Executive Skills & Strategy Opinion

Setting the Record Straight on Ability Grouping

By Paula Olszewski-Kubilius — May 20, 2013 3 min read
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If committed educators could be easily trained to implement a low-cost intervention that boasted consistent learning gains for all students, headlines would herald the discovery of the educational holy grail.

That low-cost intervention is here and readily available. It’s called ability grouping. Unfortunately, despite overwhelming evidence that the flexible and appropriate use of this intervention benefits learners at all levels, some have opted to smear it as an evil twin of tracking and to lament its resurgence in the nation’s classrooms.

Flexible ability grouping, when used appropriately, works. According to a 2010 meta-analysis by Kelly Puzio and Glenn Colby, students who were grouped by ability within a class for reading were able to make up to an additional “half of a year’s growth in reading.” Similarly, a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study of students who were grouped by ability found that the performance of both high and low performing students significantly improved in math and reading, demonstrating the universal utility of this tool, particularly as our classrooms become more academically diverse.

For years, ability grouping has been unduly criticized and misconstrued. Contrary to what some may say, flexible ability grouping is not tracking, which typically sets a far more rigid and defined path for a student to traverse and where breaking out of one track and into another often requires the skills of Harry Houdini.

Flexible ability grouping could not be more different. When used properly, ability grouping does not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from moving—either up or down—during their educational careers. Rather, flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student’s readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time.

Ability grouping should not be static. Rather, flexible ability grouping, as its name implies, is an ongoing process where student assignments can and do change based on performance, requiring teachers to be on the lookout for signs of improved competency and skill development in their students.

It must be based on student performance data so decisions are objective and not subject to bias, and it must be customized by subject, never assuming that because a student is either advanced or in need of remediation in one subject he or she would require that same level of instruction in all subjects.

Constant Reassessment

To understand how flexible ability grouping works, imagine the following scenario: A 2nd grader’s past performance, including test scores, indicates he needs some additional support in reading. As a result, at the start of the school year, he starts off in a less-advanced reading group.

Over the course of several months, as a result of instruction aimed just above his skill level, his reading ability improves markedly. Based on daily work, his teacher notes this progress and moves him to a more advanced reading group. This same process of grouping based on data and reexamining based on performance happens constantly throughout the year for all students.

As noted above, ability grouping is not an effortless panacea for all of our education woes. Teachers must be willing and able to detect signs students are demonstrating changes—hopefully for the better—in their learning abilities and thus may be ready for movement to a different group. They must also be trained on how to differentiate their instruction to learners at different levels within the same classroom. To be effective, this requires that teachers are able to add advanced content and adjust pacing for students who are ready to move ahead. It’s important to emphasize that without modified instruction, the learning gains that are possible will fail to materialize.

When flexible ability grouping is used appropriately and effectively, students win. They receive the right content at the right time from teachers better able to direct their instruction to a smaller group of students. Additionally, because the students are concentrated with others who have similar levels of knowledge and learning rates and clear learning goals, they can better challenge one another to grow further.

The latest evidence makes clear that flexible ability grouping is effective, enabling students to make the types of gains all educators should desire and expect. The time has come to dispel the myths, to stop criticizing ability grouping using disingenuous rhetoric and to redouble efforts to support teachers and others as to how to appropriately use this tool so all students can maximize their abilities and achieve their full potential.


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