Ability Grouping in the High Schools

In this and the articles that follow, the ATLANTIC is attempting to focus national attention upon the present status of the teaching in our high schools and the efforts which are currently being made to improve it. We open the discussion with this invigorating article by CARL F. HANSEN, who has made such a notable record as the superintendent of schools in Washington, D. C.

MOST of the nation’s comprehensive high schools have the problem of supplying a maximum educational challenge for students of wide differences in ability and preparation. With 87.9 per cent of all Americans of fourteen to seventeen years of age attending school during the year 1957—1958, the selective characteristic of the community high school is a thing of the past.

But the heterogeneity of admission to high school, which is a good thing, has generally been translated into heterogeneous pupil programing, which is a bad thing. As a result, the traditional academic subjects are often watered down and paced for the benefit of the slow learners.

If you think that this is not a fact, ask your son’s algebra teacher how many students are enrolled in her class who are not ready for instruction in this subject. To illustrate, an algebra teacher in the Washington, D. C., school system asked me what she should do about ten pupils in one of her classes who tested at the sixth-grade level or below in arithmetic. “They try hard, and I try hard, too, but they simply can’t do algebra. Shall I pass them or fail them?” I am afraid that in her effort to help them the teacher neglected the brighter pupils in the class and that she diluted the content so that the subject as taught was not algebra in the standard sense at all. My observation has been that many an academic course bears little resemblance to the name given it because the heterogeneity of the class membership has required a simplification of the subject content.

The prevailing doctrine of universal education through high school is one of our nation’s greatest contributions to the democratic ideal, but tragic consequences How steadily from a flaw in the character of the educational planning that has accompanied its development. It is the unwillingness to systematize levels of academic instruction that, in part, impairs the quality of secondary education. To meet the needs of all the students — the bright, the average, the slow — the academic curriculum must be preplanned at different levels of difficulty.

In accordance with the desegregation policy adopted in 1954, Washington’s ten comprehensive high schools are open to any student residing in a defined community, irrespective of race or social or economic status or achievement level, provided he has successfully finished the junior high school.

Under the four-track system adopted in 1956, each student expects, upon entering the high school of his neighborhood, to complete one of four curriculums: the honors, the regular college preparatory, the general, or the basic. If he completes any one of the four, he will be eligible to receive the standard high school diploma.

How the four-track system provides for different academic abilities and interests can be better understood by an examination of the requirements of each curriculum plan.

1. Honors. For completion of this curriculum, the student must complete eighteen units, of which sixteen and a half are required. (A unit represents a year of study five days a week with extensive homework.) These are the honors requirements: English, four years; a foreign language, four years, beginning with the eighth grade; mathematics, three years, beginning in the eighth grade and including elementary and intermediate algebra, plane and solid geometry, and trigonometry; science, three years—biology, chemistry, and physics; and social studies, two and a half years — ancient and medieval history, United States history and government.

The honors student may major in the humanities or in science and mathematics by electing additional subjects in his specialty. He also, of course, may take such subjects as art, music, driver training, shop, or home economics, using his electives for this purpose.

The honors students now take in the eighth grade elementary algebra and their first year of foreign language, both being academic subjects traditionally scheduled for the ninth grade. There is reason to believe that these subjects can be introduced even earlier to honors students. Last year the eighth-grade honors classes made on the average much higher grades in city-wide elementary algebra tests than did the ninth-grade algebra students. We are now offering a modern foreign language to about 2000 able third-graders. As they move up through the four years of foreign language instruction planned for them in the elementary schools, the high school foreign language courses will be scheduled for the academically talented students at an even earlier period than our present eighth-grade placement.

We need to increase the content in all subjects, beginning in the earlier grades, in order to recover the ground lost to the postponement theory (more commonly known as the readiness theory), which in recent years has seduced many American educators into believing that it is better to put off teaching today what can be taught tomorrow. As more substance is infused into the educational blood stream, beginning with the kindergarten, the quality of the traditional high school subjects will be deepened. Ultimately, the work of the eleventh and twelfth grades for the academically talented students will be comparable to that of the first two years of college study.

As the upper senior high school grades begin to include, for the honors and college preparatory students, most of the content of the first or second years of college, there should be a corresponding increase in the depth of college work, which has been adjusted downward for many students whose high school educations leave something to be desired.

