Ability Grouping: A Research Synthesis of Tracking, Student Achievement, and Social Implications

A Research Synthesis of Tracking, Student Achievement, and Social Implications

Caitlin Smith, University of North Carolina Charlotte

Abstract

            Ability grouping is the practice of separating students based on academic ability. This research synthesis aims to examine ability grouping in relation to tracking, student achievement and social implications. There is not a substantive amount of data that shows the benefits of ability grouping for all children; however, minimal data does support ability grouping of high achieving students. Even less data supports ability grouping of low performing students. Low performing groups are mainly consisted of African American and Hispanic students. Tracking is a form of ability grouping and is often used in high schools to describe the permanent division of students based on previous academic achievement. Research in this synthesis supports that ability grouping causes a division amongst student race and class. Ability grouped classes are often segregated and cause anxiety for some students unable to keep up with the pace. Research suggests that ability grouping creates a hierarchy in which high achieving students are at the top and low performing students dangle at the bottom.

In order to combat the issues presented by the practice of ability grouping, theorists advise that ability grouping be combined with other initiatives and support to be successful. The research in this synthesis concludes that ability grouping is a disadvantage to low performing students. Ability grouping also creates educational inequality for low performing students, especially minorities. By solely combining low performing students, the achievement gap widens. Additional support is needed to help all students succeed, and ability grouping is not the only solution.

Ability Grouping: A Research Synthesis of Tracking, Student Achievement, and Social Implications

Ability grouping is the separation of students into groups or classes based on academic aptitude (Boaler, Wiliam, & Brown, 2000; Gamoran, Nystrand, Bereneds, & LePore, 1995; Kulik, 1992; Neihart, 2007). It is one of the oldest and most debated topics in education (Ansalone, 2010; Boaler, et al., 2000; Slavin, 1987; Tieso, 2003). Essentially, ability grouping aims to increase student achievement by reducing heterogeneity, making it easier for the teacher to provide maximum instruction for all students (Slavin, 1987).

According to the National Education Association (NEA), the two most common forms of ability grouping are within-class grouping and between-class grouping (n.d.). Within-class grouping requires the teacher to separate students by achievement into small groups within the same classroom environment (Ansalone, 2009; NEA, n.d.; Slavin, 1987; Tieso, 2003). Within-class grouping has also become known as differentiation. Typically, within-class grouping requires the teacher to teach a lesson to the entire class and afterwards, provide students with activities that accommodate their needs (Slavin, 1987). According to Slavin (1987), students may be placed into flexible “mastery groups” (p.296), in which “masters” (p.296) of the content complete enrichment assignments and “nonmasters” (p.296) of the content presented receive additional, corrective instruction.

Between-class grouping (NEA, n.d.; Tieso, 2003) or XYZ grouping (Kulik, 1992), separates students in the same grade level into different classroom environments based on their academic achievement. Slavin (1987) categorized between-class grouping as “regrouping” (p.295) for reading or mathematics in which all students of the same heterogeneous grade level are “re-sorted” (p. 295) into homogenous reading or mathematics groups. Within-class grouping is more common in elementary schools, whereas, between-class grouping is more common in secondary schools (Lleras & Rangel, 2009; Neihart, 2007).

There are many additional methods used to group learners by ability. Cross-grade grouping is a term used to describe the placement of students from different grades in the same class based on academic performance (Kulik, 1992; Slavin, 1987). Slavin (1987), also described the Joplin plan, a method in which students are heterogeneously grouped for majority of the day then separated across grade levels for reading. Non-graded grouping is a method used to place students in flexible groups according to their level of achievement, not their age (Slavin, 1987). Accelerated classes for the gifted, talented and high achieving students work through the curriculum rapidly and can possibly finish at an earlier age than expected (Kulik, 1992; Slavin, 1987). Kulik (1992) defined enriched classes for the gifted and talented as a delivery of the curriculum through a variety of experiences. Low achievers may also be grouped by achievement to remedial classes (Slavin, 1987).

