Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Should We Provide Ability-Based Tracking in Our School?

We received a question on the All Things PLC website from a high school English department that was in the process of revising its curriculum. The school offered three levels at each grade level based on the rigor of the course. They wrote:

Currently we have three courses of American Literature for 10th grade students. One course if for the "middle of the road" student who doesn’t struggle with comprehension or writing and has retained previous skills from grades K-9 that will aid in success and give new skills for courses in grades 11 and 12. One course is for students who excel in reading and writing and want to push themselves to prepare for AP or College level courses in grades 11 and 12. And, finally, one course is for those who struggle with reading and writing and haven’t retained skills from previous grades. These students will work toward re-obtaining those skills and prepare to move to courses in grades 11 and 12 which could be lower rigor in nature as well depending upon the skill level increase.

The teachers were asking if the outcomes of the courses should be the same for all students, but the materials with which they worked would vary in rigor based on the level of the course. This is a question many schools are addressing, particularly in light of the Common Core State Standards in Language Arts.

My response is below:

I got your question regarding whether or not the outcomes should be the same for the 3 different levels of English classes you offer. You indicated that the levels were based on "rigor."  I would argue that the only reason to have 3 different levels is that you have 3 very different outcomes in mind.

For example, in my former high school we had three levels of English classes. They were as follows:

  1. Honors: College level. This series of courses prepared students for success in the Advanced Placement program and test. It gave students access to college-level courses while in high school
  2. Regular: College Preparatory: This series of courses prepared students for success in college English but did not give them access to college-level courses. The goal was to ensure students would succeed in Freshman English at the university without the need for remedial courses.
  3. Accelerated: This series of course was offered only in the freshman and sophomore years for students who were reading far below grade level and could not be expected to succeed in the College Preparatory level. The goal was very specific - to accelerate student learning by providing them with a double block of English and tutorial time so that by the time they were juniors, they could move into and succeed in the College Preparatory program. The objective was not to serve as a four-year remedial program but a two-year launching pad because as juniors, the lowest level course available was College Preparatory. We recognized that not all students would elect to go to college, but we believed that those who did not still needed to be able to read text closely, write persuasively, etc.

So if you are going to have 3 levels, you must start with a clearly defined purpose for each level. Furthermore, the lowest level must be designed to accelerate student learning so that those students move out of it while in high school. Absent this plan to accelerate student learning you have simply created a remedial track that widens the achievement gap. There is abundant research that a four-year remedial program is detrimental to student learning and conveys a message of low expectations on the part of the school. You really need to rethink your 4-year remedial program. There is no research to support it.

I would also caution you about excluding students from rigorous curriculum. We would recommend courses to students and their parents, but if they wanted to enroll in a more challenging curriculum we allowed them to do so, with the caveat that we would review their placement at the end of the first grading period and if they were not passing we would move them to a different level. We discovered that we were not infallible, and that some students that we thought would flounder were so motivated that they would put in the extra time and effort to flourish in curriculum that was challenging for them.

The bottom line is that every student who enrolls in your school is entitled to be prepared for success on high stakes tests and should have the knowledge and skills to pursue some form of education beyond high school. That is the very premise of the Common Core State Standards, and the key word there is common. So in that sense, there must be a rigorous baseline of proficiency for all students; however, students in advanced curriculum should be expected to achieve well beyond that baseline, otherwise there is no justification for creating that level. The only exception to this generalization would be those students who have a handicapping condition that is so severe and profound that their IEPs establish very different goals for them.

It is certainly acceptable to select texts based on the intended outcomes of the different levels of your curriculum, but your team should spend a lot more time clearly defining the purpose and outcomes of the different levels than selecting materials based on your perceptions of rigor.



I am a middle school teacher who works with learning disabled and struggling learners at the 6th-8th grade level. There was a time when I would have had a problem with tracking students and ability grouping. After working with my current group of students for the last two years, however, I realize that might help some of our struggling students. The way it is now, all students who are not in a self-contained special education setting, even if they are multiple years behind academically, are given grade level assessments, like the mainstream students. My students are seen as "collateral damage". Most know they will not pass these tests. They are seen as automatic failures. I don't think that is the way they should be seen. I think there must be a better way to assess and teach these students that will still challenge them, and allow them to grow academically instead of making everything they try so difficult that it sets them up for failure and future drop out.