To protect the quality of instruction, the honors curriculum is selective. A student is enrolled in this curriculum only if he has demonstrated ability to do superior work by his previous grades, by test scores, and by teacher judgment. Although the modern comprehensive high school is unselective, admission to programs within it may be selective, thus retaining the high-level academic flavor of the college preparatory school along with the good democratic characteristics of the comprehensive school. With an honors curriculum, no parent should find it necessary to send a child to a highly selective private school to obtain the needed intellectual challenge.

2. Regular college preparatory. This curriculum requires the completion of sixteen units, of which eleven and a half are required. These are English, four years, college preparatory level; a foreign language, two years; science, two years; mathematics, two years; and the social studies, one and a half years.

The student may major in the humanities, science, or mathematics and choose electives in art, music, journalism, shop, home economics, and driver education. Admission to this course must be approved by the principal after study of the student’s qualifications for the program. Thus, as in the case of the honors program, admission is selective. While the program is designed as preparatory for college, it offers excellent general background for able students not planning college careers. If I could be, or wanted to be, fully authoritarian on this point, I would require every capable pupil, college bound or not, to choose this or the honors curriculum. The intellectual development most needed for general citizenship can best be attained through study of the great and significant disciplines taught at a demanding and invigorating level.

While most of our more capable students are in the honors or regular college preparatory curriculums, far too many able students complete their high school requirements in the easier general track. Last year, twelfth-grade tests showed that 365 seniors completed the general track program with scores that were as good as those of the upper 50 per cent of the national group with which the test had been standardized. Because the fourtrack system necessitates discriminating study of the characteristics of all the students, it brings to light the usually unrevealed information that many capable students are underachieving and that maximum persuasion, short of authoritarian controls, should be used to motivate them to move up to the more difficult but richer curriculums.

3. The general curriculum. This curriculum requires sixteen units for graduation, of which seven and a half are required. These are English, four years; mathematics, one year; science, one year; social studies, one and a half years. The students in the general curriculum may elect majors in secretarial studies, retailing, clerical studies, bookkeeping, the fine arts, and shop.

Before the development of the four-track program, this was the curriculum for all students. Around this limited center of required subjects, each pupil’s program was developed in accordance with whether he was college bound or expected to terminate his education at high school level. The general curriculum is the widely prevailing system that James B. Conant supported in his 1959 report on The American High School Today. Recommending that every student should have an individualized program, he wrote, “There would be no classification of students according to clearly defined and labeled programs or tracks such as ‘college preparatory.’” He justified his position mainly on the following premise: “A feeling of prestige is apt to be attached to those who are enrolled in an academic program if the school is rigidly divided into groups with different programs.”

To develop much-needed prestige for scholarship in the comprehensive high schools is one of the major objectives of the honors and the college preparatory courses. For far too long, too many bright students have avoided the difficult courses because either it was not fashionable to be too eager intellectually or it was easier to get good grades in the less demanding subjects. It is hard to understand why, although academically talented children really want challenging and demanding classwork, the general curriculum, with its cafeteria-type election of subjects and its bargain-basement rummaging for good grades at reduced prices, continues to receive wide support.

Although the Washington curriculum plan retains the old-time general curriculum, around which individualized programs may be developed, the number who elect the stronger courses is increasing. Some who elect the general curriculum, moreover, are programed for subjects in the more difficult tracks when they qualify. Thus an academically talented student may take honors English or mathematics or science, for example, even though he does not want or is disqualified for the full sequence in the honors curriculum.

As the aspirations of pupils and parents are upgraded in this school system and skill in the use of the four-track system develops, it is likely that the time will come when few of the academically talented students will elect the general curriculum. We are beginning to believe that, having made the academic curriculums selective, we have caused a step-up in the tempo of effort in the grades preceding high school. Being allowed no longer to drift into the subjects of their choice, some pupils, with the help of their parents and teachers, seem to be working harder to get ready for admission to the honors and regular college preparatory courses.

4. The basic curriculum. This curriculum requires the completion of sixteen units, of which ten and a half are required. These are basic English, four years; basic arithmetic, one year; basic science, one year; basic social studies, two and a half years; basic business practice, one year; basic shop for boys and home economics for girls, one year.

