Skill-Based Sorting in the Era of College Prep for All: Costs and Benefits

To sort or not to sort? That question vexes many schools. And still will, despite this new research brief, which summarizes pros and cons of tracking students by skill level but fails to resolve anything. The authors looked at a number of studies of the effects of two Chicago Public Schools policies—one that reduced skill-based sorting and one that increased it. They found that sorting improves high-skill students’ test scores and raises low-skill students’ grades and pass rates. On the other hand, low-skill students see no change in their test scores and are more likely to have a weak instructional environment, primarily because of increased behavior problems, while high-skill students see a dip in their grades and pass rates. A mixed bag indeed. Leading the authors to conclude that neither policy is clearly superior for any group of students. I beg to differ. The evidence indicates that students learn more in sorted classroom. Full stop. Low-skill students learn the same but are less likely to fail, while high-skill students learn more. That’s a net gain for society. If the grades of high-skill students decrease even though they learn more, sorting isn’t the problem—grading is. Fix that, but don’t revert back to a higher-grade, lower-learning policy! Moreover, the answer to behavioral problems is not to evenly distribute troublesome pupils throughout the school, causing more teachers—and students—to experience disruption. The answer is to deal with behavioral problems directly and effectively by giving those students extra attention and providing their teachers with extra support and training. If schools do this, they can both reap the benefits of sorting and minimize the drawbacks.

SOURCE: Takako Nomi and Elaine Allensworth, “Skill-Based Sorting in the Era of College Prep for All” (University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, March 2014).

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