The Pros and Cons of Ability Grouping

High school students in a classroom

Students learn more when appropriately supported and challenged. Does ability grouping achieve these educational aims, or does it exacerbate existing inequities?

At least one-third of all K-12 public schools reported ability grouping in 2017-18, according to the U.S Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The same study found that nearly half of all public middle schools group students according to ability.

Although ability grouping persists as a common practice in schools, transformative education leaders ought to consider ability grouping pros and cons from an equity perspective. The language itself gives rise to equity questions, with some education researchers taking issue with the term “ability grouping.” The term may have ableist connotations, especially if small group instruction is only offered to students with learning gaps. Ability groups may also perpetuate a misconception that such groups are fixed rather than dynamic and flexible according to ongoing assessment data.

To avoid these negative connotations, educators may prefer to call such groups by different names, such as homogeneous groupings, skill-based groups, or leveled groups.

What Is Skill-Based Grouping?

Skill-based grouping divides students into groups based on school aptitude, typically determined by a student’s grades or test scores. Most classrooms contain students with mixed abilities (in which students show differing aptitudes for a variety of subjects). The practice of skill-based grouping aims to support and challenge students at the appropriate level, attending to each student’s current abilities in a given subject.

For example, an elementary school teacher might design a lesson that breaks students into three ability groups: a group for practicing reading basics, a group for independent reading at grade level, and a group for independent reading at above grade level. In subsequent lessons, the teacher might revert to mixed-ability teaching with the entire class, or assign students to different ability groups.

Skill-Based Grouping vs. Tracking

Skill-based grouping differs from another contentious grouping practice in education: tracking.

Tracking tends to have the following characteristics:

  • Large scale (affecting an entire class and/or school)
  • Long term (for multiple school years)
  • Holistic (i.e., a student may only take classes with others on the same track)
  • Fixed (i.e., students stay on their assigned track)

Skill-based grouping, in contrast, is typically:

  • Small scale (three to 10 students per class)
  • Short term (for a single school year or less)
  • Subject specific (i.e., a student might have breakout sessions just for math, or just for reading)
  • Flexible (i.e., teachers may change or rearrange ability groups)

Benefits of Skill-Based Grouping

Proponents of ability grouping argue that the practice enables teachers to cater to students’ needs, pace instruction, navigate classroom challenges, and provide context-specific support to each student.

Skill-based grouping may enable teachers to tailor instruction to the specific needs of their students.

  • Tailored content. Students can benefit from content designed for their specific learning level. For example, a math teacher could provide more tailored instruction on fractions to students struggling with the concept.
  • Appropriate pacing. The National Education Association argues that ability grouping may enable teachers to surround students with peers learning at a similar pace, allowing teachers to tailor the pace of instruction.
  • Addressing class challenges. Advocates of ability grouping say that groupings allow teachers to more easily address specific challenges that arise in class in smaller, more manageable groups.
  • Context-specific support. Teachers who work with students in ability groups may be able to provide more individualized support to students compared to heterogeneous groups.

Critiques of Skill-Based Grouping

Teachers and administrators argue that ability grouping fails to contribute to an educational environment that promotes educational equity and inclusiveness.

Critics of ability grouping argue that this practice deepens the educational attainment divide among students of different socio-economic backgrounds, introduces labels that limit educational achievement, and forecloses educational opportunities for students placed in “lower level” groups.

Implicit Bias and Educational Attainment

According to the NEA Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Grouping, lower level learning groups are disproportionately composed of low-income students and students from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. Researchers have proposed numerous explanations for this that center on implicit bias.

Education policy writer Anne Wheelock has spoken widely about the subjective nature of ability grouping and grading more broadly. Teachers may operate from unconscious implicit biases that associate students of color and students from low-income households with lower levels of educational achievement.

Opponents of ability grouping claim that students in remedial groups receive lower quality instruction, which could contribute to differences in educational attainment.

“Slow” and “Low” as Sticky Labels

Wheelock argues that students easily internalize the labels their teachers give them. With ability grouping, teachers may label students according to their learning pace (i.e., “slow” or “fast”). According to Wheelock, students labeled slow may start to believe that they have a lower capacity to learn, conflating their pace of learning a specific subject with their inherent aptitude.

Students who self-label as slow or low ability face ceilings to achievement. According to a longitudinal study of U.K. math classes by Jo Boaler, Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Mathematics Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, students placed in low-ability groups perceived their potential for success in math as constrained by the ability group teachers routinely placed them in.

Education researcher Anna Mazenod and colleagues argue that students labeled low ability forgo more opportunities for independent learning, relying more heavily on their teachers than needed.

Constraining Future Education

Although defenders of ability grouping may emphasize its flexibility compared to tracking, the educational outcomes may be the same. Critics of ability grouping argue that offering different curricula to students constrains their future educational prospects. Studies find that once students enter an ability group, they tend to remain in that group for the duration of the school year.

Often, only higher level ability groups receive the required instruction to advance to higher level courses in future years. For example, a study of the California algebra-for-all initiative showed that only secondary students in high-ability classes had the requisite instruction to graduate to advanced mathematics courses in high school, according to education researcher Thurston Domina and colleagues.

Advocating for Students

Ability grouping and similar practices by other names continue to spark debate in education. The practice may serve to deepen the racial achievement gap, trading on teachers’ implicit biases. Because ability grouping may be self-fulfilling, critics aver that such practices contribute to elitism and ableism.

Yet, the effectiveness and equity of skill-based grouping must not be evaluated separately from other dynamics in and outside the classroom. In our pluralistic society, it is imperative that teachers learn about and experiment with various methods for teaching heterogeneous classes. In addition to learning subject-specific content and transferable critical thinking skills, students should also experience the value of learning alongside other students with differing skills and abilities.

Making Changes Toward Equity in Education

Equitable change requires leaders with the integrity and skills to effect lasting transformation. Mills College prepares students with a collaborative leadership model that values inclusion and equity. Learn more about its online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program, an online program designed for public and independent school teachers who want to advance their careers while working full time.

How to Promote Change and Equality in Education

Social Justice in Education: The Role Educational Leaders Play

How to Be a Transformational Leader in Education

Sources

American Educational Research Journal, “Detracking and Tracking Up: Mathematics Course Placements in California Middle Schools, 2003-2013”

Becky Francis, Becky Taylor, Antonia Tereshchenko; Reassessing “Ability” Grouping: Improving Practice for Equity and Attainment

Institute of Education Sciences, “Pre-COVID Ability Grouping in U.S. Public School Classrooms”

Review of Educational Research, “What One Hundred Years of Research Says About the Effects of Ability Grouping and Acceleration on K–12 Students’ Academic Achievement: Findings of Two Second-Order Meta-Analyses”

Teachers College Record, **“Ability Grouping in the Early Grades: Long-Term Consequences for Educational Equity in the United States”

Scholastic, “Hot Topic: Does Ability Grouping Help or Hurt?”

Seattle PI, “The Pros & Cons of Ability Grouping in Elementary Schools”