Flexible Grouping: “To Have or Not to Have” an Influence on CRCT Scores

Introduction

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires that all students in the United States show clear progress towards meeting educational performance standards in mathematics, English/language Arts (ELA), social studies and the sciences (Abedi & Dietel, 2004). In an effort to measure this progress, high-stakes examinations, such as the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) are used to determine student academic achievement and to assist in decisions related to student promotion and retention. In an effort to increase student achievement, teachers apply a combination of learning techniques and strategies. Flexible grouping is one strategy currently utilized in schools that involves dividing students into groups according to their strengths and abilities (Heacox, 2002), allowing the teacher to tailor instruction to the unique needs of the small group. Flexible grouping also allows for a variety of instructional formats, including teacher-led and student-led approaches. Flexible grouping is a relatively new approach to differentiated instruction. The primary purpose of flexible grouping is to organize students by ability and allow the instructor to focus on content and skill building within a more homogenous population of students (Daniel, 1999, p. 8). The flexible grouping technique also allows students to develop the ability to work with other people in a team setting. Differentiated instruction during flexible grouping improves the quality of instruction as the teacher can individualize instruction to meet the needs of a small group of students (Meijnen & Guldemond 2002, p. 234).

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Problem statement

Flexible grouping incorporates a variety of learning strategies, including learning through interactions with peers. The methods are teacher-led grouping and student-led grouping. In teacher-led grouping, students are stratified by the teacher and the strata may narrow down to an individual. The latter grouping method involves sub-categorization into collaborative groups, performance-based groups, and student pairs (Conklin, 2007). In other words, students take control of the grouping process in student-led grouping. In either approach, flexible grouping has the potential to impact the academic performance of a student. While some research has been conducted on the effectiveness of this instructional strategy (Tieso, 2002), it is unclear what effect this approach has had on student achievement, particularly in mathematics. This study seeks to investigate the efficacy of flexible grouping on student achievement as measured by the mathematics section of the CRCT. Additionally, the research intends to investigate the extent to which flexible grouping affects the mathematics performance of students as measured by the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT).

Background

Flexible grouping is a teaching strategy which focuses on the students specific needs. More often, students with similar needs are grouped together. According to Heacox (2002), flexible grouping allows the teacher to tailor different methods which address the needs of the students in a particular group. Although not widely spread, flexible grouping has been found to be one of best strategies applicable in classrooms of students with special needs (Subban, 2006). A good example of flexible grouping is the differentiated instruction strategy which allows collaborative and social approaches in classrooms. There are three characteristics which make flexible grouping unique and they are efficiency, effectiveness, and social support. Systematic assessment and on-going observation enables an instructor draw together student groups thus necessitating instructional style. Teachers using flexible group are able to address each students needs on the allocated 15 minutes.

Criterion Referenced Competency Test is used to public schools located in Georgia to test or measure first to eighth graders knowledge level. Students take the test main in mathematics, ELA (English and language arts) and science. Science and social studies are tested on students in third to eighth grade. CRCT come to be effective after full implementation in 2000.

Overview of Area under study

The New Mountain Hill Elementary School under the study found in Fortson, GA is among the five elementary schools found in Harris County School District (Education.com 2012). The school incorporates the No Child Left Behind as a way of ensuring that the performances of students are improved. Being a public school, the New Mountain Hill Elementary School serves three hundred and ninety five students in K-4 grades. On the other hand, Harris County spending on a pupil is $9,288 annually to sponsor the education of students (Education.com 2012). Harris County School District, GA “district spends 63% on instruction, 32% on support services, and 5% on other elementary and secondary expenditures” (Education.com 2012a). Every full-time teacher is allocated at least one student although the average of the GA state is 14 students for every full-time teacher (Education.com 2012a). The choice for the CRCT model in the studying the academic achievement of students at the Harris County School is because it is an adoptable model which shows how well the students have managed to grasp the knowledge and skills that have been provided for by the Georgia Performance Standards.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the current study is to explore the impact that flexible grouping has had on the mathematics CRCT scores among students in grades one to four in one school in Harris County School, New Mountain Elementary. In addition, the study will explore if flexible grouping is equally effective among students with different genders and ethnicities within the target group. Moreover, the study will examine the impact of flexible grouping on mathematics CRCT scores among students with disabilities. The current study will explore the impact of flexible grouping of Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRTC) scores and the overall impact that they have had on students at Harris County School System, GA. As such, the study will attempt to explore whether flexible grouping is an effective technique in enhancing the academic performance of students in mathematics. The state, the school, and school systems would find the result of the current study valuable because it would help them to gauge the effectiveness of this approach for students at the Harris County School

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Significance of the Study

As schools and educational decision makers actively seek effective and efficient strategies to enhance student learning, this study hopes to clarify and support the role that flexible grouping can play in increasing student achievement. As educators are increasingly required to utilize scientifically based instructional practices, empirical research on effective strategies is essential. Valentino (2000) and Marzano, Pickering and Pollack (2011) consider flexible grouping to be a suitable method for preparing students for the CRCT, but also as an efficient way of improving overall performance of students. This study will assist in reducing the gap that exists between the theoretical framework of the strategy and data-based classroom results.

Nature of the Study

This study will utilize quantitative research methodology to explore the relationship between the use of flexible grouping strategies and student mathematics performance as indicated by the CRCT. The research study will use correlational research design to determine if a correlation exists between demographic variables and CRCT scores. The specific variables which will be used are gender, grade/class level, physical disability, and ethnicity which will be correlated to CRCT scores before and after the implementation of flexible grouping. The aggregate scores of current students in grades 1 to 4 will be compared to the aggregate scores of students in grades 1 to 4 before the implementation of flexible grouping.