Over the years, the previously mentioned methods of ability grouping have been implemented and heavily debated amongst theorists (Gamoran, 2009; Lleras & Rangel, 2009; Oakes, 2008; Rosenbaum, 1980; Selah, Lazonder, & De Jong, 2004; Slavin, 1987). According to the U.S. Department of Education and Consortium for School Networking (as cited in U.S. Department of Education, 2011), policymakers advised districts to engage in “data-driven decision making” as a counterpart to “research-based practice.” (p.3). Data-driven decision-making has helped teachers group students within the classroom by ability based on their specific needs (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). The benefits, although minimal, of ability grouping have favored gifted and high achieving students (Brulles, Saunders & Cohn, 2010; Gamoran, et al., 1995; Kulik, 1992; J. Kulik & C. Kulik, 1982, 1992; Rowan & Miracle, 1983; Slavin, 1987; Hallinan & Sørensen , 1986; Tieso, 2003). However, according to Saleh, Lazonder, & De Jong (2005) favorable research of grouping high achievers is inconsistent (2005). Researchers, (Lou, Abrami, Spence, Poulsen, Chambers and d’Apollonia, 1996; Tieso, 2003) have reported multiple inconsistencies of various studies (Kulik, 1992; Kulik & Kulik, 1982, 1992; Slavin, 1987). These limitations of the aforementioned studies include a disparity in content taught, exclusion of groups, and a lack of comparative data.

In addition to a lack of efficient research, ability grouping becomes an issue when classes of low achievers are created (Slavin, 1987; Tieso, 2003). Kulik and Kulik indicated that disadvantaged students experience negative effects of ability grouping, especially in the areas of self-concept and student achievement (1982). Pallas, Entwisle, Alexander & Stluk (1994) argued that ability grouping creates educational inequality for lower performing students. The following synthesized presentation of ability grouping subtopics reveals three challenges for both low and high performing students of this highly debated practice: tracking, student achievement, and social implications.

Tracking

Tracking is a form of ability grouping and is often used to describe the permanent separation of students based on prior and perceived academic achievement (Ansalone, 2009; Tieso, 2003). In her study, Hallinan (1994) expressed that secondary school students were assigned to either academic, general, or vocational tracks. Students were then guided to select appropriate classes within their track to prepare them for further education or a career. Students were typically assigned to a track based on previous assessment data, teacher recommendation and prerequisite courses (Hallinan, 1994). Supporters of tracking highlight its effectiveness and ability to enhance self-development whereas opponents emphasize its ability to inadequately distribute equal learning opportunities (Ansalone, 2009). Tracking or streaming is typically associated with middle and high school students, whereas ability grouping is most common at the elementary level (Slavin, 1993).

According to Ansalone (2009), critics of tracking argue that lower tracks are taught using a mediocre curriculum. Research by Ansalone (2009) also revealed that economically advantaged students are likely to be placed in upper tracks which usually lead to an extensive curriculum and career opportunities. In her study, Flashman (2012) found that high achieving students interacted with high achieving students and the same with low achieving students.  Flashman’s (2012) study reported factors such as friends of similar academic levels and teachers to be influential in a student’s future after high school. Teachers often form opinions of students based on their track assignments and are more favorable and supportive of students placed in higher tracks (Ansalone, 2009). Tracking creates an unfair learning environment in which students, specifically lower tracked students, are labeled (Ansalone, 2009). In their study of the effects of ability grouping, Boaler et al. (2000) revealed that teachers change their teaching approaches when teaching high performing students due to the assumption that the students are more intelligent and capable of thinking quickly. Boaler et al. (2000) also reported that teachers had low expectations for the students assigned to low tracks. Ansalone and Biafora’s (2004) study results found that teachers altered their teaching delivery based on the track of the class.

