Ability grouping is the practice of making student groupings based on ability and achievement in an attempt to provide instruction specifically relevant to each group's needs. Ability groups can differ in size and duration depending on the educational goals the groups are intended to meet. Groups can range from the small groups created for reading instruction in diverse elementary school classrooms to high school tracking methods that create just three broad ability groups within an entire high school population. Although ability grouping has become a standard educational practice in many schools, it continues to inspire heated debate and extensive research.
Within-class grouping is the practice of dividing a class of students with diverse abilities into groups based on ability and achievement level. This is commonly accomplished by assigning every member of the class to a particular group that they will be taught with during instruction in a particular subject. In some cases ability grouping is also accomplished by removing a few students from the class for the purpose of specialized instruction and allowing the rest of the class to be instructed together. This is sometimes done to provide specific instruction to a few students who are seen as very high achieving, and sometimes to provide more individualized assistance to students who are seen to be achieving significantly below their peers.
At the elementary school level, within-class grouping is a fairly established practice. A 2006 study by Chorzempa and Graham found that 63% of primary grade teachers surveyed reported using ability groupings in reading instruction. In addition to reading instruction, mathematics instruction is also commonly taught in ability groups at the elementary school level. Ability grouping is less commonly used for other subjects such as science, social studies, and art.
Classrooms that practice within-class ability grouping for reading typically divide the children in the class into two or three reading groups. These groups are often assigned names, colors, or animals to differentiate them and to provide each group with a group identity. The way in which children are assigned to groups varies depending on the teacher making the assignments and any school or district-wide policies that provide grouping guidance. In many cases a variety of guidelines are in place with the classroom teachers having final authority for grouping decisions. Teachers may use testing, past performance, individualized evaluation of skills, or other factors to determine which reading group a child should be placed in. In most cases a combination of testing and observational methods may be used.
Ability-grouped reading instruction allows teachers to provide instruction that is attuned to the level of competency of the children in the group. For example, the lowest level reading group may benefit from extra work on sounding out words and using context clues to decipher meanings, whereas the most advanced group may be ready to tackle more complex sentences and concepts. Ability grouping also allows the teacher to focus on using instructional methods that are successful with different levels of learners. A lower-achieving reading group may benefit significantly from repetition, flash cards, and drills to help the students achieve basic mastery of recognizing phonemes. Repetition and drills may, however, frustrate a higher-achieving group of learners who are already able to read short sentences. Discussions of plot and character may motivate and engage the higher-level group, while it may frustrate another group of learners.
Ability groupings in math follow generally the same structure and purpose as ability groupings in reading. Because so many mathematical concepts build directly on previously learned material, it can be a frustrating and nonproductive experience for children who have not yet mastered one area to be rushed on to the next concept. Ability grouping in math allows children who have demonstrated mastery of a subject to move on, while allowing those who need more help or repetition the opportunity to achieve an understanding of the subject at their own pace.
Ability grouping in elementary education has many proponents who point to its success in providing more student-specific instruction in areas in which many students struggle. Opponents of ability grouping, while acknowledging that it does provide some small advantages over traditional whole-classroom education, argue that its potentially negative effects on students far outweigh any benefits derived from the student-specific curriculum.
Many of the arguments against ability grouping cite concern for the psychological and social well being of the children involved, especially children placed in the lower- achieving ability groups. Children become aware of differentiating characteristics very early on, and the emphasis placed on reading and math achievement by having some reading and math groups clearly labeled as the “slower” groups, while others are labeled as the “gifted” or “accelerated” groups, is not lost on children. This can lead to children being more aware of how other students perceive their achievement. One study found that students who were tracked in math had increased ego orientation, which led to students labeled high achieving being less willing to seek help, while not increasing the willingness of low achievers to seek help (Butler, 2008). Although teachers and other adults may try to treat all of the ability groups with equal respect, children show a very keen knowledge of their placement and the placement of others. This can lead to children placed in lower-ability groups to feel unsure of their educational potential, losing self-esteem, and developing low self-expectation.
It is not only the learners themselves that are affected by the assignment of children to ability-specific groups. Parents, and even teachers, have often demonstrated expectations of students that are ability-group specific. There is significant concern that low expectations can have negative results on academic achievement. Many educators and parents have also expressed concern about designating children as remedial or advanced students at such an early age, fearing that such designations may continue with the children throughout their educational experience. Although many teachers and schools attempt to allow students to switch easily between ability groups if their achievement warrants it, such easy switching can be very difficult to implement. Additionally, if the lower-reading group spends a significant amount of time working on concepts the other groups have already mastered, it may be prohibitively difficult for a child to catch up without additional intervention.
Teaching time may also be negatively impacted by ability grouping. If teachers are focusing all their attention on the specific needs of one group of learners, the other learners will not be benefiting from the guided instruction of the teacher. This can often result in students participating in a large number of desk activities. Many classrooms utilize teacher aides, computer activities, learning groups, or even adult volunteers to help provide structured learning for students not currently engaged with the teacher. This however, may lead to a decreased quality of instruction during this time, and a loss of instruction time overall.
Although within-class grouping is an accepted practice in many elementary schools, it is not very common at the high school level. High schools rarely rely on students remaining in a single class throughout the day, with ability groups being formed for a few specific subjects. Instead, high schools are much more likely to rely on between-class grouping to provide ability-specific instruction.
