Is ability grouping the way to go, or should it go away?
Whether or not ability grouping is an effective strategy for the instruction of students of different academic abilities is a hotly debated issue, with divergent evidence. Some research has indicated that grouping students according to ability promotes increased achievement, while other research has demonstrated that stratifying students according to achievement has detrimental effects. This study aims at evaluating whether students in grouped vs. non-grouped learning situations differ in academic and personal factors, and whether differences also exist within the grouped situation between low and high-ability students.
Introduction and Literature Review
Ability grouping in schools has been a continuously debated topic among teachers, administrators and researchers. Whether it is beneficial or not to separate students according to aptitude or ability level has been extensively discussed and researched, and evidence has been provided in support of both sides of the argument. The rationale behind ability grouping is that segregating students according to academic ability improves achievement. Research has demonstrated minimal differences in outcomes of standardized tests and examination performance between schools with ability grouping and those without. However, other research has found significant differences in achievement between schools with ability grouping and those without, with some studies demonstrating the success of ability grouping and others demonstrating its failure (Ireson & Hallam, 1999). Does ability grouping matter? Does is significantly impact the academic achievement and self-esteem of students? If so, in what direction? Does the existing research support the practice of ability grouping, or demonstrate its ineffectiveness?
It is often believed that grouping pupils according to ability contributes to raising standards. Ability grouping is practiced widely throughout schools to some extent. In a study by Hallam et al. (2003), it was found that schools predominantly adopt within class ability groupings, either mixed or ability grouped, for most subjects. The practice of ability grouping was found to be most common in mathematics, followed by English and science. The implementation of ability grouping was found to increase as pupils progressed throughout school. If ability grouping is so widely accepted, why is it surrounded with so much controversy?
There are several reasons why the practice of ability grouping is shrouded with controversy. Borland et al. (2002) offer some suggestions as to why this topic is so often debated. First, ability grouping is practiced in response to individual differences among students. Controversy is often elicited in many facets of life when the issue involves differences in ability, especially in this case, where differences are measured by standardized tests. A second reason for concern regarding ability grouping is that the differences emphasized in ability grouping often tie in with social issues, such as socio-economic class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Thirdly, the term ability grouping does not refer to one type of grouping, but encompasses several types of learning arrangements. These grouping arrangements range from tracking and homogeneous grouping, to heterogeneous grouping and flexible grouping. All of these types of ability groupings function by dividing students up according to certain criteria, but they differ in severity of segregation and criteria used.
Tracking is the most extreme form of ability grouping (Borland et al., 2002). This type of grouping involves sorting pupils according to a standard measure of achievement or ability, such as achievement tests, IQ, or GPA. Pupils are arranged into "tracks" ranging from the highest ability to the lowest ability, and often remain in these homogeneous groupings for the entirety of their schooling, regardless of any performance differences between subjects. Also, mobility between tracks is rarely possible, which results in students remaining in the same track throughout their education, irrespective of changes in academic, personal or social factors.
Another problem with tracking is that it is usually based on standardized test, such as IQ tests, which have been found to discriminate according to race and socio-economic status (Borland et al. 2002). Therefore, in diverse schools, upper tracks are composed mainly of middle and upper-middle class Asian and White students, while the lower tracks are disproportionately composed of lower class Black children. This is a major cause for concern due to the possibility of students being tracked inaccurately. In addition, IQ does not provide an accurate indication about students' current instructional needs, and grouping according to IQ without differentiation in curriculum stratifies students, and is not in the best interest of their education.
With tracking aside, there are other forms of ability grouping that have more support (Borland et al., 2002). The most innocuous and widespread type of ability grouping occurs when teachers use within class, heterogeneous grouping to group students in their mixed ability classrooms for instruction in different subjects. This is a very common practice often used by most elementary school teachers, who divide their classes up into two or more math or reading groups. This practice is widely accepted due to general acknowledgement that some children have better comprehension than others, or are at different levels in the curriculum. Therefore, in a heterogeneous classroom, exclusive whole class instruction is often considered to be ineffective and inefficient.
Flexible grouping is a type of ability grouping that has shown promise, and is advocated by many within the gifted education field (Borland et al., 2002). Flexible grouping is the process of grouping students according to their current performance levels on a subject-by-subject basis. This type of ability grouping allows for the provision of instruction that meets the students' current needs. Flexible grouping is better than tracking because students are grouped appropriately differently according to different subjects, not one IQ test. This is more realistic than the underlying assumption in tracking that all students in a track are at the same level in every subject. Flexible grouping is also superior to tracking in its ability to accommodate to changes in the needs of students, motivationally, academically, and developmentally. Tracking is inherently based on the assumption that students are stratified into high and low levels across the board. On the other hand, flexible grouping is based on the idea that students should be grouped according to their current needs in various subjects, not according to their overall "achievement."
However, flexible grouping is not put into practice that easily. Administratively, scheduling becomes difficult if flexible grouping is extended to all subjects. Also, the success of flexible grouping depends on greater acceptance of different curriculum within heterogeneously grouped classes, and allocation of more material and human resources.
There are several misconceptions and misinterpretations commonly held concerning ability grouping. Fiedler et al. (2002) discussed commonly held myths surrounding ability grouping in an attempt to emphasize practical realities in order to encourage schools to provide equality of opportunity rather than sameness in experience for all pupils, with a focus on the needs of gifted students. The first myth uncovered by Fiedler et al. (2002) is that tracking and ability grouping are the same thing. This, of course, is not true, and the differences between tracking and other types of ability grouping are evident, as discussed previously.
The second myth addressed by Fiedler et al. (2002) is that ability grouping is elitist. Some may argue that placing gifted students in groups may lead to snobbery, but the authors of this paper maintain the contrary. The authors suggest that unless gifted students are placed in situations where they can be challenged by intellectual peers, the chances of them developing an elitist attitude might be expected to increase. Moreover, the authors also argue that students need to develop a realistic appraisal of their own ability through comparison, and this comparison is more likely to be accurate when made with others of similar abilities.
A third myth addressed by the authors is that ability grouping inevitably discriminates against students of ethnic and racial minorities. The authors explain how Educators of gifted students have made great strides in changing identification methods. Great changes are being made to overcome the inequities of reliance on standardized test score data. The trend is moving away from standardized tests and toward improved approaches that involve evaluating the behaviors of pupils for indications of gifted potential.
The fourth myth discussed by the authors is that grouping by ability does not result in improved achievement or learning for gifted students. This myth is refuted by evidence that indicates how gifted students benefit affectively and cognitively by working with other gifted students. Grouping gifted and talented students with differentiated curriculum results in higher academic achievement and better academic attitudes. This grouping of gifted students has also been found to result in no decline in attitudes or achievement for the students who remain in regular heterogeneous classrooms. Moreover, Fiedler et al. (2002) indicate that grade-level achievement tests fail to reveal growth or improvement for students who already perform at the top of their class. This occurs because these top students have reached the ceiling of the test, which are the highest attainable scores for that age group. The only way to determine actual gains in achievement for these exceptional students is through the administration…