Ability grouping is the practice of teaching homogeneous groups of students, stratified by achievement or perceived ability. Among the various forms of ability grouping are within-class ability grouping, cross-grade grouping, and between-class ability grouping, also known as tracking. Several comprehensive research reviews have explored whether or not students benefit from ability grouping methods, with effects varying depending on the method of grouping examined. Within-class and cross-grade grouping share features that appear to benefit a broad range of students. The research shows between-class grouping to be of little value for most students, and researchers widely criticize this practice because, by definition, it creates groups of low achievers.
In cross-grade and within-class ability grouping, students identify with a heterogeneous class, although they are homogeneously grouped for instruction in only one or two subjects, usually reading, math, or both. Flexibility in grouping allows students to change groups based on changes in performance. In cross-grade grouping plans, students, assigned to heterogeneous classes for most of the day, regroup across grade levels for reading and sometimes other subjects. Within-class ability grouping involves teacher-assigned homogeneous groups for reading or math instruction, and evidence shows this produces gains in student achievement when compared with heterogeneous grouping or whole class instruction. Furthermore, because the teacher determines students’ group placements, students have more opportunity to move up into higher groups as their skills and abilities improve.
Common forms of between-class grouping include multilevel classes, which split same-grade students into separate classes, usually high, middle, and low. Also included in between-class grouping are accelerated or enriched classes for high achievers and special or remedial classes for low achievers.
In various forms, between-class ability grouping has been a common school practice since the early 20th-century Industrial Revolution, when curricula were increasingly differentiated into vocational and academic tracks. During the 1960s, concern about U.S. students’ standing in math and science compared with students abroad increased emphasis on special programs for the top achievers. At the same time, heightened concern about racial discrimination and segregation, poverty, and social inequity fostered the growth of programs aimed at leveling the playing field. A multitude of programs targeting specific categories of children emerged, including gifted education, compensatory education, special education, and bilingual programs. The existence of these programs strengthened convictions that standardized education could not best serve all children, and so schools grew more and more differentiated.
In theory, between-class ability grouping reduces homogeneity, allowing teachers to develop curricula more effectively according to the unique needs of their group. Whereas a teacher of low-achieving students might focus attention on specific skill remediation, repetition, and review, a teacher of high achievers might provide a more challenging curriculum and increased instructional pace. Research findings point to the benefits of accelerated classes for high-achieving students but show mixed results for average and low-achieving students, ranging from small positive gains to small negative losses in these students’ achievement levels.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the effects of between-class grouping came under attack. Although created in the name of educational equality, stratified educational programs may have actually widened the achievement gap between more and less economically advantaged groups. Critics point to the disproportionate representation in low-track classes of children from lower socioeconomic groups, who tend to be predominantly Latin American and African American. Wealthier white students disproportionately populate high tracks. Lower-track students experience a curriculum far less rigorous than their high-achieving counterparts. Lower-achieving students in homogeneous groups lack the stimulation and academic behavior models provided by high achievers. Further exacerbating the problem, the act of categorizing students has a stigmatizing effect: Teachers tend to develop lowered expectations for children in lower tracks. Students in these groups may be denied opportunities to advance academically, and struggling learners consigned to lower tracks often remain there for life.
Efforts at detracking began in earnest in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For example, in 1990 the National Education Association recommended that schools abandon conventional tracking practices, stating that they lead to inequity in learning opportunities. In that same year, the Carnegie Corporation declared that the creation of heterogeneous classrooms was key to school environments that are democratic as well as academic. Courts around the nation ruled that the tracking system segregated students and restricted Latino/a and African American access to high-quality curricula. Despite the detracking movement, many schools continue to sort students based on perceived ability, with students of color disproportionately tracked into the lowest classes in racially mixed schools; racially segregated schools predominantly house either higher or lower tracks.
Objections to detracking come mostly from educators and parents of high-achieving students. Many worry that detracking results in the elimination of enriched and accelerated classes for the fastest learners and that the achievement level of such students falls when these classes are not available. Indeed, the argument for providing special classes for the most academically advanced students is currently regaining strength, with the recent emphasis on standardized testing. Results from research on the effects of accelerated classes on the gifted have been positive and significant.
Studied and debated for almost 100 years, ability grouping still elicits controversy. Flexible grouping based on ability in individual subjects can help struggling learners overcome their academic obstacles, allowing them to learn at an appropriate pace, and can challenge the fastest learners. However, tracking students from an early age leads them to very different life destinations and propagates the inequality and injustice that education is meant to help overcome.
- Kulik, James A. and Chen-Lin C. Kulik. 1992. “Meta-Analytic Findings on Grouping Programs.” Gifted Child Quarterly 36:73-77.
- Loveless, Tom. 2003. The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED422454).
- Oakes, Jeannie. 2005. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Slavin, Robert E. 1987. “Ability Grouping and Student Achievement in Elementary Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis.” Review of Educational Research 57:293-336.
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