Research-Based Information on Timely Topics
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 redeemed 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 terms. Ability grouping, simply put, is the practice of dividing students for instruction on the basis of heir 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 se the term to describe various forms of between-class grouping. How prevalent is ability grouping? 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 eading 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 onors 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 that it is easier for teachers to teach and manage homogeneous classes, low-achieving students feel more comfortable and par- icipate more when they are grouped with peers of similar ability, and divided on the basis of ability they are also divided by race and economics.
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 any 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 racks 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 aught 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 elf-fulfilling low expectations for efforts. learning. Achievement 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 arrangements. 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 classes. 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 articular 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. Instruction 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 lasses, 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 following: 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 pend 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 instruction. Students in low-ability classes spend less time on homework. 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 roviding low-track students with a quality education and moving them to higher tracks as quickly as possible. Equity 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 uch 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 population. chools 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 ully 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 eview can be summarized as follows: 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 tracks. Poor and minority students are disproportionately represented in low-ability tracks. 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 liminated. 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 request.