Descriptive research design will be applied to describe the research study accurately and factually. The data will be disaggregated using gender, ethnicity, grade levels, and disability parameters. This will enable the study align with the research questions, hypothesis, and the research study.

Research Questions

The following research questions will be explored in this study:

Does flexible grouping have an impact on CRCT scores in mathematics for students in grades one to four?

  • Ho: There is no difference in the CRCT scores for students in grades one through four after the implementation of flexible grouping strategies.
  • Ha: There is a difference in the CR CT scores for students in grades one through four after the implementation of flexible grouping strategies.

What impact does flexible grouping have on the mathematics CRCT scores of students with disabilities?

  • Ho: Flexible grouping does not have impact on mathematics CRCT scores of students with disabilities.
  • Ha: Flexible grouping has impact on mathematics CRCT scores of students with disabilities

Does the effect of flexible grouping vary with ethnicity?

  • Ho: The effect of flexible grouping results does not vary with ethnicity
  • Ha: The effect of flexible grouping varies with ethnicity.

Does the effect of flexible grouping vary with gender?

  • Ho: The effect of flexible grouping does not vary with gender.
  • Ha: The effect of flexible grouping does vary with gender.

In each question, scores or results will be compared between the period when flexible grouping was implemented and when the grouping was not implemented.

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Assumptions

This study incorporates several assumptions related to the data. First, it is assumed that the CRCT data provided by the study school will be accurate, reliable, and current. Second, it is assumed that the CRCT is a reliable and valid measure of student academic performance in mathematics. Third, it is assumed that the New Mountain Hill School has adopted and implemented with fidelity flexible grouping strategies for mathematics instruction. Finally, this study assumes that no other major curricular or instructional changes were implemented during the year that flexible grouping was utilized in the classroom.

Scope

This study is limited to students from New Mountain Hill in Fortson found in Harris County School System in GA. Specifically; the research is limited to students in grade levels one to four where variables like ethnicity, physical disability, and gender will be used.

Limitation and Delimitations

One of the major limitations is that CRCT may not be an accurate indicator of students performance since the study will not examine the extent to which flexible grouping is being implemented in each classroom. The study results may not be used for generalization purposes as the study will be conducted in a single county where levels one to four will be under study. The research will depend heavily on secondary data which limits the reliability level as the data is prone to external and internal validity errors. On the other hand, the study will be used to generalize the performance across different ethnic backgrounds and gender across the county. However, the results cannot be used to generalize the state of Georgia as different schools have different learning environments.

Summary

Flexible grouping is a new concept that allows a teacher to focus instruction on students who share similar qualities, in an effort to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of instruction. This teaching strategy ensures that students with similar abilities and capabilities are grouped together. In order to measure the performance standards of students, CRCT is used to determine the academic achievement of a student. In addition, it also determines whether a student will be promoted to the next grade level or retained at the same academic level. Both the teacher and the students take control of the learning process making it easier to improve students’ performance. This study seeks to clarify the effectiveness of flexible grouping on enhancing student achievement in mathematics as measured by the CRCT. Chapter two is a review of literature on the impact of flexible grouping on CRCT scores.

Review of Literature

The implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act requires that teachers find unique and effective teaching strategies to meet the needs of every student. Differentiation is one way in which teachers can tailor lessons to students’ specific needs and learning styles (George, 2005, p. 186). Flexible grouping strategies allow teachers to group students according to their academic needs. They are also able to design lessons that provide more efficient and enjoyable learning (Meijnen, & Guldemond, 2002, p. 229). Since flexible grouping utilizes a student’s ability as the criterion of stratification, it can provide the learner with a more appropriate academic environment, which the teacher can easily manipulate for the learners’ benefit. This is the reasoning behind the term “flexible”. This chapter will explore the research related to differentiated instruction and flexible grouping strategies. The discussion will include a brief history of grouping strategies in the American educational system; current issues affecting student achievement, including disruptive student behavior, and multiculturalism; differentiated instructional strategies; and differentiated instruction through flexible grouping. The chapter will conclude with an overview of the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) and research related to improving student performance on standardized tests.

No Child Left Behind

As a result of the federal government’s concern about the quality of education in public schools in the United States, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 was implemented. NCLB supports standards-based education reform, which sets high academic standards for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, primary language, or socio-economic status (Conklin, 2007, Para. 3). The NCLB Act requires states to develop methods for the assessment of student learning in mathematics, science and reading/language arts as a condition for receiving federal funding. Under NCLB, states have permission to establish their own curriculum standards, but must ensure that all students, including those with disabilities and those who are learning English as a second language, achieve at high levels (Conklin, 2007, Para. 5).

According to Madison Metropolitan School District (2012) failure to make annual progress towards these goals could result in a variety of sanctions for schools and school districts. A school failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) benchmarks in the same subject for three years, or for a specific subgroup for four and five years, might result in corrective actions, including replacing the school staff responsible for the lack of progress, instituting a new curriculum, implementing appropriate professional development, and/or restructuring the school’s internal organizational structure (Madison Metropolitan School District, 2012). In certain cases, the correction plan may include reopening the school as a public charter school, thus turning its operation and management over to the state or private entities. To meet the goals of NCLB and AYP requirements, schools must implement new, innovative, and research-based approaches to instruction. According Madison Metropolitan School District (2012) a given percentage of the students is required to test for the proficient test in mathematics and reading to reach the AYP target. The students test performance is required to meet specific demographic categories for the purpose of achievement gap elimination and equity realization. The subgroups include students with disabilities, minority groups, blacks, and those with limited English language reading skills. Given that either of the groups fails to meet the set target, the school is labelled “failed to meet AYP” (Madison Metropolitan School District, 2012).

Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) and Flexible Grouping in Georgia

In an effort to improve the quality of American education, the No Child Left Behind Act requires the regular assessment of students using validated and standardized measures. Georgia has adopted the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) that students must complete at the end of the year before proceeding to the next grade. Students who fail the assessment may be required to repeat the current grade until they master the content. In 2004, more than 30% of students below the fourth grade scored below the national average of 36% in CRCT for mathematics (Weaver, 2006, p. 123). To prepare students for the CRCT, teachers are using flexible grouping strategies to strengthen the performance of students, especially in mathematics (Berry, & Chris, 2001, p. 77). In this method, the teacher divides the students into small study groups where they learn the content, processes and skills with students who have similar needs. The success of this method can be determined by student’s outcomes on classroom-based and benchmark assessments, and on the CRCT.

Previous research suggests that disparities exist between student performance on classroom-based measures and student outcomes on the CRCT, particularly in mathematics and social studies (Lawson, 1998, p. 126). This suggests that classroom-based assessments may not be aligned with the expectations of the CRCT. To ensure alignment between the formative assessment measures, instructional practices, and the CRCT, the Georgia Department of Education’s Quality Assurance Committee delineated some instructional practices that are most closely aligned with the CRCT (Berry & Chris, 2001, p. 82). However, there were still poor scores in mathematics and social studies on the CRCT. In this regard, people started to question the effectiveness of the instructional practices in improving the performance of the students (Lawson, 1998, p. 144).

Flexible grouping is one specific focused strategy being implemented in many schools in Georgia to improve the quality of instruction and learning. By working collaboratively, students can accomplish their tasks by learning from each other (Teno, 2000, p. 47). In addition, flexible grouping concepts have found a wide range of application in the education sector regardless of the students’ grade level. It has enriched the knowledge students acquire from their teacher and their fellow students who have a better grasp of specific content or skill sets (Meijnen & Guldemond, 2002, p. 230). Flexible grouping can be utilized to support students who need more support during the instructional process or come to school lacking motivation or interest.

Teachers have faced the challenge of applying the appropriate teaching techniques to improve student’s grades in mathematics and other science related subjects. One common and preferred method is flexible grouping which entails either placing students in teacher guided groups or allowing the students to lead themselves. In teacher based grouping, the teacher concentrates on the ability of the students while in the student based groupings the students will best group themselves according to their interests (Teno, 2000).

American Educational System Grouping Strategies

In order to understand the importance of differentiated instructional strategies and more specifically, flexible grouping in the modern classroom, a brief history of student grouping strategies in the American educational system will be presented. In the early United States, one-room schools were commonplace throughout rural areas, where students at all age levels and abilities learned academic basics in a single classroom (Deniz & Tortora, 2005, p. 143). Since the number of students attending the school was generally small, the teacher designed instruction according to student’s need rather than by age (Tieso, 2003, p. 32). The key subjects taught included reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, the teachers also taught children to be social, obedient, and polite and to have respect and good manners.

Teachers in the one-room schoolhouse utilized instructional strategies that allowed each learner to study tasks appropriate to his or her level of development. Additionally, more advanced students would teach less proficient students as a way of meeting all the students’ emotional and instructional needs and coping with the inevitable diversity among the students’ achievement levels (George, 2005, p. 194). Teachers enhanced the instructional process by implementing in their students habits of responsibility for their own learning and a willingness to help one another learn. They also initiated instructional strategies and routines to maximize cooperation in order that students could be independent and efficient in learning individually or collectively (Daniel, 1999, p. 1).

The Industrial Era brought about new challenges for the American education system. With the urbanization caused by industrialization, new educational attitudes and policies emerged in the United States to produce people with the expertise to work in the various industries (Laprade, 2010, p. 741). Economic development resulting from industrialization helped to expand the role and mission of the educational system (George, 2005, p. 195). As income increased and the economy became more complex, society started placing a higher value on schooling. As books became more widely available, more Americans had access to information, which in turn led to societal transformation (Daniel, 1999, p. 28).

In order to provide a large enough number of highly qualified professionals to support the burgeoning industry, a large segment of the population had to be educated (Valentino, 2000, p. 92). School leaders acknowledged the power and efficiency of factories and the virtues of a disciplined and orderly taskforce (Daniel, 1999, p. 3). In America, teachers inspired students to follow directions and submit to authority, as such were among the primary qualifications needed for workers in a mass-production economy (Daniel, 1999, p. 27). The US education system thus became rooted in the Protestant work ethic, in which students who worked hard and desisted from misbehaviour received a reward (Deniz & Tortora, 2005, p. 141).

The need for cheap labor and urbanization formed the vital part of industrialization. This led to an increase in and a consolidation of the number of students attending school. In contrast to the one-room schoolhouse, teachers needed to find ways to group students to meet their academic needs. This grouping typically occurred by student age, regardless of their previous academic experiences or proficiency levels (Hansen, n.d.).

As students became more consolidated in urban settings, teachers faced new challenges, including how to educate diverse student populations in the same classroom (George, 2005, p. 196). With continued immigration and urbanization, classrooms became composites of students from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, making it increasingly more difficult for a teacher to provide for the need of every student (Daniel, 1999, p. 18). Additionally, teachers were faced with a wide-range of student academic ability.