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We have attempted ability groupings at our elementary school. We divided 3 classes into 3 groups, high, middle, and low. There was a year when this was done and showed improved results for all students. This was because all three teachers held high expectations and taught the exact same curriculum and used the exact same assessments to determine student learning. By the end of the year, all students in that grade level improved. However, the pilot grade level was the only one that has worked. The reason for the failure was that the teachers of the other "low" groups had low expectations of their students. They used different assessments because they determined the other tests were too hard. An additional problem is that the students recognized that they were in the "low" group and, if the teachers have low expectations of them, they decided they were stupid and not capable of doing well. They ended up not trying as hard to succeed.

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I am a third grade teacher and for years I never thought that students should be "tracked" at such a young age. My viewpoint has shifted greatly after trying this for math a few years ago. Myself and two other teachers decided to try splitting our students into ability-based groups. We teamed up with the math lab and were able to create 4 groups. All the groups were required to complete the grade level materials, but the ability based groups allowed each room to move at a pace appropriate to the students within. The higher groups were able to quickly move through the basics and move on to higher level problem solving. The lowest group was the smallest group and was provided with extra paraprofessional support. This worked really well for the students, as well as the teachers. The most important thing that we did was to pretest all of the students before each unit. This allowed them to move into a different group (if needed) for each unit. For example, they might be in the highest group for geometry and a lower group for place value. We only were able to do this grouping for one school year (due to scheduling and budget cuts), but I often look back to all the opportunities that were afforded to the students during that school year.

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We are using the accelerated approach for "Advanced" classes 6-8. It is working well and we are finding our teachers are utilizing some of the advanced activities and lessons for their "regular" classes with a great deal of success. The advanced classes have pushed our teachers to gain a full understanding of rigor for all students

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Lucretia Brown

I am a first grade teacher. We skills group the students to enhance their performance. We are fortunate to have excellent educational assistants who work with our students with individual education plans. We do not expect all students to achieve the same outcome as far as their abilities, but we do expect the same outcome as far as their performance improvement. For that to be successful, our faculty must work together as a team. Our PLC groups discuss student performance and ways to develop our professional performance to best meet their needs. Our groups are fluid, so we work together to maintain curriculum consistency in the event the a student needs to move to a different skill level. It works extremely well if the teachers work well together and constantly communicate.

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I am a first grade teacher who is struggling to get the teachers I work with to all give the same assessments. We are split with our beliefs on how to assess. I have a problem with this because our students are all tested the same way with our end of the year test so why not assess them the same after each lesson has been taught. I am not saying we all have to teach the lesson the same but I feel the standard should be assessed the same way. This is the only way we can truely measure if the students are mastering the standard. I don't understand why it's so difficult for some to understand this. I teach a co-teach classroom and we are expected to teach our special education students the standards and assess them. It would make things a lot easier if we assessed according to the standard taught. We could get a true picture of where the students are at.

I am not sure about the different levels of classes. I don't understand why the high school does this. I feel each student should get the same exposure to the standards taught. I understand all students are not developmentally at the same level but we are expected to test them the same so why wouldn't the outcome be the same?

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I truly appreciate Mr. DuFour's response. I am experiencing what in Learning by Doing is pointed out as "coblaboration." In fact orver the 3-4 years we have been supposedly doing PLC work, our school has become a clear example of an organization that does not do the right work. We use the terms, but from the purpose to the common assessments we have not done the hard work of changing what a high school does so that we truly focus on learning. While our principal has attended Solution Tree workshops with many teachers and spent thousands of professional devleopment dollars, I have studied what we need to be doing if we really meant what we say about learning. I have tried with great frustration to implement the ideas in my classroom despite the lack of real change in our building. It has been difficult to say the least.
This year I have finally realized, that our school will not change with the leadership we have. I have started looking around the Puget Sound/Seattle area for schools that are serious about focusing on learning and learning communities. That is difficult to find. White River School district where Janel Keating is superintendent is the only one I have found so far. I will be visiting there this month.
What can I do? I have tried for over four years to help lead our school. I have worked many years before that in our district to change to a focus on learning. WA state says it wants reform and they are focused on teacher evaluations. But the people administering the evaluations are the same people who don't know how to focus on learning.
I see my only option is to find a school or district that is serious and get there somehow. Do you have any other ideas? And, by chance, do you know of any schools or districts in my area I can contact to at least talk to people who are serious?
I did not intend for this to be a complaint. This is a serious problem in my view.
Thank you for your time.
Keith Orr

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