Student Achievement

According to Slavin (1987), ability grouping is supposed to increase student achievement by reducing the academic diversity of the instructional group, making it easier for the teacher to provide instruction that is designed to specifically meet the needs of the learners. Rowan and Miracle (1983) stated that sufficient evidence of ability grouping on student achievement did not emerge until the 1970s. However, the supportive research of ability grouping reflect that an increase in student achievement is limited to high achieving students (Brulles et al., 2010; Gamoran, et al., 1995; Kulik, 1992; J. Kulik & C. Kulik, 1982, 1992; Rowan & Miracle, 1983; Slavin, 1987; Hallinan & Sørensen , 1986; Tieso, 2003). Student achievement is one of the prime foci of many school districts. In their study, Brulles, et al. (2010) concluded that student achievement is related to ability grouping for gifted students when they found that gifted students learned more in a year when grouped homogeneously rather than heterogeneously. Gamoran, et al. (1995), concluded that achievement and participation of honors grouped high school students were very high compared to other students as well. Student achievement is directly related to ability grouping because, often times, the data delivered in favor of ability grouping focuses on the gifted learners’ achievement and ignores the remaining learners. (Tieso, 2003).

Where does this leave the remaining average and low performing students? Slavin (1987) reported that the low achieving students experience a slower pace and lower quality of instruction than their peers. Pallas et al. (1994) argued that ability grouping creates inequity for lower performing students. These students are not offered the same stimulation and challenges from being the same classroom as their high achieving peers (Slavin, 1987). Furthermore, Sørensen (1970) concluded that the student achievement data of ability grouping are differential, thus providing minimal support of the practice.

In their study, Schweiker-Marra and Pula (2005) examined a low-performing homogenous class of at-risk students. The researchers sought to determine if the students would demonstrate an increase in academic success. Schweiker-Marra and Pula (2005) also researched to define instructional strategies that correlated to the academic success of at-risk students. Schweiker-Marra and Pula’s (2005) results were positive, as academic achievement of low performing students increased. The following three factors also impacted student achievement: teachers had 15-30 years of experience, disciplinary programs were enforced to manage behavior, and strategies were taught to improve attitudes and self-esteem. Brulles et al. (2010) studied the effects of placing gifted learners into both homogeneous and heterogeneous classrooms. The findings of their action research revealed growth in students with a properly trained teacher. The teachers involved in this study received monthly professional development. The findings in this study support Schweiker-Marra and Pula’s (2005) results that academic gains can be made with teacher experience. Research by Gamoran et al., (1995) followed the performance of homogenously grouped high school students and revealed that honors students were able to benefit more from the grouping. However, their research also suggested that the caliber of instruction be increased to better meet the needs of all students (Gamoran et al., 2005). These studies (Bruelles et al., 2010; Gamoran et al., 1995; Schweiker-Marra & Pula, 2005) support the belief of Tieso (2003), that ability grouping must be combined with additional initiatives to be successful. 

Social Implications

Self-Concept

Saleh et al. (2005) concluded that low ability students were more motivated when surrounded by their peers of various abilities. In their study, MacIntyre and Ireson (2002) found that self-concepts of high achieving students were higher than self-concepts of low achieving students. Boalar et al. (2000) completed a study of 943 students to examine their experiences of ability grouping. Students were grouped accordingly, observed and interviewed by the UK researchers. Boalar et al. (2000) found that students were displeased when separated from their peers and grouped into “homogeneous sets.”(p. 631). The students were aware and constantly reminded by teachers of their specific set placements as well. The results of this research revealed that students in the low groups had little to no hope or motivation to “move up” to a higher performing class. (Boalar, et al, p. 644). Saleh et al. (2005) reported that low performing students’ motivational beliefs decreased after being placed into a homogenous low performing class. Once placed into a class grouped by ability, low performing students’ social interactions decreased as well (Selah et al., 2005). Boalar et al. (2000) also found that students moved through assignments at different paces and grew bored, even in the low sets. Students interviewed in this study reported issues of anxiety, depression, and pressure from teachers. Their research suggests that students are produced into and predicted to be successes or failures depending on their set placement (Boalar et al., 2000). The findings of this study concluded that students enjoyed heterogeneous grouping more than homogenous grouping as students reported that “students can learn from each other” (p. 642).