In the early 1900s, teachers handled students’ achievement differences by promoting high performing students to the next grade while keeping students who had performed poorly back (Daniel, 1999, p. 24). With this approach, ability grouping served as the foundation for student grouping in the 1930s (Daniel, 1999, p. 16). The ability grouping approach did not help those who failed, as they were often pressured to drop out of school. Consequently, ability grouping proved to be damaging to low-tracked students. In spite of this, its proponents maintain that ability grouping reduces boredom since both the high performing and low performing students have a chance to understand instructions and assignments on a level that is appropriate. On the other hand, opponents of ability grouping are fearful that ability grouping may affect the performance of poorly performing students as they move from one grade to another (“Tracking,” 2004). Such labelling is bound to remain with the student for a very long time and it could also increase the risk of poorly performing children dropping out of school.

During the 1960s, the civil rights movement had a profound impact on American public education. In an effort to improve the academic performance of all students, schools and teachers began to be held accountable for high academic standards (Laprade, 2010, p. 749). It was also suggested that minority students did not have the same types of educational opportunities as their white peers, resulting in significant academic achievement gaps. As a result, school segregation was abolished, resulting in a movement towards more diverse and integrated classrooms.

However, simply desegregating classrooms did not necessarily improve students’ achievement. Rather, it led to increased tracking of students according to ability, socio-economic status or race (Daniel, 1999, p. 25). Tracking systems often depend on the content presented to students (George, 2005, p. 197).

Proponents of tracking identify its important strengths. Tracking “allows teachers to better direct lessons toward the specific ability level of the students in each class meeting the need for highly gifted and talented students to be with their intellectual peers” (Valentino, 2000, p. 92), to experience an appropriate challenge, and to view their own abilities more realistically. Educational systems that track students have some limitations. Students from lower tracks are never exposed to higher quality of work or advanced material, limiting the models they have to achieve at higher levels. Tracking can also result in stigmatization of low-tracked students, which can affect attitude as well as more tangible aspects of academic performance (Daniel, 1999, p. 27). Tracking generally does not allow for students to move into higher academic levels, even if the student has demonstrated ability and interest in any other track (Deniz & Tortora, 2005, p.141).

The widespread use of tracking started to die out around the 1980’s following the realization that “it was giving students in low-track classes less resources, fewer experienced teachers, low expectations, and unchallenging curricula” (Valentino, 2000, p. 82). In contrast, the prevalent point of view became the belief that poorly performing students would benefit from sharing a class with better performing students (Valentino, 2000, p. 82).

Heterogeneous classrooms allow students to engage in a curriculum which allows peer learning and collaborative associations. Students get the opportunities to contribute during class sessions and appreciate his/her classmates’ contributions. According to Valentino (2000), heterogeneously grouped students in foreign countries significantly outperform high-tracked American students. However, heterogeneous grouping can be unfair to high achievers as they become bored with instruction that moves more slowly than their own rate of progress and a lack of challenging assignments, while low achievers become disadvantaged because failure to keep up with peers may induce a feeling of low self-esteem (Conklin, 2007, Para. 2).

Implications for Instruction of Heterogeneous Schools and Classrooms

One of the biggest challenges faced in desegregated and non-tracked classrooms is effectively meeting the needs of diverse student populations. The heterogeneously grouped classroom may contain a wide range of student diversity, including ability, socio-economic status, cultural/linguistic diversity, learning styles, and previous academic experiences. Language and social integration issues often lead to lower student achievement. Heacox (2002) asserts that teachers should, “prepare themselves and their children for the ever-changing challenge of interacting and communicating with diverse races” (p. 15).

Student Ability

The No Child Left Behind was implemented during the tenure of President George Bush to ensure that all students received the same opportunities in schools. To ensure that the goal is achieved, collaboration between special education teachers and general teachers is promoted (Paige & Hickok 2004). It is the goal of the individuals with disabilities Act (IDEA) and that of No Child is Left Behind (NCLB) to ensure that all students can access the US general education curriculum. To bridge the gap, the NCLB act requires accountability to ensure that all students, especially students with disabilities, have the opportunity to learn at high levels (Paige & Hickok 2004). NCLB attempts ensure that students receive enough funding and support and that special education teachers work together with their regular education peers towards high-quality instruction for all (Paige & Hickok 2004).

Despite efforts to include students with disabilities in heterogeneous classrooms, this approach is not always effective or beneficial to students. A study conducted by Sakarneh (n.d) showed that the inclusion of students with disabilities into the regular education classroom can sometimes lead to poor performance as the students were likely to experience learning challenges, along with stigma and rejection from their peers. However, mainstreaming students with disabilities can improve the social life of the students but often leads to poor academic performance. Students with disabilities require special attention that would promote their educational performance, understanding abilities, and learning capabilities (Sakarneh n.d). However, according to Wright, Horn and Sanders (1997), students with special needs requires special attention from the teachers to ensure their performance is improved. This can only be achieved through the adoption of the differentiated instruction method of learning.

