Ability Grouping

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Ability Grouping


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timely topics

Volume 6, Number 2
July 2002

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What is ability grouping?
Researchers have struggled for
decades to find answers to questions about ability grouping: Does anyone benefit from it? Is anyone
harmed by it? Who benefits (or is
harmed) the most? Why? Are there
alternatives to ability grouping?
The answers are not always clearcut and often depend on whom you ask and what learning outcomes
are deemed important. To many
educators, ability grouping is
considered a sensible response to
academic diversity. To others, the
practice has harmful unintended
consequences and should be
abandoned. Indeed, research, logic,
and emotion often clash when
debating the topic of ability
grouping. But what do we really
know? This issue of the Balanced
View takes a close look at the
research evidence and attempts to
make sense out of this nearly
century long debate. We begin our
discussion with a clarification of
Ability grouping, simply put, is
the practice of dividing students
for instruction on the basis of
their perceived capacities for
learning. The two most common
forms of ability grouping are

Students in classes grouped by ability
are said to be homogeneously
grouped. Conversely, students in
mixed-ability classes are said to be
heterogeneously grouped.
The term tracking historically
referred to the practice of grouping
high school students by ability into
a series of courses with
differentiated curriculum. Students
took all high, middle, or low-level
classes, labeled college preparatory,
general, or vocational, and rarely
moved between them. Although
this type of tracking has declined in
recent years, many researchers still
use the term to describe various
forms of between-class grouping.

How prevalent is ability
Within-class ability grouping is
nearly universal at the elementary
grades, particularly for reading
instruction. Two or three reading
groups are typical, with each group
working on different materials
unique to their needs and abilities.

Between-class ability grouping can
also be found in elementary
schools. In some schools, for
example, students from the same
✥ within-class grouping, which
grade level, or across grade levels,
refers to a teacher’s practice of may be grouped by ability for dividing students of similar
reading or math instruction. For all
ability into small groups,
other subjects, students are
✥ usually for reading or math
instructed in mixed-ability groups.
instruction, and
Schools may also have special
✥ between-class grouping, which remedial classes for low achievers refers to a school’s practice of
and enrichment courses for gifted
separating students into different and talented students.
classes, courses, or course
sequences—curricular tracks—
based on their achievement.

Between-class grouping is by far
the most common type of ability
grouping in secondary schools,
although forms of within-class
grouping are occasionally seen.
Studies show that by 7th grade,
two-thirds of all middle school
students are grouped into differentiated courses for some or all subjects, with about a fifth grouped
homogeneously in every subject.
The prevalence of between-class
grouping, moreover, increases
when there are sizable enrollments
of black and Hispanic students.
At the high school level, over 80
percent of the schools offer a
hierarchy of courses tailored to
different abilities. But unlike the
tracking practices of 30 years ago,
most schools allow students to
choose their courses provided
prerequisites have been met. For
example, a student might take
honors English and general math.
Only 14 percent of all high
schools offer heterogeneous...
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