3rd Grade Retention and Ability Grouping Tradeoffs


FAILED1The Florida School Board Association (FSBA) is shifting ground on third grade student retention criteria.    Such issues make me think about ability grouping in general.  Are we going overboard?

Are we putting huge pressure on kids not only to ‘get to grade level’ but also to be ‘gifted’ or ‘highly gifted’?  Do all children feel like they have a FSA proficiency level painted on their T-shirts?  This is an age old issue of grouping and tracking vs. diverse ability classrooms where children have different strengths and weaknesses regardless of “I.Q.” as measured by a test?

The FSBA wants more evidence than a single test score to determine student achievement.  Fair enough, but there is more to think about!  In a newly adopted platform, the FSBA calls for three revisions to current practice in retaining third graders:


  1. Clearly defined alternative pathways to promotion and retention that consider both test scores and local evidence of student  performance.
  2. Decisions about promotion and retention are made only at the local level
  3. Retention and promotion are not dependent upon or denied by a single test score

Districts are responding in a variety of  ways to Appeals Judge Gievers’ decision to overrule district retention of third graders who merely broke the seal of their Florida Standards Assessment test books but did not respond to questions.  Some districts now are compiling portfolios of student work to demonstrate competency.

Retention of third graders has long been controversial, and a loophole allows retained children to be promoted mid year to fourth grade if their reading levels improve.  These children may still be at least six months behind other fourth graders, but support for them to catch up once they have been promoted is a concern.

How are schools organized to help children with a wide range of achievement?

It is becoming more common to assign children to classes based on their achievement levels—-tracking.  Yet, the NEA opposes the practice.  In Chicago, where school choice is so strongly implemented, students are tracked into high schools based on their achievement levels.  Expectations clearly are not the same for children at each school.

Any teacher knows that it is difficult to manage groups of children with different abilities in the same classroom.  Any teacher also knows the impact of separating children by ability.  Which set of problems educators choose to deal with must be based on the larger consequences of a ‘separate, but not equal’ approach to learning.

Some schools design systems where diverse ability groups are assigned to the same class but then smaller groups are pulled into special activity sessions during the day depending upon the child’s need or interest.  This may be the ‘best of all worlds approach’, but it takes more organization and perhaps different staffing.

Knowing how your district handles the ‘separate but equal’ issue could be illuminating.  Start at the classroom level.  How are kids assigned?  How is the entire school organized to meet different ability groups?  What is the district approach (Consider charters, private schools, magnets and other choice options)?  How does the organization of a classroom, a school, or a district make children and families feel?

A while back I posted a story about the U.F. laboratory schools’ Edutopia award for innovation.  I include it here as an example of a different way of thinking about grouping kids to help them learn.  School choice is all about separating kids and communities.  See how to accommodate diversity in practical ways gives hope for the future of our schools.



Posted in Achievement, Civil Rights, Department of Education, Florida, Florida House, Public Education, Testing.

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