Although the incorporation of students with disabilities is mainstream has been found to be effective and beneficial, it is a very challenging task. According to Fischer (2011), having students with disabilities in the mainstream forces the teachers in the mainstreams to increase the level of content accessibility to all students irrespective of their ability. Most teachers may not have the necessary skills required in handling students with special needs hence making it hard for the teachers and the students. Additionally, teachers are concerned on the funding as the funding criteria does not include all students with challenging learning abilities which require more time, energy, and attention (Shaddock, Giorcelli & Smith, 2010). Dealing with students with disabilities requires a lot of paperwork, consultation, and time which in most cases may not be available in mainstream classes. Shaddock et al. (2010, p.1) adds that mainstream classrooms are hardly provided with an appropriate curriculum accommodating all students despite their disabilities which is a challenge to the teachers. Lastly, teachers in mainstream lack experience, time and personal resources which could be used to teach students in the mainstream classrooms.

Because of the many challenges experienced by teachers in incorporating students with disabilities in mainstream, increased use of differentiated instruction is required. Differentiated instruction is advocated as it is based on the belief that “students learn best when their teachers accommodate the differences in their readiness levels, interests and learning profiles” (Subban, 2006, p.940). The premise behind differentiated instruction is that students have different learning profiles, interests, languages, readiness levels, and backgrounds which should be addressed individually. Teachers normally use these three differences to enable students with disabilities improve their learning abilities as well as their performances. The learning ability of every student is noted and necessary efforts and time allocated for every student. Learning experience is both a collaborative and social practice and as a result, both the learner and the teacher have a responsibility on what goes on in a classroom.

Differentiated instruction is based on the ‘Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory’ whose main tenet lies in the interactional and social relationship between the learner and the teacher (Subban, 2006, p.940). This allows the teacher to effectively address student’s variance more effectively since the fundamental tenet of student-teacher engagement is involved. The designed curricula address the issue of engagement which connects the students and the teachers hence influencing the learning abilities as well as students’ motivation (Shaddock et al., 2010). This allows the students to overlap learning and the disciplines offered thus promoting their understanding abilities. Subban (2006, p.941) points out that differentiated instruction has the capability of supporting classroom as a whole, accommodating sameness and differences. This creates a learning environment which students derive benefit and success. The teachers under differentiated instructions are able to attend to students learning abilities and respond to any immediate needs (Shaddock et al., 2010). Differentiated instructions allows the teacher to use project based learning and authentic instructions to bring out meaningful and relevant knowledge to all students in a classroom (Subban, 2006)

Linguistic and Cultural Diversity

In a multicultural classroom, students will come from different cultural backgrounds. Students may not speak the same primary language, and can have diverse political, regional and socio-economic statuses (Daniel, 1999, p. 4). Language difference is a key issue that a teacher must address when teaching in a multicultural classroom. Also, without the spirit of togetherness and respect for others’ cultures, the classroom can become difficult to manage. Language and cultural differences can lead to feelings of alienation and, in some cases, reduced academic achievement. In most cases, multilingual classrooms host students who have different English language reading and mastery levels. Language acquisition affects the strategies that teachers can utilize to provide content instruction. Because of communication barriers with students and/or their parents, many teachers experience difficulties teaching a class with students from various cultural backgrounds. Varying parental expectations of the educational system further complicate such situations (Teno, 2000, p. 49).

Today, diversity of cultural and economic backgrounds represented in any one classroom continues to increase (Christopher & Park, 2006, p. 285). This factor can influence the ability of diverse student populations to socialize with their classmates, understand and integrate into the American educational system, and understand curricula in a language that is foreign to them (Laprade, 2010, p. 745). The pressure to perform well on standardized testing, as required by NCLB, may increase the students’ disruptive behaviours and contribute to an overall lack of academic progress for some student populations (Christopher, & Park, 2006, p. 278). The unique needs of students in the classroom require that teachers utilize multiple strategies, including various grouping strategies, to ensure equitable academic opportunities for all students: gifted, talented, low achievers and those mentally and physically challenged.

Disruptive Student Behaviour

The modern classroom has many distractions that can significantly compromise student achievement. Disruptive behavior can often escalate into physical, verbal and psychological harassment and threatening behaviour towards an instructor, staff member, or other students. These disruptive behaviours can have a negative impact on any learning environment (Stephen, 2011, p. 12). When a student is talking out of turn, for example, he or she may impede the ability of his or her classmates to concentrate on the lesson. Heinemann and Dunlap (2005) assert that misbehaviour of students disrupts the flow of teaching and learning in the classroom (p. 779). They also observed that failure on the part of students to understand the concepts and skills taught leads to disruptive behaviour, which then in turn limits student learning irrespective of whether the student in question is attentive or not. As a result, disruptive behaviour affects students’ academic performance (Daniel, 1999, p. 29).

Another contributing factor to disruptive behaviour at the classroom setting is class size. As such, there is need for educators to take this issue seriously. With smaller classes, teachers are in a position to devote additional time to an individual student on such issues as the giving of feedback regarding assignments. On the other hand, large classes can be very disruptive to the learning process as it becomes hard for the teacher to attend to the individual needs of each student adequately (Cakmak, 2009). The teaching methods that a teacher uses might also be determined by the number of students in the classroom. As the class size increases, teachers may be overwhelmed by the various needs of their students, and may not be able to adequately meet the diverse needs and learning styles of their classroom.

To minimize the impact of disruptive behavior on student learning, teachers need a wide range of management and instructional strategies to influence the culture of their classroom and to accelerate student learning. In an effort to reduce the number of disruptions in the classroom, teachers utilize a variety of grouping strategies to lower teacher-to-student ratios and provide more focused instruction (Hoffman, 2002, p. 46).

