Should It Be OK To Place Students In “Ability Groups”?

New findings based on more than 20 years of research suggest that despite decades of controversy, elementary school teachers now feel fine placing students in “ability groups,” reports Greg Toppo in a very interesting article in USA Today:

“The research, produced by the centrist Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on American Education, finds that between 1998 and 2009, the percentage of fourth-grade teachers who said they created ability-based reading groups skyrocketed from 28% to 71%. In math, between 1996 and 2011, the practice rose from 40% to 61%. The practice remained fairly constant in eighth-grade math, rising from 71% to 76%. Data for other eighth-grade subjects was incomplete or inconclusive.

Brookings researcher Tom Loveless said the practice, frowned upon for decades and dubbed a civil-rights issue in the 1990s, likely gave way in the last decade to new demands from the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which required schools to focus on struggling students in reading and math.

‘Despite decades of vehement criticism and mountains of documents urging schools to abandon their use, tracking and ability grouping persist—and for the past decade or so, have thrived,’ Loveless said.

Grouping works within a single class and is typically done just at the elementary school level. Tracking is a larger, more institutionalized form of grouping that involves moving students into different classes. It generally takes place in middle school and high school.

Patrick Boodey, principal of Woodman Park School in Dover, N.H., said the new findings on ability grouping are accurate but added that teachers have gotten more sophisticated: They now use ‘dynamic grouping’ that moves students as their skills improve. Groups sometimes change week to week. ‘It’s constant,’ he said.” (Read more here.)

This last point is the key. If the ability groupings are truly “dynamic”—if they are fluid and responsive to changes in students’ developing skill levels—then they carry exactly the opposite message from the old-style fixed groups. Dynamic grouping tells kids: If you work hard, you can improve.

Of course, there are also benefits to combining students of different ability levels together, and I hope teachers find opportunities to do that as well.

What do you think? Have you had experiences with ability groups, old- or new-style—either your own or your children’s?

8 Responses to “Should It Be OK To Place Students In “Ability Groups”?”

  1. Nathan Armstrong says:

    I found this quite interesting as I don’t believe this has ever been a controversial issue here in New Zealand. It’s been standard teaching practice (especially in Reading and Maths) for as long as I can remember and, as someone who is currently doing an Education degree, it’s the main pedagogical practice we are taught to use in the classroom. It’s very much a dynamic system and groups can be created in plenty of ways. Students “move up” to different groups through out the year and are constantly assessed to ensure that they are in the right group.
    I’ve been lucky to have visited and been involved in many International Schools worldwide and have often found they have fantastic things to say about the New Zealand Mathematics and Reading Curriculums and speak highly of the quality of teachers that have gone through the New Zealand system.

  2. kathy grewell says:

    Ability grouping only makes sense. My son is an excellent golfer. Do I like to play golf with him…No. While I enjoy it, I am at the novice level, he is at the advanced. He does not like to wait for me. I am intimidated by him. I have always grouped in my elementary classrooms. Groups would change according to interests and abilities. The groups were fluid. As for the struggling students having a steady diet of low expectations that is the fault of the teacher. The expectations should always be just a touch challenging so the learner has to just stretch a little. All students should have lessons that are keep them engaged and learning. This of course takes a little more prep time, but God help the child whose teacher thinks that teaching is an 8:00 – 4:00 job. It is a service job, and God bless the teacher who realizes that it is a calling!

  3. Loi Laing says:

    In specifically addressing where the article says “Grouping works within a single class and is typically done just at the elementary school level,” my high school as well as a vast majority in the county are required to group the kids based on data. What’s frustrating is that the data is sometimes conflicting and not current. The groupings have to be displayed where visitors can observe, and if any changes are made to the groups they must be justified. So grouping has become a major part of the high school experience, and determines their class placement.

  4. Shawn Ryan says:

    I am a music teacher in the public school system and I remember discussing this at length in my education courses in college. There are also people that would like to have ability based schools in general. Students would be placed in classrooms or schools based on testing criteria that involved not only cognitive ability, but learning style all together. This would also be regardless of their age, gender, race, etc. This scenario brings up all kinds of debate like diversifying communication skills with so many kids constantly interacting with peers that are only in their same ability level and breaking age stereotypes for grade level. I personally teach music, and in different ensemble settings, I like to do both. I have musical groups of like ability and also varying so they can diversify their abilities.

  5. Manuela Ippolito says:

    Are you suggesting to move elementary students to different locations/classrooms for reading at their level? Or, grouping them within their homeroom class, fir guided reading according to their level? This is a debate I’m having currently, with my team…I personally like to do differentiated centers, while meeting with small leveled groups.
    I can’t tell what is being suggested?
    Can you elaborate? I’m feeling a little slow thinking on this one
    Thanks for the post!

  6. peter Irons says:

    I have just read the blog on the Pygmalion effect. Too often grouping is a way of reinforcing socio-economic stratification ensuring the polarisation of our societies rather than enabling ‘appropropriate’ education.

  7. The main questions to ask about grouping are: “Are you stigmatizing the child?” “Is the child being separated from his friends, and therefore losing self-esteem?” Children know who is in the lower groups, and the ones in the higher groups think that they are smarter than those kids. Many times the child in the lower group just learns differently. We also think that the student that makes the best grades is the person who has the most success in life, and that’s not the case. Most “A” students are saying, “Good morning, boss” to the “C” students.

  8. I agree with grouping by ability but suggest that this should be refined by grouping in terms of areas of specific need. We will be releasing literacy management systems in a few months that will automatically identify subskill levels in every child so that the teacher can provide speciofic remediation for specific needs in specific children. We hope that will make for targetted grouping.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for The Brilliant Report, a monthly newsletter full of the latest findings on how to learn smarter:

Close