Ability Grouping Strategies

An overview of the research on the ability grouping educational strategy

GROUPING STRATEGIES based on ability are used in various forms in schools and classrooms world-wide, and are certain to arouse discussion, though this is less so in sports and musical areas. The tragic extremes of the debate are probably epitomized on the one hand by students "labeled" at enrolment to the point that their educational paths are fully determined, and on the other by students clearly in need of a particular educational program but denied it on the basis that all students, no matter how different they and their needs may be, should be provided with the "same education".

Beneath this often heated debate, the research provides strong support for ability grouping. Grouping on the basis of ability "with appropriate differentiated instruction" is clearly beneficial, not only to high ability students but also to average and low ability students (Allan 1991).

Grouping strategies can be usefully divided into categories.

1. Within-class ability grouping

Such groupings within mixed-ability classrooms clearly benefit students (Slavin 1986, Karweit 1984). Kulik and Kulik (1989) consider both those within-class ability grouping strategies designed for all students and those targeting only academically talented students. They find the former benefits all students to a small extent whilst the latter shows particularly strong advantage for academically talented students.

The problems of self-fulfilling "labelling" of students in terms of ability level can be minimised by:

  • avoiding conspicuous labelling altogether, allowing groups just to be groups with non-judgemental identifiers if identifiers are required,
  • adopting a student-centred approach to learning where expectations are student-initiated rather than teacher-imposed,
  • not setting group compositions in concrete, but allowing different students to enter and exit as appropriate, including a degree of self-selection and other broad identification procedures, and
  • facilitating different groups for different curriculum areas or units.

There are a multitude of different ways of devising and using ability groups depending on the teacher, class and subject area. They can range from teacher-nominated to those with large degrees of self-selection based on predetermined tasks with clearly different levels of ability and motivation required.

2. "Streaming" classes

Kulik (1985) found that students permanently streamed in classes based on ability slightly outperformed students in non-streamed classes, with the effect strongest in high ability classes, weaker (but still positive) in middle level classes and making no difference in low ability classes. Slavin (1986) found no significant positive or negative effects for such permanent streaming.

Looking solely at gifted and talented programs Kulik (1989) found these students performed significantly better than comparable students in mixed-ability classes.

The research is more uniformly supportive of ability class grouping for specific subject areas. This selective streaming is often applied in mathematics and/or language arts. Slavin (1986) suggests this can be particularly effective:

  • when it is done for only one or two subject areas,
  • when it reduces the range of subject skill levels in each group,
  • when the group composition is frequently reviewed, and
  • when teachers vary the teaching pace accordingly.

Kulik (1989) found selective streaming advantageous even without these constraints.

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Some criticism of ability grouping is based on the supposed negative impact on self-esteem for those students placed in low ability groups. This does not in fact appear to be the case (Allan 1991), with ability grouping having minor, generally positive effects. Indeed there appears to be positive effects on the self-esteem of slower learners with instruction received in homogeneously streamed groups. This is partly offset by slight negative effects for high ability learners in high ability groups. The negative effects of labeling seem to be overshadowed by the actual daily comparison students make with others in their classroom.

The negative effects of labeling can be reduced by minimizing any conspicuous nature of the labeling involved (for example using colours or names of famous people to name groups rather than "advanced", "normal" and "remedial"), and by retaining as much flexibility as possible in terms of group selection and revision. The "role model" argument in favour of heterogeneous groups appears flawed as children of low or average ability do not model themselves on fast learners even when they are in the same class (Schunk 1987).

The weight of argument in favour of ability grouping appears strong with questions now appropriately shifting to how such ability grouping can be most appropriately handled, and to whether it should be across all ability levels or targeted largely at the gifted and talented.


© David Farmer 31 January 1996 - This piece was adapted from text I wrote for an educational video/booklet package Meeting the Needs of Gifted Students in the Regular Classroom

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"To look into this issue more...

Grossen B 1996. How should we group to achieve excellence with equity? Link http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adiep/grp.htm.

Kulik JA ?. An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives .

Winebrenner S, Devlin B 1996. Cluster Grouping of Gifted Students: How to Provide Full-time Services on a Part-time Budget. Search ERIC digests athttp://www.eric.ed.gov/.

And pay particular attention to this comment by Carolyn K on Research on Tracking by Robert E. Slavin:

'Slavin's research is often thrown up as a red herring, but those who do this fail to mention (or are unaware themselves of) a few details about his work: Slavin not only didn't study ability grouping in his big landmark research projects, he never studied gifted kids at all. The top and bottom percentiles of the student population were excluded from the research. So were most of the real problem kids who are now mainstreamed. When Slavin talks about "high ability" students he's talking about the entire upper third of the kids in a school MINUS the top 2-3%. Slavin, in later writings, favors subject and grade-level acceleration for gifted kids.'http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/."