Differentiated Instructional Strategies

Differentiated instruction is a strategy that teachers utilize to assess learners’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, and to provide an instructional sequence that best matches their strengths and areas of need (Daniel, 1999, p. 21). Differentiated instruction gives “students the opportunity to learn curriculum concepts by providing varying entry points, learning tasks, and outcomes designed to address and improve their needs” (George, 2005, p. 187). Differentiated instruction can be implemented through tiered assignments, curriculum compacting, interest centres, and flexible grouping. Tiered assignments, which are pre-planned by the teacher, allow students to work on the same content, but at varying cognitive levels (Daniel, 1999, p. 30). While the course materials and goals are similar for the whole class, the instructional approach, student assignments, and assessment measures may change according to the level at which the specific learners are. For instance, in a unit on measurement, some students can learn “basic measurement skills, including using a ruler to measure the length of objects” (Daniel, 1999, p. 7), while other students can apply measurement skills to problems involving perimeter. Thus, the teacher can diversify the approach to the content according to cognitive level, while still moving all students towards a specific level of mastery. This approach can make the lesson more interesting and accessible to students of a wide variety of ability levels.

Compacting is an approach that allows students to move more quickly through content as their ability and previous experiences with the material allows (George, 2005, p. 189). Compacting is comprised of three processes: gauging the students’ experience of the lesson’s content, establishing strategies to enable the students not to have to learn material they have previously learned, and implementing approaches to effectively utilize the extra time thus created to enrich or enhance the student’s experience (Heacox, 2002, p. 9). This strategy helps avoid learners having to study concepts and topics they have already covered (Daniel, 1999, p. 19).

Interest groups direct learning experiences toward and connect them with learners’ interests, thus increasing students’ motivation to learn (George, 2005, p. 191). In a math class on the topic of addition, for example, an interest centre would involve counting jellybeans or some other sort of candy, or adding up the number of eyes on two aliens, as these are things in which children of the relevant age are likely to be interested (Daniel, 1999, p. 6). In an interest group for a math class, students would “work in small groups to research a math topic of interest, such as how geometry applies to architecture or how math related to art” (Daniel, 1999, p. 6). When a teacher allows students to choose a topic themselves, they are likely to become motivated about the learning and teaching processes.

The teacher-led groups “provide an effective and efficient way of introducing concept, making summary and conclusions by individual groups, meeting the common needs of a large or small group, and providing individual attention or instruction” (Daniel, 1999, p. 17). Whole-class instruction introduces new materials and “strategies to the entire class and helps to identify students’ prior knowledge and experiences that will affect new knowledge acquisition” (Daniel, 1999, p. 20). However, students also learn to work independently in order to refine their ability at solving problems.

In flexible grouping, the focus of differentiation is the interest-learning profile. Students work as part of many different groups depending on the task, with groups being formed, as assigned by the teacher or chosen by the students, on the basis of either readiness or interest, and learning profile (George, 2005, p. 190). For example, as Stephen (2011) points out, “the teacher may assign groups based on readiness for direct instruction on algebraic concepts, and allow students to choose their own groups for projects that investigate famous mathematicians” (p. 4). Since students are allocated different groups according to the task and subject, they work with a variety of peers and are not categorized as “slow”, “advanced” or any other inflexible designation (Daniel, 1999, p. 13).

Benefits of Flexible Grouping

Flexible grouping helps in the development of social skills and peer interaction. It enables students to share knowledge, skills and experience with one another, thus developing student self-confidence (Daniel, 1999, p. 14). In addition, learning experiences acquired through flexible grouping not only assist the learners in undertaking the class assignment but may also increase their social skills and self-confidence since they are able to share their expertise and capabilities with their classmates. When students are left to discuss and discover new ideas on their own, their morale is boosted, hence enhancing their self-confidence.

Flexible grouping allows for small group instruction, through which the teacher can easily monitor and adjust learning. Flexible grouping also allows the teacher to redirect potential student misbehavior before it becomes problematic (Heinemann & Dunlap, 2005, p. 783). It ensures the participation of all students because the teacher closely monitors their work and provides feedback. By enabling the matching of ability levels with a skill, flexible grouping provides greater flexibility to meet individual needs (Weaver, 2006, p. 110).

According to Gelpi (2009), research indicates that the use of flexible grouping strategies may improve students’ academic performance. Math scores of students for in-class assignments and assessment measures have been found to improve as a result of working in flexible groups (Singer and Wallet, 2003). This progress is also reflected in the CRCT scores of students, which have increased over the years in schools that utilize flexible grouping strategies. In addition, the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (n.d.) stated that “Flexible grouping practices that call for collaboration by diverse groups of students when combined with high expectations may also enable educators to be more responsive to the concerns of diverse parents and community members” (p. 47).

Moreover, activities that involve flexible grouping can be a way for students to overcome negative assumptions about their classmates, and the approach may thus help develop camaraderie inside and outside the classroom. Flexible grouping encompasses partner work, cooperative grouping and whole-class grouping (Hoffman, 2002, p. 47). It supports a full exploration of the diverse learning styles and background experiences students bring to the classroom environment (Tieso, 2003, p. 31). Therefore, the teacher should make flexible grouping activities more compelling to enable the students to use the technique several times, even in the absence of the teacher, to enhance their experience and stimulate enjoyment of the topic of discussion and the learning process (Deniz, & Tortora, 2005, p. 144).