This curriculum is for the academically delayed high school student, as indicated by standardized test scores in reading and mathematics, academic grades, and teacher opinion. Although the cut-off point is sixth grade or below in reading or mathematics tests, test scores alone are not an adequate index to placement in this curriculum. Teacher opinion is of first importance, because after long observation of the pupil in action, the teacher knows much better than either intelligence or achievement tests can show how the student can read or use mathematics or write and speak and what his drives and motivations are, the latter being of unusual importance in predicting the degree of difficulty he can face and master.

The two objectives of the basic curriculum are to upgrade the academic achievement of retarded pupils and to provide continued profitable education for those whose innate endowments, so far as they are reflected in performance, limit the range and difficulty of learning. If a student, for example, seems unable to learn to read beyond sixth-grade difficulty, he nevertheless can acquire much information in a horizontal study of appropriate materials in history, geography, business practices, science, arithmetic, and interpretation of current events. He needs the fullest capability he can muster in the use of the printed word, so that he can avoid the despair felt by the functional illiterate. I have in mind a painter who was afraid he would lose his job as soon as his employer found out he couldn’t read the directions on the paint can.

Shunting these students onto a sidetrack of socalled nonacademic education or forcing them to leave school is incredibly stupid and inhumane. There are many such students in the Washington high schools who need a carefully tailored academic program. In the fall of 1955, a study of achievement test scores of the tenth-graders made us aware of the fact that 1004 of 4155 who had taken standardized achievement tests the spring before were at or below the sixth-grade level in reading. Two had actually scored at the thirdgrade level, 75 at the fourth-grade, and 333 at the fifth-grade. In arithmetic, the number at these levels was even larger. Of 3979 pupils then in the tenth grade, 1798 tested at or below the sixth-grade level.

Multiple causes contributed to this set of facts. Among them were denial of necessary educational opportunity under the segregated system, unsatisfactory home and community conditions, and inherent intellectual incapacity. But these facts make necessary the establishment of a basic curriculum, unless we want to accept the view of one “educator” who told me, “These kids don’t belong in high school. In my school they soon flunk out.”

A KNOWLEDGE of the philosophical premises underlying the four-track system will contribute to a clearer understanding of its basic values and objectives.

1. The primary responsibility of the schools is to promote intelligent behavior. By intelligent behavior is meant acting with reason in the face of any problem. It is the difference between explosive trial-and-error responses to problems and controlled and ordered responses. It includes searching for and employing information in the solution of problems. It means being conscious of and aggressively pursuing new avenues of rewarding experiences.

The quality of intellectual behavior is relative to the individual’s endowments. Except for the severely handicapped, it is a universal gift to be developed at the level of the individual’s capacity to respond.

2. The basic academic subjects are indispensable to the formation of intelligent behavior. The subjects which contribute most to man’s skill in being intelligent about himself and his surroundings are his native language, mathematics, science, and the humanities, which include literature, history, geography, studies of social behavior, and languages.

3. The school subjects which promote intelligent behavior should be required of all pupils, the bright, average, and slow, at the level of difficulty at which they are ready to respond. The emphasis upon developing intelligent behavior, therefore, is inherent in each of the four tracks. The uniqueness of the four-track system is its emphasis upon academic subjects as the essential organizing principle, with differences in levels to meet differences in abilities and with electives to satisfy major interests.

4. Because the purpose of education is to upgrade human behavior, curriculum organization should encourage students, through their own efforts, to seek higher levels of opportunity. The climate should be favorable for such growth.

This should bring an end to the attitude sometimes found among high school youth that one should do by deliberate choice less than he is capable of doing as a means of reducing the competitive level and being in with his peers.

5. The curriculum ought to be selectively organized in coordination with the dominant disciplines. This simply means that the schools should selectively teach the systems of human knowledge as they are organized at any given time in history. It is not the function of the schools to assume the role of scholarship in a reorientation of human knowledge. As the scholars in any of the several fields may produce regroupings of knowledge, after experience has confirmed the soundness of such efforts the schools may sensibly change content and classification.

6. The four-track curriculum presupposes organized and systematic instruction in the basic subjects.

School is not life; it is an environment created for the purpose of organized instruction. Attempts to create the school in the image of life experiences have produced monstrous confusions, an illustration of which is a requisition submitted by a teacher for a kangaroo so that she could properly “teach Australia.” The classroom, the school itself ought to be vital, life-related, and stimulating, but this is best achieved by the quality of instruction which makes subjects meaningful in relation to experience rather than by attempts to convert the classrooms into replicas of life environments.

