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Ability Grouping

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Ability Grouping


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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
classes in all subjects.

What do people say about
ability grouping?
Proponents of ability grouping
say that the practice increases
student achievement by allowing
teachers to better tailor the pace
and content of instruction to
students’ needs. For example,
teachers can provide more repetition and reinforcement to lowachieving students, and an advanced level of instruction to high achievers. Defenders also argue
✥ it is easier for teachers to
teach and manage homogeneous classes,
✥ low-achieving students feel
more comfortable and par-

ticipate more when they are
grouped with peers of similar
ability, and

divided on the basis of ability they
are also divided by race and

✥ high-achieving students maintain
interest and incentive in
homogeneous groups, but
languish when grouped with
slower learners.

Several prominent groups have
called for an end to ability
grouping including the National
Governor’s Association, the
College Board, the National
In support of their position, advocates Education Association, and the ACLU. Yet, surveys show solid
point to the wide range of
support for the practice among
achievement within classes, which
many parents. Teachers, on the
can be several grade levels. They say
other hand, are far from united
that with such widely divergent
on the topic. For most, the crux
aptitudes, it is unrealistic to expect all
of the problem is how best to
students to master the same
give low-performing students the
curriculum as would be the case in a
extra help they need without
mixed-ability class.
dampening the interest and
progress of brighter students.
Opponents, however, contend that
ability grouping not only fails to
benefit any student, it also channels
What does research say?
poor and minority students to low
tracks where they receive a lower
The research on ability grouping,
quality of instruction than other
particularly its effect on
groups. This, they claim, contributes achievement, is quite extensive. to a widening of the achievement gap. Several meta-analyses and Critics also make the case that
research syntheses have been
✥ the criteria used to group students conducted, and a number of is based on subjective perceptions literature reviews have been and narrow views of intelligence, published. The results of these reviews could easily make one

✥ students in low-achieving groups skeptical about educational are often taught by teachers who research—there is something to are less experienced or capable,
please everyone. Still, there are
✥ students in low-achieving groups areas of consensus, which we highlight below. We begin by
need the presence of brighter
summarizing the impact of
students to stimulate and
ability grouping on academic
encourage them, and
achievement and then examine
✥ students take on labels that stay
evidence on three other topics:
when they are grouped by ability;
instructional differences among
for those in lower-achieving
ability groups, equity and ability
groups, labels may communicate
grouping, and school detracking
self-fulfilling low expectations for
Harsher critics of ability grouping say
that it is just another form of racial
In general, the research suggests
segregation, for when students are
that the effects of ability grouping

on student achievement depend on
the type of grouping arrangement.
✥ Within-class ability grouping
consistently produces larger
gains than mixed ability
grouping especially in
mathematics and in the upper
elementary grades. The
positive effects are slightly
greater for low-achieving
students than for average or
high achievers.
✥ Cross-grade ability grouping
(where students are regrouped
for reading or math instruction
across grade levels) and nongraded plans (where children
are divided by performance
rather than age) also produce
greater gains in reading and
mathematics than mixed-ability
groups. Students of all
achievement levels appear to
benefit equally from these
✥ Between-class ability grouping,
where students spend most of
the day in “high,” “middle,” or
“low” classes and use the same
or similar curricula, do not
result in any achievement
benefits; the ability-grouped
students learn the same amount
as students in mixed ability
✥ Between-class ability grouping,
where students spend most of
the day in ability tracks and use
curricula substantially adjusted
to their ability levels, yields
consistently positive effects for
high-track students. For
students in lower tracks,
however, there is no
appreciable effect on
achievement, positive or
negative. The end result of this
differential impact is a
widening of the achievement
gap between high and low
achievers. The magnitude of

this gap, moreover, has been
found to be greater than the
achievement difference between
students who stay in school and
those who drop out.
✥ Between-class grouping for
particular subjects such as
reading or mathematics, can
produce greater achievement
gains than mixed-ability
groups if the level and pace of
instruction are adapted to
students’ needs, and students
are not regrouped for more that
two subjects. These benefits,
however, have only been
observed for elementary
school students; at the high
school level, the findings are
more equivocal.
The results of studies examining
the quality of instruction in ability
groups basically confirm what
critics of ability grouping argue.
Namely, classroom instruction is
not just different in high-level
classes compared with low-level
classes, it is better. This
qualitative edge, moreover, has
been shown to contribute to
achievement differences between
ability groups and a widening of
the achievement gap. Specifically,
studies have documented the
✥ Instruction in low-track
classes is more often
fragmented, emphasizing
isolated bits of information
rather than sustained inquiry.
By contrast, instruction in
high-ability classes is more
often characterized by
coherence: teachers regularly
interweave reading, writing,
and discussion to help
students relate topics and to
reinforce and build upon
previous learning.