Since differentiated instructional techniques are crucial in helping students comprehend complex concepts, flexible grouping can be suitable for teaching mathematics (Tieso, 2003, p. 35). One approach to flexible grouping involves students working collaboratively to accomplish mathematical tasks. Initially, students are given pre-test and grouped by area(s) of weakness. Once these concepts are taught, students receive post assessments and re-grouped again. The main role of flexible grouping in mathematics is to allow students to engage in depth with the other students with intensive practice facilitated by teacher guidance (Weaver, 2006, p. 121). The composition of well-guided groups in a mathematics class is flexible through the duration of the course. The teacher, on assessment of the performance of the students, decides when students are able to achieve a goal to acquire knowledge and skills set for a certain period, and at that point allow them to move around and form new groups to exchange knowledge and share their expertise for an enhanced learning experience (Daniel, 1999, p. 15).

In a differentiated classroom, teachers can determine the groups according to the ability and interest of the students. Mathematics is one of the subjects that requires deep comprehension of the lesson in order for students to develop their ability to solve problems. Students should be attentive in class in order to understand the procedure of every solution demonstrated by the teacher (Stephen, 2011, p. 3). The speed at which students are able to grasp and apply a particular mathematical equation varies because they have different learning abilities. However, through flexible grouping, the students will be able to learn from each other’s strategies, and thus become able to articulate, comprehend and accurately provide solutions to a problem. Hence, flexible grouping allows teachers to target instruction to “the needs of different groups at different levels” (Tieso, 2003 p. 34).

According to Deniz and Tortora (2005), flexible grouping improves learning for below proficient students without the potentially negative effects of ability grouping (p. 150). It allows students to develop their self-confidence because they are able to share ideas and enrich the concepts already mastered in an environment in which they are familiar. Flexible grouping can also support students with special needs who have been mainstreamed into the regular education classroom (Daniel, 1999, p. 14). Students who are mainstreamed into the classroom also receive small group instruction on concepts and skills that are not mastered. These students are given the same opportunities as those in the regular education classroom, but in smaller groups for more one- to- one interaction and help.

Students with learning disabilities and those learning English as a second language can also benefit from flexible grouping because the teacher can assign other students to provide assistance through peer mentoring according to their needs (Weaver, 2006, p. 108). Flexible grouping can help improve the performance for students with learning disabilities and those learning English as a second language because they receive motivation and guidance from the teacher or their peers (Hoffman, 2002, p. 53). Through good interactions in the assigned groups, those with disabilities learn to overcome their challenges, and share ideas to improve their performance (Valentino, 2000). Students learning English as a second language benefit from the use of peer coaching and mutual socialization, and are encouraged to correct their language mistakes in order to perfect their performance (Stephen, 2011, p. 14).

In the flexible grouping environment, high achievers may need less attention from the teacher, as they are self-motivated to learn the content. Pre-assessment helps the teacher determine flexible grouping patterns and provide tasks that are suitably challenging for the high achiever. Flexible grouping provides gifted students with “opportunities to get to know and work with a wide range of students: the cornerstone of appropriate differentiation for the gifted student’’ (Hoffman, 2002, p. 50). Higher achievers can also gain from curriculum compacting.

Since flexible grouping requires that the teacher prepare well for proper implementation, it ensures that the needs of low achievers are addressed. The teacher can provide sufficient help to overcome learning problems and help lower performing students master complex skills such as critical thinking, reading comprehension, mathematics problem solving and other higher skills at their own pace (Daniel, 1999, p. 11). Therefore, the teacher groups individuals on the basis of their level of ability and need, and can change those groups over time or under different learning conditions. This latter is especially important because, if the groupings are always of heterogeneous ability levels, one or two high-achieving students are likely to become the “leaders”; changing the composition of the groups gives every student a chance to take both leading and following roles (Daniel, 1999, p. 9).

Laprade (2010) stated that flexible grouping enables collaboration between diverse groups of students and has “considerable potential for ensuring equity and excellence for all students” (p. 747). Although the research emphasizes the effectiveness of flexible grouping specifically in teaching mathematics, this method is also useful to other subjects and different grade levels (Teno, 2000, p. 45). If implemented well, flexible grouping may unleash the greater potential of children learning in the classroom. In such a strategy, the teacher will at one point instruct the students about the content of their lesson, but not everything about the lesson hinges on the capacity of the teacher to relay the information. Importantly, the study considers the capacity and interest of the student to learn as another factor in effective teaching (Weaver, 2006, p. 125).

Flexible grouping provides the ability to tailor instruction by ability or interest. According to Weaver (2006), flexible grouping is helpful in teaching mathematics since the instructor is monitoring the improvement on the mastery of the skills depending on the ability and interest of a student towards the subject (p. 111). Since the teacher can determine the skills that need improvement, he or she will be able to target students with similar skill levels and design instruction to cater for the special learning demands of the group (Weaver, 2006, p. 112).

As for the impact of flexible grouping on student-to-student interaction and social development, the teacher helps students to manage themselves and work responsibly so that they become independent, lifelong learners. Flexible grouping is helpful in breaking the barriers between student differences and developing their social skills (Heinemann & Dunlap, 2005, p. 780). Flexible grouping strategies give teachers time to get to know their students well, provide them with stimulating learning experiences, and help them explore aspects of the world other than those prescribed by the curriculum (Weaver, 2006, p. 119). Flexible grouping can positively influence classroom management. The teacher continually assesses the student’s performance in and outside the classroom. Therefore, for effective classroom management, the relationship between a teacher and a student is of paramount importance (Stephen, 2011, p. 1). In a large, heterogeneously grouped classroom, it may be difficult for some teachers to develop rapport with each student. Flexible grouping strategies can allow teachers to spend more directed time with students in small group environments, supporting the development of a unique relationship with each student (Heacox, 2002, p. 7). This can support effective and efficient management of the classroom environment.

