Different abilities taught in same class Bates Middle students grouped regardless of learning level

March 19, 1998|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

In a social studies class at Severn River Middle School in Arnold, when teacher Louisa Troutner tried a lesson recently on ancient India, one sixth-grader stretched out on the floor and another announced: "I hate this stupid stuff!"

Troutner told one student to quit chewing gum, another to stop getting ready to leave before the bell rang and another not to stick out her tongue. When she talked about karma, no one paid attention; when she talked about Buddhism, a girl yelled "Booty-ism!" and the class erupted in laughter.

At Severn River, like every middle school in Anne Arundel County except one, students are "tracked," grouped by their perceived abilities into separate classes. And it doesn't take an education expert to see when a teacher like Troutner is stuck in the class period where the school's discipline problems, throwaways, and slow learners have been sent.

They don't have classes like that anymore at Bates Middle School, five miles away in Annapolis. Principal Sarah McGowan has thrown out tracking and taken the risk of desegregating bright and slow students.

Her experiment was inspired several years ago when she saw that ability grouping also had segregated Bates students by race. The smart classes were all white, and the slow ones were all black, she said.

A $50,000 state grant in 1994 that paid for teacher retraining let her begin to eliminate tracking in sixth-grade classes; by September last year, the school had ended tracking.

This is the second school year that McGowan has mixed all 661 of her students together, telling teachers to give everyone the same lessons and to vary tests and homework assignments according to students' skills.

The outcome:

Discipline problems are down. In the 1994-1995 school year, for example, students were sent to the office for acting up 2,259 times. In the 1996-1997 school year, the number was 1,118.

The percentage of satisfactory eighth-grade MSPAP scores in reading rose from 25.5 in 1993 to 31.5 in 1996.

Students at Bates, where 52.3 percent of students are white, 43.3 percent are black, 2 percent are Asian and 2 percent are Hispanic, say they like learning from each other, and parents say they like their children to be exposed to students of different backgrounds. "For us," McGowan said, "this seems to be on the road to the right answer."

It's the right answer nationwide, according to the National Middle School Association in Columbus, Ohio. Separating smarter students "tends to cater to their sense of being special, the favored ones," said publications editor John H. Lounsbury. "At -- the middle school level, it's especially important that we not label people needlessly. We want them all to exploit their potential at this key point in life."

Bates social studies teacher Tambra Walker McKim was one of the first to teach social studies to a mixed class, and she was skeptical at first. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh. Mix them all together?' " she said.

She's a believer now. During a recent lesson, her eighth-graders sat in threes made up of high-, middle- and low-level students. McKim had them represent different states and work out a compromise on a state law; as homework, they had to write a letter supporting their decision.

It wasn't obvious who was at what level as students exchanged ideas about tobacco laws in the 1800s. McKim said all of her students made some of the same mistakes. "Following directions is a skill that everybody needs," she said. "I haven't found that my higher-level kids follow directions any better."

She does expect higher-level students to turn in longer, more polished letters, and when she marks tests and homework, "my grading [will take into account] the fact that some students will not be able to get everything, and that's OK."

On another floor, math teacher Joy Donlin taught ratios by having students compare yellow cubes in a bucket to blue cubes or to all of the cubes.

Race and level seemed unrelated. A black student grudgingly opened his notebook, slouching uninterestedly and looking put-upon. Two other black students volunteered to solve ratio problems on the overhead projector. Donlin said they were in the "challenge" or advanced, group.

Donlin, a pioneer in the mixing experiment, found it successful from the start.

"Students began to piggyback off other students' responses," wrote county math expert Anita Morris in an evaluation of a Donlin lesson. "It was obvious that all students were engaged in the activity at various levels and instruction was not geared just to the middle but to the needs of all students."

"The model I use with them is the math clothes that fit you best," Donlin said.

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