Selah et al. (2005) concluded that low achieving students are more motivated when placed into a heterogeneous class. By placing students into a heterogeneous class, they are introduced to higher learning goals and motivated by capable peers (Selah et al., 2005). MacIntyre and Ireson (2002) reported that students’ self-concept was stagnant throughout the study unless students were misplaced into the incorrect homogenous group. The self-concept of students decreased after realizing that they were expected to complete tasks that were far beyond their understanding. According to Eder (1983), student knowledge of their placement may have an effect on student self-concept and belongingness to the classroom. 

Class Demographics

            According to Donelan, Neal & Jones (1994), in the early 20th century, children from freed African and European immigrants began to attend public schools in the United States, a school system that had only served a homogeneous populace of children from Caucasian middle and working class families (as cited in Cubberley, 1934; DeYoung & Richard, 1960; Duke & Canady, 1990). Essentially the idea of ability grouping was perfect for an educational society that embodied Social Darwinism, or the belief that the lower classes are fundamentally lesser, thus encouraging the practice of separating students into groups based on performance (Donelan, et al., 1994). According to Donelan et al., the early 1900s served as a time for schools to “American-ize” (p. 379) immigrant children by teaching them how to “fit-in” (p. 379) the American culture (as cited in Ravitch, 1985). In his research, Ansalone (2009) also mentioned the movement of ability grouping began to separate and “Americanize” (p. 177) poor southern African Americans and immigrants. According to Gamoran (2009), socioeconomic status directly affects track placement whereas race and ethnicity indirectly affect track placement.

Hallinan (1994) and Rosenbaum (1980) argued that ability grouping of any kind creates a hierarchy in which students compare themselves to their peers of the equal, lesser, or higher ability. This hierarchy includes race and social class division amongst students. Slavin (1987) reported that school districts have reconsidered ability grouping due to minority students of low socioeconomic status disproportionately being placed into the lower performing group. Slavin (1987) referenced Hobson v. Hansen, a trial case in 1967 which alleged that low-income African-American students were being deprived of an equal educational opportunity because of the practice of ability grouping. In addition to the desegregation movement of the 1960s, some districts indirectly enforced racial segregation by separating students according to their academic performance (Conger, 2005). Donelan et al., (1994) identified ability grouping as one of the most significant educational barriers to African American children which continues to widen the achievement gap. Gamoran (2009) also identified tracking to be a detrimental practice specifically to minority students and a contribution to the achievement gap.

In their study of the effects of ability grouping on minority students, Lleras and Rangel (2009) concluded that African American and Hispanic students learn less over time if they are placed in lower reading ability groups in comparison to students who are not grouped. The results of this study questioned the practice of ability grouping as a beneficial practice for all learners (Lleras & Rangel, 2009). In her study, Haller (1985), observed, interviewed and collected data from 49 classrooms in the United States. Haller (1985) concluded that African American children are overrepresented in lower ability groups and teachers associate academic potential with race. In his study, Conger (2005) indicated that research of segregation is limited to an entire school basis and data may overlook within school segregation among ability-grouped classrooms. Ansalone and DeSena (2009) argued that segregation stemming from ability grouping only intensifies social and educational inequality amongst learners.

Discussion

As argued by Hallinan (1994) and Rosenbaum (1980) ability grouping may create a hierarchy in which students compare themselves to their peers of the equal, lesser, or higher ability. In preparing students for society, I question the implications of preparing students to compare themselves to one another. The hierarchy creates a division of class and race. I think one of the purposes of education is to prepare students for society, which is a very diverse culture. If indeed ability grouping causes a division of class and race, I think the practice may not entirely prepare students for society. In his article, Ansalone (2009) stated that economically advantaged students were typically placed in the high track. Flashman (2012) found that low achieving students typically bond with other low achieving students. I question what messages these practices of ability grouping and tracking send to the future generation our country. It could elicit a “survival of the fittest” mentality or “the-haves” versus “the-have-nots.”

