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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Ability Grouping In Schools -- Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 13, 2013 6 min read
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(This post is Part Two in a two-part series. You can see Part One here)

This week’s “question of the week” is:

“What does research say about use of ability groups/tracking, and how have you seen it used or misused? What are workable alternatives?”

Part One in this series shared resources on the topic of ability grouping/tracking, and author/educator Rick Wormeli shared a guest response to the question.

Today, Carol Burris, New York’s 2013 High School Principal Of The Year, and Tammy Heflebower, Vice-President of the Marzano Research Laboratory contribute their thoughts, along with comments from readers.

Response From Carol Burris

Carol Burris is New York’s 2013 High School Principal Of The Year. Burris has been principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre Union Free School District for 13 years. She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Carol is the co-author (with Delia T. Garrity) of Detracking for Excellence and Equity:

The literature on the effects of tracking spans decades and includes several meta-analyses. You will find studies that show small increases in achievement from tracking, others which show decreases, other studies will show no effect and many that show differential effects (positive for high achievers/negative for average and lower achievers). In order to make sense of it all, John Hattie conducted a meta-analysis of more than 300 studies of ability grouping and tracking that included all grade levels and areas of curriculum. He found that overall there was no effect for ability grouping in reading and that the effect in mathematics was slight. Hattie concluded that “tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative effects on equity outcomes.” Hattie also examined the effects on subgroups of students and concluded that “no one profits,” including high achievers, from ability grouping.

The majority of recent studies that focus on ability grouping in the elementary years concur with Hattie’s meta-analyses. Lleras and Rangel found that minority first- and third-grade students who were placed in lower reading groups experienced substantially lower reading gains than students who learned in non-grouped settings. High-group placement results in slightly greater learning gains. Macqueen used an experimental grouped/non-grouped design to study the effects of grouping on elementary student growth in reading, writing and mathematics and found that grouping by achievement produced no learning gains. This finding was consistent whether Macqueen looked at the overall student population or at the subpopulations of lower,
average and higher achievers. Using international data, Hanushek and Woessmann found that early tracking increased inequitable learning outcomes while depressing overall student achievement.

These are important studies because ability grouping with young students is supposedly making a “comeback” thanks to the high stakes testing of NCLB and RTTT--schools are desperate to pump test scores and sadly are resorting to techniques that will only make the gap between high and low achievers spread.

If you are in an integrated school, you can be sure that tracking will result in racially stratified classes. That is well established in the literature no matter what means are used to sort students. The solution, which we have effectively used, is to have no tracking, but plenty of extra support for students who need it. You must also teach the high track curriculum, so that high achievers do not lose out. Differentiation can take place in the classroom whether it be flexible groups at times for reading along with whole class instruction in elementary school, or differentiated, jigsaw activities in the high school classroom. Next year we are blending our IB English classes in grade 12, with some differentiation in rubrics. We are very excited. For the first time there will be absolutely no tracking at all in English Language Arts K-12. Every time we do this, we see achievement go up.

Detracking is more than a mechanical process. It requires a thoughtful, enriched curriculum, good professional development, and a commitment to the belief that every child deserves the best teaching and learning that the school has to offer.

Response From Tammy Heflebower

Dr. Tammy Heflebower is Vice-President of the Marzano Research Laboratory. This is an edited version of her response -- you can see her complete post here.

Ability grouping has been a conversation in education for many years. In fact, some studies date back several years. Meta-analytic reviews show that ability grouping results depend upon the features of the grouping. In across-grade and within-class programs that provide both grouping and the adjustments of the curriculum, for one to two subjects, students outperform control group, mixed-ability classes by 2-3 months on a grade-equivalent scale (Kulik, J., 1992, Slavin, R. 1987). Programs that enrich curriculum show the greatest gains.

Overall, evidence does not support assignment of students to self-contained classes according to ability, but grouping students across-grade for selected subjects or for specific skills. Also, student achievement can increase when groups are frequently reassessed (flexible grouping) with students remaining in heterogeneous classrooms most of the day. A number of additional studies connected student motivation and self-concept. The results of one study (Williams, 1972) found that attempting to group children according to ability may adversely affect their motivation to achieve academically. Therefore, ability grouping should be considered only under the conditions noted above, and monitored frequently.

Responses From Readers

Education Week Teacher blogger Nancy Flanagan shared a great story on ability grouping in music classes, but it was a little too long to publish here. Instead, you can read it in its entirety here.


Tracking certainly is less work for the teacher (except the one teaching the ‘bottom’ track), but I’m not sure it is better for any of the students.


Tracking is not considered an appropriate strategy, but flexible, temporary grouping has a boatload of positive research behind it, provided that appropriate differentiation is used along with it. To avoid the “Buzzards” and “Bluebirds,” use different types of grouping for different learning goals: interest, learning and expression styles, skills’ instruction, and ability or prior knowledge.


My first reaction is that there are a lot of different strategies/concepts wrapped up into this topic, from 2nd grade reading groups to AP classes and tracked middle schools. The research, of course, would say very different things.

I think it’s also important to note that differentiation may have its costs, but that doesn’t render it unimportant. To the extent that ability-grouping is the best way to differentiate, I think it makes sense. Would it make any sense, for example, for a 1st grade class with highly heterogeneous reading skills to be taught the exact same letter-sound sequences? On the other hand, tracking middle schools with no intention of differentiation has shown some pretty bad results, from my understanding.

Thanks to Carol and Tammy, and to readers, for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.