The case for ability grouping

Let’s Go Back to Grouping Students By Ability writes Barry Garelick in The Atlantic. The drive for equity in the ’60s and ’70s eliminated tracking. Most K-8 schools now ask teachers to teach students of diverse backgrounds and abilities in the same classroom, using “differentiated instruction,” writes Garelick, who’s starting a second career as a math teacher. In high schools, what used to be “college prep” is now called “honors.” Courses labeled “college prep” are aimed at low achievers.

Unfortunately, the efforts and philosophies of otherwise well-meaning individuals have eliminated the achievement gap by eliminating achievement. Exercises in grammar have declined to the point that they are virtually extinct. Book reports are often assigned in the form of a book jacket or poster instead of a written analysis. Essays now are “student-centered” — even history assignments often call upon students to describe how they feel about past events rather than apply factual analysis.

Math classes are now more about math appreciation and being able to explain how a procedure works rather than the mastery of skills and procedures necessary to solve problems.

Gifted programs can relegate late bloomers to the non-honors track as early as third grade, he writes. By contrast, ability grouping can be flexible, letting students move up quickly when they’re ready.

A recent analysis of Dallas students found sorting by previous performance “significantly improves students’ math and reading scores” and helps “both high and low performing students,” including gifted and talented students, special education students, and those with limited English proficiency.

Schools are reviving ability grouping and tracking, according to Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.

He suggests a few possible reasons for the reversal: The emphasis on accountability, started by No Child Left Behind, may have motivated teachers to group struggling students together. The rise of computer-aided learning might make it easier for them to instruct students who learn at different rates.

Differentiating instruction for students of widely varying abilities — not to mention motivation and English fluency — is exceptionally challenging.  The “2008 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher reports that many teachers simply find mixed-ability classes difficult to teach,” notes Garelick.

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  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    Is ability grouping or tracking really NOT the norm? Every experience I have with public education – my own in Minnesota and my children’s in New Jersey – includes some pretty aggressive tracking. It is absolutely the norm across most districts in NJ sometime around 3rd grade. It seems gobsmackingly obvious that once kids move beyong early elementary age that it would be almost impossible to teach a high achiever or advanced kid along side a kid with some struggles. Both would be poorly served.

    • Does this include schools where it produced “bad optics”?

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Yep. My son’s high school is diverse, but the honors and AP level classes are filled with primarily Asian and white kids. They offer two specialty schools – called schools within the school. One is a STEMs magnet the other a Latin school. Both require testing for admission. The STEM’s school is mostly Asian, the Latin school mostly white.

  2. Shanice Sanchez says:

    Having a diverse classroom does not need to hurt high achieving students. If we implement recipricol peer tutoring models in the classroom we can help struggling students as well as solidify how well high achieving students can master certain subjects.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Can you provide a citation – some reputable study- that illustrates how diverse ability grouping academically benefits students? Something with “recipricol peer tutoring”?

    • As a kid I read at a very high level. I spent all of elementary school sitting next to kids with reading or behavior problems to tutor them, since I had a lot of spare time once I finished my work. I don’t think that my 7-year old self could help as much as a teacher, and there was nothing to solidify – I could read well, read for fun, and didn’t really need more practice. Groups of fairly equal-ability kids can help each other, but most kids don’t really have the tools to help somebody who is at a totally different level. It’s one thing to help somebody who is confused about a new concept, and another to help somebody who is years behind you.

    • cranberry says:

      The very high achieving students have mastered the concepts.

      I remember when people used to say, “no, we’d never use students as unpaid tutors.” Now it’s presented as something that benefits the kids who’ve mastered concepts. It doesn’t.

      It’s a real waste of time for the students who’ve mastered a concept. They are required to attend school. Without some sort of tracking, they’re condemned to boredom and social difficulties.

      Peers can learn from each other. The Harkness Method is uniquely powerful for serious students, who prepare for class and treat each other with respect.

  3. “Gifted programs can relegate late bloomers to the non-honors track as early as third grade, he writes. By contrast, ability grouping can be flexible, letting students move up quickly when they’re ready.”

    I used to think that most children show their intellectual ability early on, with the exception of those “late bloomers” Thomas Sowell wrote a book about (i.e., late-talking boys).

    But I just gave my daughter the ITBS and CogAT (she’s a young third grader), and she did much worse on math (esp. computation) than one would expect given her understanding of math. She definitely would not test into a gifted math program at this point. However, I called my mother, who reported that I didn’t show any signs of being good at math in early elementary school, yet I ended up being very good by high school and eventually majoring in math in college.

    I’m a fan of flexible ability grouping. Despite her current test scores, I have every reason to believe my third grader will successfully learn calculus before leaving high school. But what do we do when parents get mad about a child being moved to a lower ability group than the one in which they’d been before. Who is going to be happy to have their child “downgraded”? But doesn’t such downgrading have to happen if we going to have homogenous ability groupings? Many gifted children underperform. So much to ponder….

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “Who is going to be happy to have their child “downgraded”?

      This is when the schools needs to exercise a little authority and integrity. They say,…”Currently, this is the appropriate level for your child. S/he may move into a higher level working group if s/he demonstrates the ability to perform comfortably within that group.”

      That would presume the school had some authority and integrity, which is questionable.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        In general you are correct, but there will be parents who want their kids in the *CORRECT* class rather than the most advanced class.


        This is occasionally the case in sports, for example. My son plays little league and two years ago there were at least two kids in his local league who were playing “minors” instead of “majors” who were good enough to play majors. Both of these kids were 10, so the parents weren’t sandbagging … there was just the realization that the kids would (a) have more fun *PLAYING* in the lower level versus sitting on the bench at the higher level, and (b) would improve more by playing a lot against the slightly worse competition rather than playing a little against the slightly better competition.


        Not all parents feel this way, and there are often kids who play “up” one level a year earlier than they should (or need to). Often these parents are very proud that their kid is good enough to play with the big boys a year early, but often these kids are good enough to make the team, but not good enough to play a lot.


        So, I mostly think that lots of parents will be sad to hear that their kid isn’t in the highest grouping, but there will be more rational parents who will realize that reality is what it is and that their kids will benefit more by being in the correct ability group.

  4. I echo Stacy in NJ’s request for a reputable, research-based citation showing that mixed ability grouping increases academic performance for students.