Ability grouping: issues and concerns?

Recently, a reader wrote with a question and a situation.   

“I was looking at your website, and I was unable to find the answer to this question.  Is ability grouping allowed under Pennsylvania law?  In other words, a school has four classes for each grade level, and the students are grouped into four ability levels, from high achieving to low.  I've heard conflicting answers would like your insights.”

As readers know, I cannot give specific legal advice through this Blog.  But I can give my thoughts, generally (and welcome to hear yours), about this situation, so here goes. 

I am not aware of any specific legal prohibitions on ability grouping as a general matter; however, certain circumstances might present problems for a school. But first, what we do know is that gifted and special education both support the notion of, at least, narrow ability grouping. 

At the higher end (whether gifted, disabled, or neither), many schools offer Advanced Placement and honors courses, which by their nature, are groupings by ability to achieve in that subject. Many schools also use a “pull-out” style of program to offer enrichment to gifted children, especially at the elementary level (I am not addressing this further, today).

On the opposite side, special education laws have always presented tension between the opposite forces of placement in the least restrictive environment (“LRE”), known as “inclusion” or “mainstreaming” versus grouping by common needs for more intensive instruction.  

This tension can, I believe, carry over where ability grouping and the individual LRE right meet each other. Ability grouping is a broader application of common grouping for intensive, level-appropriate instruction. This does seem to make sense. But, depending on the make-up of the various ability levels, a student or group of students might argue the grouping violates the LRE right. That is, a particular level might have a statistically too high number of special education students thereby rendering the apparent LRE placement illusory.

In such a case, that would essentially be a segregated setting, which brings up a final concern: discrimination. If minority or protected class students make up a disproportionate number of students in a particular track, the school could be open to charges of improper segregation and discrimination.

The lesson is that a school using ability grouping is probably doing so for legitimate pedagogical reasons. But the school must be aware of how the student population is grouped as factors other than just ability can have serious consequences.