Skill-Based Sorting in the Era of College Prep for All: Costs and Benefits

March, 2014
Takako Nomi and Elaine Allensworth
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How students are sorted into classrooms by skill level can have as much of an effect on their achievement as the content they are taught.

Skill-Based Sorting in the Era of College Prep for All examines the effects of two curricular reforms by Chicago Public Schools, one that sorted students into algebra classes based on skill level and another that de-sorted students.  "What this study makes clear," author and UChicago Lewis-Sebring Director Elaine Allensworth says, "is that for students at both ends of the skill spectrum, there are costs and benefits of sorting and of not sorting. And there are clear implications for supporting students and teachers, depending on which strategy schools choose."

Key findings from the report include:

  • Overall, test scores improve when students are sorted by skill level.  Low-skilled students have slightly lower test scores with sorting, while high-skilled students have substantially higher test scores.
  • The grades and pass rates of high-skilled students decline, while the grades of low-skilled students improve.
  • When classes are sorted by skill level, low-skilled students are at higher risk of being in disruptive classrooms and thus, weaker instructional environments. Teachers in these classrooms need support around classroom management and getting students engaged in challenging work.

"We hope this report can be used to think about which students and teachers need support," says report co-author Takako Nomi, an assistant professor at St. Louis University. "This is a particularly timely question as the Common Core Curriculum requires schools to think intentionally about how to ensure students at all skill levels are able to engage in a common curriculum."

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