✥ Students in lower tracks
spend more time completing
worksheets and reading
textbooks, while students in
upper tracks are more likely
to participate in hands-on,
active learning.
✥ More off-task behavior
occurs in low-ability classes.
Teachers spend more time on
discipline and less time on
✥ Students in low-ability
classes spend less time on
Some researchers say that
achievement inequalities between
high- and low-ability students
could be reduced significantly by
raising the caliber of instruction in
low-level classes. Studies of
heavily tracked Catholic high
schools, for example, have found
these schools to be successful in
providing low-track students with
a quality education and moving
them to higher tracks as quickly
as possible.
Research also corroborates the
claim that low-income and
minority students are
disproportionately represented in
lower-ability tracks. The
disparities are particularly
evident in mathematics and
science. For example, a recent
National Science Foundation
study of high school graduates
showed that black and Hispanic
graduates were far more likely
than white or Asian graduates to
have taken general or remedial
mathematics courses in high
school, and far less likely to have
taken advanced math courses
such as algebra II, geometry, or
calculus. Similarly, black and
Hispanic students were more

likely than their white or Asian
counterparts to have taken
general science courses rather
than advanced courses such as
chemistry or physics. This gap in
course taking—and, ultimately,
math/science achievement—is
significant considering the strong
link between
scientific/mathematical literacy
and participation in (lucrative)
science- and mathematics-related
occupations. To this point, only 2
percent of scientists and
engineers are black or Hispanic,
far lower than the proportion of
blacks and Hispanics in the

schools have used “choice-based”
enrollment policies as a way of
creating heterogeneous classes.
Under this arrangement, schools
retain their high tracks, but allow
all students who wish to enroll in
advanced classes to do so. A
recently released report, however,
suggests that “choice” plans do
little to change the composition of
high-track classes because poor
and minority students do not take
advantage of the choice.
Institutional barriers, feelings of
inadequacy, and a determination
not to leave the “safe space” of
lower tracks, all appear to
contribute to students’ decisions
not to enroll in advanced courses.

Detracking Efforts
In its simplest form, detracking
involves the move from
homogeneous to heterogeneous
groupings. More comprehensive
forms of detracking include a
fundamental restructuring of
school structures, cultural norms,
pedagogy, and curriculum. At
the classroom level, a completely
detracked program might feature
integrated or theme-based
curricula; cooperative learning
groups; team teaching; peer
tutoring or cross-grade tutoring;
active, hands-on, and
contextualized learning; and
ability grouping for specific
skills instruction.
Not surprisingly, there is limited
research on the benefits of
detracking, as so few schools are
fully detracked. The research that
is there suggests that many
schools have found it politically
difficult to replace tracked
courses of study with
heterogeneous classes. The
greatest concern is that
heterogeneous classes might
depress the achievement of highperforming students. Some

These results are timely given that
increased minority enrollment in
rigorous courses is seen as a
strategy for helping to close the
achievement gap. Apparently,
simply opening up access to hightrack courses is not enough to encourage substantial numbers of
minorities to take them.

Summary and Implications
Key findings from this research
review can be summarized as
✥ Within-class and cross-grade
ability grouping plans benefit
students of all ability levels.
✥ Between-class grouping or
“tracking” benefits high
achievers, provided the tracked
classes use enriched curricula.
✥ Between-class grouping does
not improve the achievement of
low-ability students, but neither
does it harm their learning.
✥ Instruction is qualitatively
better in high-ability tracks
compared with low-ability

✥ Poor and minority students
are disproportionately
represented in low-ability
✥ Detracking remains a
difficult and controversial
process for schools.
✥ To date, there is no solid
research on whether or not
detracking leads to improved
student achievement.
For those whose paramount
concern is equity, these results
make it difficult to justify the
continuation of ability grouping:
poor and minority students are
disproportionately assigned to low
tracks where they receive inferior
instruction and do not benefit
academically. Those concerned
with excellence, however, would
see these results as validating the
practice: high-achieving students
benefit from tracking, no one is
harmed by it, and some parents
would likely transfer their child to
another school if high tracks were
In short, research cannot
conclusively determine whether
ability grouping is better or
worse than heterogeneous
grouping. Nor does it seem that
more research and debate will
resolve the issue. It appears,
then, that decisions about
grouping are best left to teachers,
parents, and principals working
collectively to decide how best to
educate students. There probably
always will be tracked and
untracked schools. The goal
should be to promote quality
education in both settings.

The Balanced View welcomes your
comments on this topic. The primary
references used are available upon

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