Date of Award


Degree Name

M.S. in Education


The practice of ability grouping, sometimes known as tracking, has received much study and criticism throughout the past three decades. This practice has been described as “cruel” and damaging to the self-esteem of those students placed in the lower ability groups (Black, 1993). In spite of the criticism, however, ability grouping remains a prominent practice, even a “universal characteristic” of public education (Nevi, 1987). Furthermore, there is no strong movement to remove ability grouping from the schools (Segro, 1995). Researchers have determined several reasons for the continuation of the grouping of students. First, state and federal agencies mandate that students be grouped in order for schools to receive specially allocated funding for students such as the learning disabled or gifted (Nevi, 1987). Secondly, homogeneous groups are easier for teachers to teach (Ricco, 1985). A third reason for the perpetuation of ability grouping is the belief that students with similar interests and abilities learn more effectively when they are placed together within the same classroom (Kilgore, 1991). Finally, grouping is a result of the belief that schools must accommodate individual differences and prepare students for the workforce or for further education, whichever best suits the individual student (Selvin, Oakes, Hare, Ramsey, & Schoeff, 1990) Although there has been a great quantity of research on ability grouping and tracking, the actual process of determining students’ placements within this framework has received far less attention (Gamoran, 1992). Alexander, Cook, and McDill (1978) assert that “little has been learned of the mechanisms of curriculum sorting beyond the documentation of important social background and demographic differences in track placement” (p. 48). The placement process is seldom clearly defined or carried out and may vary among schools within the same districts and even among departments within the same schools (Ricco, 1985; Garet & DeLany, 1988). Goodlad (see Hallinan, 1987) explains this inconsistency by asserting that this variability is the schools’ method of trying to cope with the individual differences among students. Whatever the justification, it is not possible to say that student placement is accurate, appropriate, or fair (Oakes, 1985). The “processing of clients”(DeLany, 1991) has become more important than ensuring adequate attention to students’ placements. The ambiguity in the definition of a track and the ambivalence in what constitutes a “college prep,” “honors,” or “general” program make accurate placement a difficult, if not impossible, task. Placement error is possible; researchers admit there is “considerable slippage” (Alexander, Cook, & McDill, 1978) in the process of sorting students into classes. Jones, VanFossen, and Spade (1987) assert that with only one exception, one would guess a student’s track placement incorrectly fifty percent of the time even if the student’s ability level were known. The placement process contains both formal and informal rules and procedures. Research indicates that high school placement decisions tend to rely on limited information (Dentzer & Wheelock, 1990). Inaccurate and incomplete information contributes to errors in student placement and leads to arbitrary tracking practices (Kilgore, 1991). It is this arbitrariness that needs to be eliminated if student placement is to be accurate and beneficial This writer and several of her colleagues have experienced the frustration of trying to determine student placement. They have experienced confusion at the lack of established criteria to help guide a teacher in making this important and influential decision. Therefore, the writer surveyed teachers in four suburban districts about the factors and criteria that impact student placement within a homogeneous classroom setting.


English language Study and teaching (Secondary), English literature Study and teaching (Secondary), Track system (Education), Ability grouping in education

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Copyright © 1998, author