Tracking, or grouping students by ability, is one of the single most controversial topics in education. It is a practice that impacts students, teachers, administrators, and of course, families as they seek the best possible education for their child. Whether a child is grouped with students with similar abilities, greater abilities, or lesser abilities will affect the outcomes for learning differently.
Deciding how to group students during instruction falls on the teacher, first and foremost. To teach reading or math to a group of 3rd graders, the decision has to be made how to teach to all the students in the class so that no child is behind and no child is bored. Often a teacher will start a lesson by modeling some skill, then break the students into groups to practice. If the students are grouped by ability, each student will progress to roughly the same place as their like-abled peers. If not grouped by ability, some students will learn from others and some will have the opportunity to teach. In reality, both are effective in different ways.
Grouping by ability keeps the social interaction, group think, collaboration in learning. In Math, it can be very effective because groups tend to solve problems together well and if students are working at the same level they will benefit from observing the different ways their peers are trying to solve the problem. In English, a group of students who read together may be grouped differently and one or two students are able to take a leadership role while others learn from their peers. This too keeps the social interaction in learning; it allows some students to learn through teaching and others to learn from someone who is not their teacher, which often helps.
Another aspect of this debate is where Gifted and Talented programs exist. Those programs also have the effect of tracking because they take the brightest students out of the general classroom populations. Some argue that Gifted and Talented, Honors or Advanced Placement should have more open criteria options, some argue that would dilute the programs. There is no easy answer on that, all parents want their kid to have opportunity and they want the opportunity to be fair.
The issue of tracking and how to group students to maximize their learning will continue as long as there are 20 kids in a classroom. The best thing to do, as a parent, is to help your child understand the benefits of being grouped with similarly abled students and diversely abled students. Make clear that they can take leadership roles, collaborative roles, and the experiences will help them define their abilities and how they can best be used in any endeavor.
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