While scientific evidence is not obtainable to prove that the four-track system is better than the individualized curriculum system it replaced, a fair number of reliable and impartial indexes of its success are available.

The first is that flexibility of placement is being achieved. An important result of tracking within a comprehensive high school is the preservation of the democratic advantage of keeping students of all possible abilities, purposes, backgrounds, and achievements together under one roof. One of the intensive philosophical debates which preceded the final development of the four-track system was on the issue, “Should the academically talented and the slow student be assigned to special and separate schools?” The four-track answer was “No.” The flexibility, the practicability, and the rightness of a school organization like the tourtrack system outweighed the doubtful advantages of separate schools for different academic objectives.

As to flexibility — that is, movement from track to track — we found, when the first four-track class graduated in 1959, that about one pupil in seven had changed tracks during his three senior high school years. This includes 127 who began as basic curriculum students and moved up to more difficult levels, proving that, with the advantage of track variation under the roof of a comprehensive high school, pupils can and do upgrade their achievements and qualify lor more strenuous courses.

A second test is whether students have been, generally speaking, directed to the curriculum level most suited to their needs.

Placement by levels has required stricter, more thorough pupil study than was necessary under the old system. The making of programs was formerly largely up to the pupils, with all too little school counseling, and the pupil selections represented in the main personal preferences rather than an objective and intelligent making of choices within the limits imposed by the requirements of the curriculum levels.

Although counseling service must be increased in this school system, students are being assigned to their proper courses, and if they have the competitive spirit for self-improvement, they change over to more difficult curriculum levels.

An important end product of the four-track system is the forcing into the open of problems that had heretofore been less clearly defined and much less imposing in their demand for solution. Among these is how to adapt teaching techniques to the behaviorial characteristics of the fast and slow learners. When these students are in class together, their special needs are often overlooked. Special methods of instruction are rarely developed.

A related special need is the selection of curriculum content for the gifted and the slow. The formation of special groupings highlights the fact that the gifted need not more gross tonnage of materials but selected and carefully evaluated opportunities for creative learning. As for the slow learners, curriculum makers and textbook publishers generally have been curiously unconcerned about the preparation of suitable syllabuses. It must be said that the most difficult task is the selection of curriculum items and the formulation of teaching methods geared to the special characteristics of learners at different levels of ability.

Another index of how the four-track system is working is the change in the achievement levels as shown by standardized testing. We have found that the four-track groups are improving achievements at better than a normal rate.

A comparison of the achievement scores of 275 students graduated from the honors curriculum in 1959 with those of the top 275 graduates in 1958 who had not followed the honors curriculum was made by a graduate student at the University of Maryland. Both groups were almost identical in potential for high school achievement, but the 1959 group excelled the 1958 group in the College Board examinations and in standardized tests in the social studies, use of English, science, and mathematics.

A broader measure of change in academic achievement was found in a comparison of the scores made by nearly 2500 of the 1959 graduates in comparable tests taken as ninth-graders and twelfth-graders. In two of the test sections, this group made much faster growth in achievement than would normally be expected. For example, the median percentile in social studies jumped from nineteen in 1956 to forty-two in 1959. Thus, in this test, this group more than doubled its median achievement index over a period of two years and eight months of instruction. In the test of correctness of expression, this same group of about 2500 graduates jumped their ninth-grade median percentile from fifty-four to seventy-two.

A higher than normal rate of growth in achievement was similarly recorded for nearly 2300 of the 1960 graduates who completed their work in the first three tracks.

In the main, then, higher than expected gains in achievement are indicated in the results of the standardized testing program. This progress is occurring subsequent to the establishment of the four-track system, the experience of desegregation, and the intensified effort here to improve academic achievements.

It would be difficult to prove that the fourtrack curriculum organization is the chief cause of the noticeable gains being registered here among high school students. My personal conviction is that the ability grouping system is making an important contribution to the improvement of education in this school system. My deep philosophical prejudice is in favor of an educational program that makes a maximum challenge a possibility for every high school student and yet preserves the democratic characteristics of the comprehensive high school. I believe that all American secondary schools are going to come, sooner or later, to something like the four-track system.