TAMPA — Bobby is a high flier in math. Susie is reading high school books. And Sally struggles every day in both subjects.
Do they all belong in the same third-grade classroom next year?
Maybe not, according to the research behind a new federally funded study being carried out this spring in Hillsborough County.
Teachers in 21 elementary schools are now placing students in classes for this coming fall using test data and other measures of student achievement, said Barbara Hancock, general director of elementary education.
But don't call it tracking.
Unlike the old-style ability grouping systems that got parents riled, she said, students will now be clustered strategically with students from several achievement levels.
The goal is to reduce the range of levels in any classroom so teachers can reach students more effectively.
"This is research-based," Hancock said, describing the original 1999 study from the Gifted Education Resource Institute at Purdue University. "By using this, they had fewer students performing at lower levels and more students performing at higher levels."
The five-year program — which is being conducted in more than 50 schools in eight states, including Florida — is backed by a $448,052 grant from the federal Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program.
Lead researcher Marcia L. Gentry said every teacher in those schools gets gifted education training under the initiative, rather than reserving it for those who serve gifted students under narrow, IQ-based definitions.
"What I'm trying to do is help all teachers to get better at spotting and developing talent among their kids," said Gentry, a professor of education at Purdue.
In Hillsborough, schools balance classrooms as carefully as they can for academic achievement, gender, race, personalities and other factors, Hancock said.
Now teachers and principals at the 21 schools in the study are also putting students in all grades into five groups, based on achievement in reading and math.
Test scores matter in making those decisions, she said, but so does teacher input.
Top students are separated from those right below them, so the up-and-comers can shine. And those at the top aren't mixed with those at the very bottom.
"If you do that, those lower kids hide," Gentry said. "And they stay low and drop out."
The 1999 case study covered just two schools in Michigan. But subsequent research confirmed its findings, showing student gains at all levels, Gentry said.
Hillsborough officials said they liked the focus on giving teachers new strategies for teaching to a range of student abilities.
"It's much more effective when you're dealing with three different levels or possibly four, rather than five," said gifted education supervisor Lauri Kirsch. "So we allow talents to bubble up."
Cheryl Holley, the principal at Schwarzkopf Elementary in Lutz, said early elementary teachers face a daunting range of student abilities.
"You have children who are just learning their letters, along with students who can read quite well," she said, voicing enthusiasm for the new grouping plan.
Others are "not in that upper extreme, but they're very talented and they need some enrichment," Holley said. "I think with this program they're going to get that."
District officials acknowledged that they might have done a better job of informing the public about the program, and countering rumors that it's all about ability grouping.
In an e-mail, Gentry said that "all participating districts had board approval to engage with the research."
But two Hillsborough board members contacted Thursday by the St. Petersburg Times said that didn't happen.
"I haven't heard anything about it," said member April Griffin.
Candy Olson said she would have expected the board to be notified about changes to student placement procedures at 21 schools, as well as participation in a federal study.
By Friday, she said district officials had explained the initiative to her and she felt more comfortable with it.
"It's really a way of strategically grouping kids for effective learning," Olson said. "I don't think it's a departure, or at least not a radical departure, from what we've done before."