Meijnen and Guldemond’s (2002) research findings in support of flexible grouping note that placing students into small learning groups is in the best interest of the students (p. 232). One can relate flexible grouping to cluster grouping, a method employed by schools to cater for the intellectual requirements of talented kids. For instance, “if a school has three different third grade classrooms and five gifted children in the third grade, the teacher would place all of them in one of the three third grade classrooms and assigned to one of the three teachers” (Teno, 2000, p. 48). Flexible grouping addresses the various needs of different kinds of students, while cluster grouping is typically concerned only with the needs of gifted children. According to Teno (2000), the advantages of cluster grouping include cost effectiveness and “the ability for students to move rapidly through the curriculum and work in their interest area, and teachers taking more responsibility for the needs of gifted children” (p. 46). However, the disadvantages include “difficulty in the implementation process, lack of teacher training and funds for in-service, as well as resentment towards teachers and gifted students” (Teno, 2000, p. 46). Therefore, in evaluating flexible and cluster groupings, Hoffman (2002) stated that flexible grouping, when effectively carried out “can meet the needs of highly gifted students as well as harmonize the cone of cluster grouping” (p. 48).

For flexible grouping to improve student performance, teachers must have a variety of instructional materials available that meet the diverse needs of their students, be well prepared in their presentation, and be sensitive to the learning interests and strengths of their class (Daniel, 1999, p. 10). Flexible grouping often appeals to a variety of teaching and learning approaches. It helps diverse student populations to grasp and comprehend the content because it caters to their unique and individualized learning needs (Daniel, 1999, p. 12).

It is important to note that the main challenge in the implementation of flexible groupings is the teacher’s lack of ability to create groups efficiently. Teachers have to be guided by various factors to identify where to place a student. Teachers have to first understand the nature of students before he/she assigns them to any group. Stratifications in classrooms based on gender, cultural background and ability of a student are the main elements by which every teacher who desires to use the flexible grouping must master (Weaver, 2006). In this case, students with different cultural or demographic regions may possess totally different learning and reading skills. Sometimes English language is a secondary language; hence they ought to be placed in the appropriate groups for better performance. In an event whereby the teacher uses the differentiated instructional strategy, the students should be carefully placed in a group that aligns with their ability and skills. The main advantage of differentiated instruction through flexible grouping is that student learning is greatly promoted through collaboration; thus building self confidence. In such mode of groupings, uniform instructions are given while the teacher takes a close monitoring role (Weaver, 2006).

Flexible grouping contributes to the student’s development of self confidence which is a greater tool in learning. In addition, students with high learning abilities are given room to tackle assignments of their level while at the same teaching the students to coordinate with fellow classmates. Flexible grouping is advantageous in the sense that it is not discriminative in nature. Further, students with learning difficulties and language problems are provided with appropriate, small group instruction. The method also encourages an environment of diversity whereby students improve their social skills despite their different backgrounds (Teno, 2000).

It has been established that students understanding skills are greatly triggered by relating class assignments to what students like (Teno, 2000). The teacher creates a friendly environment by making sure that groups consists of students who are dissimilar from themselves, this not only break down stereotype among the student but also promotes tolerance. By flexible grouping the teacher ensures that the students work together as a group and hence promotes teamwork. A friendly environment is a key element in enhancing better results. When such groups are developed it is easier to facilitate group work even in the absence of the teacher. The technique promotes student to teacher relationship which is very helpful in ascertaining the problems of the learner while at the same time discovering the students with special needs. It is only through flexible grouping that students will be placed in a group they fit in hence stimulating healthy competition towards achieving the desired goals (Weaver, 2006).

Summary

The implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act requires that teachers find unique and effective teaching strategies to meet the needs of every student. Differentiation is one way in which teachers can tailor lessons to students’ specific needs and learning styles. Flexible grouping strategies enable teachers to group students according to their academic needs. Georgia has adopted the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) that students must complete at the end of the year before proceeding to the next grade. Students who fail the assessment may be required to repeat the current grade until they master the content. In this method, the teacher divides the students into small study groups where they learn the content, processes and skills with students who have similar needs. The success of this method can be determined by student’s outcomes on classroom-based and benchmark assessments, and on the CRCT.

Flexible grouping entails either placing students in a teacher guided groups or allowing the students to lead themselves. One of the biggest challenges faced in desegregated and non-tracked classrooms is effectively meeting the needs of diverse student populations. The heterogeneously grouped classroom may contain a wide range of student diversity, including ability, socio-economic status, cultural/linguistic diversity, learning styles, and previous academic experiences.

The No Child Left Behind policy ensures that all pupils get an equal opportunity to attend school. However, students with disabilities require special attention that would promote their educational performance, understanding abilities, and learning capabilities. Linguistic differences and cultural diversity affects the strategies that teachers can utilize to provide content instructions. Disruptive behaviour can often escalate into physical, verbal and psychological harassment and threatening behaviour towards an instructor, staff member, or other students. However, teachers can still use differentiated instructions to assess learners’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, and to provide an instructional sequence that best matches their strengths and areas of need. In flexible grouping, the focus of differentiation is the interest-learning profile. Flexible grouping helps in the development of social skills and peer interaction. It enables students to share knowledge, skills and experience with one another, thus developing student self-confidence. Chapter 3 below is the methodology section whereby the researcher intends to explore the impact that flexible grouping has had on CRCT scores among students in Harris County School.

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