Education Commentary

When Ability Grouping Makes Good Sense

By James J. Gallagher — October 28, 1992 4 min read

James J. Gallagher is the Kenan Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The goal of heterogeneous grouping appears to be a social one, not an academic one. The desirability of that goal needs to be argued on its own merits, which I believe to be considerable. The argument is clouded, however, by the insistence of the proponents that nothing is lost in academic performance by such grouping. This position is clearly false, in my judgment, as it applies to bright students. Apart from the meta-analyses which indicate substantial gains for gifted students grouped for ability, there is a small matter of common sense.

Do we improve the skills of our Olympic swimmers by asking that they take time to teach nonswimmers how to swim? Is our plan for preparing the next John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors to ask them to play tennis with novices? Are our graduate classes more stimulating if we combine the most sophisticated students with beginners, or will we put the sophisticated student to sleep while we try to bring the new students up to speed? How many teachers, given a choice, would take a class with a range of five grade levels of performance in it compared with one that would have two grade levels?
The attempts to draw from the ability-grouping literature a favorable reading on heterogeneous grouping of bright students are disingenuous, to say the very least. They fall short on the following counts:

  • Different curriculum. If the gifted students are learning about the Fall of Rome in their special class, how do you compare their performance with gifted students in the heterogeneous classroom? This has often been handled by measuring the two groups on their knowledge that they have both been taught. If the groups achieve equally on that measure, then the gifted group is clearly ahead since they know as much as those in the heterogeneous class, and in addition, have their special knowledge of the Fall of Rome.
  • Measuring instruments. Standard achievement tests have often been the measure by which ability grouping is tested. But gifted students clearly bump their heads against the low ceilings of these tests and, therefore, you cannot easily determine how much they really know. The recent move to authentic assessment may help this problem considerably.
  • Failure to use personal perceptions. One of the strongest and clearest judgments against heterogeneous grouping is easily available, if seldom used. You merely have to ask the bright students what they think of the two different settings. The statements of gifted students of crashing boredom, of idleness, of lack of challenge are the most eloquent evidence in favor of some form of ability or performance grouping.
  • International comparisons. The failure of our best students to keep pace with top students in other countries, documented by the work of Harold Stevenson and others, should surely give people pause before they design an educational setting that seems to insure a less-than-optimum performance from our most capable students.

All of these factors are easily perceived. Can it be that the advocates of heterogeneous grouping want to believe so strongly in their position that they prefer to ignore what is obvious to a first-year graduate student or any knowledgeable parent? Those suggesting, or even wishing, to mandate heterogeneous grouping are following an unfortunate recent American belief that “We can have what we want most, at no cost or sacrifice.’' We would almost have to send our political and educational leaders to the dictionary to find the definition of “sacrifice,’' since it is so little used in present dialogue.
The honest argument should be over whether the social goals which are presumably attained through heterogeneous grouping are so important that they are worth the cost of lower academic performance from our brightest students. That is the true question and it can be argued on the basis of values and desired outcomes. To believe there are no costs to what we wish to accomplish is to engage ourselves in unproductive, wishful thinking.
Let us come to the issue of the disproportion of minority students in programs for students with special needs, gifted or retarded. The only reason why people would assume that the demographic proportions in special classes for gifted or retarded youths should come out even to their proportions in the society is to believe that intelligence is a factor fixed at conception--an obvious untruth. The proper solution to these disproportions is not to eliminate programs for the gifted, but to enhance the learning environments and opportunities for children who are at risk for less favorable developmental progress, so that more capable students from all economic and cultural backgrounds will qualify for advanced work, as they surely would.

Our sense of justice and equity requires no less, and the future of our society may well depend upon it.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 1992 edition of Education Week as When Ability Grouping Makes Good Sense