What if schools abolished grade levels?

Grouping students according to ability is one of the most challenging issues in education. On the one hand, strict tracking programs that poorly identify students and allow little fluidity between tracks can unfairly trap low-income and minority students into low-level groups that perpetuate inequality. On the other hand, individual students (as opposed to groups) do vary in ability, and it makes little sense to include in a single classroom a student ready for calculus and another who struggles with basic arithmetic.

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A number of schools, however, are avoiding this Hobson’s choice by employing a hybrid approach. As Michael Petrilli, the president of the conservative Fordham Institute notes, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School in Maryland, which educates the children of ambassadors alongside the children of maids, has eliminated tracking in biology and now teaches mixed-ability classes. Within these classes, particularly gifted students are given more challenging assignments that go into greater depth than others. This system works well, Petrilli says: “B-CC continues to excel academically while also making the most of its rich diversity.” Likewise, schools will be strategic about the use of ability grouping, employing the practice more consistently in high school than in elementary school, where differences in manifest ability are smaller, and more in certain subjects, such as mathematics, than in others, such as civics, where democratic accessibility is a key message of the curriculum itself.

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