Between-class grouping is the system in which students are separated into different classes based on ability levels. It can also refer to the system in which students are placed into broad groups that all have the same classes, although not necessarily in a single classroom. This is often referred to as tracking. Tracking was once primarily used to refer to systems in which students destined for a specific educational outcome were grouped together and given classes specific to the perceived abilities of that group. In this way, many schools came to have a vocational track, a college prep track, and many other tracks. Over time the term tracked has come to refer generally to any system in which students are placed into groupings based on ability.
Forming whole classes of students based on ability is much more common in high school and junior high school than in elementary school. It has become the standard for many high schools, which often have Advanced Placement classes, college prep classes, remedial classes, and others designed to provide groups of students with instruction specific to their needs.
Between-class ability grouping was once more common, and more rigid, than it generally is in high schools in the early 21st century. In American high schools before the 1850s students were generally promoted each year based on ability and comprehension of the relevant material rather than age. In this way each grade of students was more a collection of individuals who had achieved a mastery of common material than it was a group of same-aged individuals. Although, strictly speaking, this was not between-class grouping it paved the way for between-class grouping. After the 1850s, age became a more relevant factor in promotion and determination of which grade a student was placed in. In the early 1900s, when more and more students stayed in school through high school, various educational tracks with specific emphases were proposed and adopted. Although many supporters of tracked education in its early days had noble ideals, tracking often served as a tool of discrimination against children who were economically disadvantaged or members of minority groups. Such children were often put into tracks in which vocational training was the main purpose, shutting them off from the opportunity for a more academically based education.
Although the specific emphasis of education changed over the years, many high schools still practiced a variety of tracking programs into the 1960s. Although many of these later programs were theoretically aimed at helping certain groups of students make progress by teaching to their specific needs, such as gifted students, remedial students, or students who needed English as a second language instruction, they still served to funnel students onto paths from which it was frequently very hard to deviate.
In the 1970s and 1980s a broad movement began against the use of tracking as a method for helping students achieve their educational goals. A number of studies and reports came out showing some of the dangers of rigid tracking systems and highlighting the children who were ill served by such systems. Many schools moved away from specifically tracked systems, eliminating the idea of labeling children as they entered the school.
Most high schools in the United States retain at least some form of between-class grouping for some or all classes. Schools with low levels of poverty, high numbers of students, racial diversity, and diverse student achievement levels are more likely to practice ability grouping (VanderHart, 2006). Math classes are especially likely to be grouped by ability. Classes are often designated as honors classes, and students of high achievement are grouped together to receive instruction that takes advantage of their strengths. These classes therefore cover more complex topics and include more in-depth discussions. Although some or all classes in a high school may be grouped, students themselves often do not receive special designations. In this way students who excel at English may be in the honors English class, while also being in a remedial math class because that is a subject in which they experience difficulties. In this way students can receive instruction tailored to their ability in each subject and avoid many of the pitfalls of a whole-child designation.
Proponents of the between-classes grouping system cite its ability to provide targeted instruction. They also frequently suggest that lower-achieving students can ask questions in class without the risk of embarrassment in front of their higher-achieving peers. Higher achievers can benefit from more in-depth instruction that can focus on larger concepts and broader issues, whereas lower achievers can benefit from more extensive coverage of the core topics.
Although many people, especially parents, tend to be in favor of high schools structured along between-class grouping lines, many individuals believe that it can do significant harm, especially to the students placed into the lower-achieving classes. Several prominent groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Governors Association, the National Education Association, and the College Board, have all voiced their opposition to ability grouping. Many of the arguments against between-class ability grouping are similar to those against within-class ability grouping. Students who are grouped into one of the lower-achieving groups are at risk for lowered self-esteem and lowered self-expectations. They are also at risk for parents and teachers having low expectations of them, a circumstance which studies have shown can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy (Benner, 2007).
Another common concern with between-class ability grouping is that the lower-achieving groups may receive a lower quality of education overall than their higher-achieving peers. Lower-achieving classes tend to spend more classroom time on discipline than higher-achieving classes, with proportionately less time spent on subject matter instruction. Teachers of lower ability group classes are frequently found to be less qualified and less experienced than their peers who provide instruction to the highest achieving groups. This may be for a number of reasons, including the fact that teaching lower-achieving groups may be seen as less desirable, so such positions are assigned to less experienced educators. Additionally, teaching higher-level classes such as Calculus or Advanced Placement English often requires additional training or certification, resulting in teachers who have been more extensively trained.
Although thousands of studies have been conducted on ability grouping since the 1950s, the results are far from clear. Studies are often contradictory, and although one benefit may be shown repeatedly it still leaves room for spirited debate about whether the benefits are outweighed by possible side effects, and whose interests should take precedence in an educational setting that needs to serve everyone.
Benner, A.D., & Mistry, R.S. (2007). Congruence of mother and teacher educational expectations and low-income youth's academic competence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 140–153.
Butler, R. (2008). Ego-involving and frame of reference effects of tracking on elementary school students' motivational orientations and help seeking in math class. Social Psychology of Education, 11(1), 5–34.
Chorzempa, B. F., & Graham, S. (2006). Primary-grade teachers' use of within-class ability grouping in reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 529–542.
Rees, D. I., Brewer, D. J., & Argys, L. M. (1997). Ability grouping and student achievement in English, history, and science. Denver, CO: Center for Research of Economic and Social Policy, University of Colorado.
Roberts, J. L., & Inman, T. F. (2007). Strategies for differentiating instruction: Best practices for the classroom. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Tach, L. M., & Farkas, G. (2006). Learning-related behaviors, cognitive skills, and ability grouping when schooling begins. Social Science Research, 35(4), 1048–1080.
VanderHart, P. G. (2006). Why do some schools group by ability? Some evidence from the NAEP. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 65(2), 435–463.
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