when they were born, not based on what they are ready and able to learn. “Born between September 1, 2003, and August 31, 2004? You belong to the Class of 2022.” That is how it works in nearly every school in our country. It’s tracking by age, but no one calls it that.
Of course, many teachers, especially those of us in the realm of gifted education, recognize that age-tracking (particularly in the absence of any differentiation) does little to help schools meet the learning needs of gifted and advanced learners who are academically years ahead of their age-peers.