Lynn Jordan of Annapolis noticed that as a parent at Severn River Middle School. When her daughter Bridgette, now 15, was in middle school, "I didn't know enough then to insist that she be put in pre-algebra in 6th grade and algebra in the 7th grade," Jordan said. "I didn't realize that was available and something I needed to push for, and I was sort of upset about it."
With her second daughter, Danielle, who is two years younger, Jordan was more assertive -- and found she didn't necessarily need to be. In a scant few years, expectations at the school had shifted so that more students were working on higher-level math. More students now are in what Jordan calls "the above-average group" than in the average one, she said.
How can a parent figure all of this out in a way that helps his or her child?
Regardless of a student's ability, classroom groups work best for the most children when they are flexible and change frequently, based on constant assessment by teachers, experts say.
A child's pace of development may influence, for example, whether or not she can handle advanced math at a given point, said Penny Zimring, instructional facilitator for the gifted and talented education program in the Howard County school district. "Everybody's not ready at the same time," she said, "but that doesn't mean that they're never ready."
Jane Sundius, director of the education and youth development program at the Open Society Institute in Baltimore and a mother of three, recommends talking to other parents with students in the next level of school. "What programs were their children in at the local elementary or middle school?" Sundius said. "Did they have any barriers?"
At school open houses, parents can observe groups and take a look at the materials they're using. "What you love to see is a classroom library where you can choose books of different levels -- a just-right book, a hard book," Sundius said.
Bryan C. Hassel, author of The Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child's School With Confidence (Armchair Press, 2004, $19.95), said parents should ask specific questions of principals and teachers. "Look for examples of kids moving around during the year, in line with what and how they're learning," he said.
Address specific needs
It's especially important for the parent of a child with learning disabilities or ADHD to pay attention.
"I would want the instruction and the classroom environment to be challenging and interesting to the child," said Peg Dawson, a psychologist in Portsmouth, N.H, who has studied ability grouping. "It's the higher-level groups that tend to meet that definition. ... Then you ask, 'How are you going to be able to accommodate my child?'"
Experts say groups can be experimental, and fleeting -- addressing specific problems some students might have within a subject.
Shawn Burks of Hamilton appreciated it when her daughter's third-grade teachers at Glenmount Elementary-Middle School created a girls' group for math. Working together kept them from being intimidated by a group of boys for whom the subject seemed easier.
"That worked pretty well," Burks said, noting that her daughter, Kree Butler-Holt, has stayed on grade level.
As long as Kree is happy in school, Burks said she sees no need to push the girl to work with a more challenging group.
"I don't want it to be overwhelming to her in the fourth grade," the mother said. "She's at the point where she's eager."
Groups that work
What should you know about your school's approach to instructional grouping? In The Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child's School With Confidence, authors Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel offer some tips:
Groups should be organized by "current knowledge" or skill levels, not set in stone from the beginning of the year to the end.
Teachers should assess students frequently and groupings should change accordingly.
Small-group learning should be used to engage and challenge your child, not to lower expectations.
Research in reading instruction shows groups of up to four students can be as effective as one-on-one instruction. If the students' abilities are similar, the group can be a bit larger.