When High and Low Achieving Students Share the Same Fate

Haleigh Pine, Editor-in-Chief

A twelve year old doodles on their desk, ignoring the drone of their teacher solving one variable equations. They decide to take a nap, as the teacher rarely calls on them for the answer. In one respect, this could be the stereotypical problem child, lacking the encouragement to learn. However, it also represents the plight of many gifted American students, denied the opportunity for academic development. Both of these groups are central to the issue of academic discrimination, which limits all students from reaching their potentials and inhibits the future leaders and innovations of their generation. While this problem is often involuntary, it is a product of a system which can be changed by grouping children by abilities. 

In a Fordham Institute report, it was discovered most teachers feel pressured to present information at the level of the lowest-achieving students, with 81 percent saying these children are most likely to get one-on-one attention. This fact is understandable, as they probably need the most help, but it raises an important concern about the extent of harm this is bringing to higher-achieving students. According to a 2010 analysis, students grouped by reading ability within a class advanced an additional half of a year in reading growth. Similarly, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when grouped by ability, both high and low performing students significantly improved performance in both math and reading.

There are also changes in students’ mentalities with this system, as all groups will strive to reach the level of their peers. This promotes further educational growth and motivates students with the potential to improve their initial classification. 

I was a student placed in advanced reading and math levels in elementary and middle school. I can attest that the opportunity to challenge myself —instead of passively learning what I already knew— sculpted my strong work ethic and desire to succeed in high level classes. If I never realized my intellectual capacity, I may have resigned myself to satisfactory achievements, hindering both my educational pursuits and outlook of the world in general. 

Some argue that these programs exacerbate racial and social divides by placing students of color or lower class in bottom groups, however this can be resolved if teachers are given proper training on classifying the children. Furthermore, some critics contend students in lower groups may become discouraged by their placement, however the success of this system lies in the absence of stigma placed around the groups by the teacher. If every student is learning the same material, just in different ways with different extensions of the information, they will feel empowered by their knowledge and inspired to foster their own interests.