According to Oakes (1992) the essential goal of equalizing educational opportunities for all learners is not merely to combine students, but to increase the quality of instruction for all learners. Brulles et al. (2010) studied the effects of placing gifted learners into both homogeneous and heterogeneous classrooms. The findings of their action research revealed growth in students with a properly trained teacher. The teachers involved in this study received monthly professional development. Their findings were mirrored in Schweiker-Marra and Pula’s (2005) study in which results indicated that academic gains can be made with experienced teachers working with low performing students. Gamoran et al. (1995) also suggested that the caliber of instruction be increased to better meet the needs of all students. As previously mentioned, ability grouping practices solely have not been confirmed to benefit the needs of all learners. I think this practice must be combined with additional initiatives to be successful. Schweiker-Marra and Pula’s (2005) reported that the scores of low performers increased, however, the following three factors that impacted this study: all teachers had 15-30 years of experience, disciplinary programs were enforced to manage behavior, and strategies were taught to improve attitudes and self-esteem. Additional support of teachers and students must be provided to help students succeed.

As an educator, I have seen the effects of ability grouping as discussed in this synthesis in my own school environment. I teach the high performing students and can attest to the benefits of ability grouping as I have seen these students succeed academically and socially. However, I have also co-taught with a teacher of the low performing third grade students at our school. This class of 14 low performing students has at least five teachers in the classroom at once to provide the support needed. These students struggle and some are unable to complete grade level material which, according to assessment data, widens our school achievement gap. A situation in which students are incapable of completing grade level work, yet they are assessed using grade level materials represents the inequality of ability grouping. I am often flummoxed by the multiple initiatives enforced to push the low performing students to succeed and curious to know what defines success for low performing students. For some of our third grade students, counting by tens is success, for others, multiplying by tens is a success. Just as any practice, ability grouping is not a “one size fits all” solution.

Relevance

In my initial research from 2013, I questioned the implications of preparing students to compare themselves to one another. I wondered if this hierarchy of equity creates a division of class and race. I wondered if ability grouping created a “survival of the fittest” mentality or “the-haves” versus “the-have-nots” mindset for teachers and students. After working with English Language Learners and enduring this program, I see how my findings then are relevant to my work now.

In their research, Pyle, Pyle, Lignugaris, Duran & Akers (2017) found that more research needs to be conducted to compare the effects of grouping on ELL’s academic success. Garrett and Hong (2016) found that ELL’s are more successful when grouped in heterogeneous classes. Within the classes, students grow when taught in homogenous small groups based on progress monitoring data. Garrett and Hong (2016) concluded that teachers must build groups based on data to avoid mislabeling ELLs. This refutes the idea that many teachers follow of grouping all ELL students together simply because English is their second language.

The research also brings attention to the importance of teachers recognizing student strengths while creating small groups. I think using the WIDA standards are helpful in better understanding the strengths of ELLs. Based on their research, Palmer and Henderson (2016), recommend ESL students be grouped heterogeneously with students across all ability levels. This prevents them from being grouped in the “low class” with little to no peer modeling.

This research is relevant because schools in the United States are becoming more and more diverse. Politics, biases and personal beliefs affect teacher perceptions of students every day. Garcia, Sulik and Obradovic (2019), recommend teacher bias training and professional development to avoid unnecessary disciplinary actions and mislabeling of certain groups. As our nation continues to shift in diversity, I believe our mindset shift should as well.

Insights

Administrators and educators should be thoughtful in how classes are created, keeping ELLs in mind. While reading Palmer and Henderson’s (2016) research I was appalled by the teacher’s responses in relation to the student’s abilities. The educators repeatedly focused on what the students were unable to do, which was saddening for me to read. Their reactions shed light on the fact that we as educators should focus on what students are able to do when we talk about their academic progress as well. This further proves that teachers should be more informed of their student’s WIDA scores and proficiency.

Palmer and Henderson’s (2016) study also focused on the implementation of a dual language bilingual education with a specific focus on two tracks: two-way dual language and one-way dual language. Many teachers opposed the implementation and spoke negatively of the lower performing students, which included many ELLs. They found that the students on the two-way dual language track were most successful on standardized tests. The researchers questioned if the results would have been different if the groups were heterogeneously mixed rather than being grouped homogenously. 

Kibler, Elreda, Hemmler, Arbeit, Beeson & Johnson (2019) recommended educators focus on building a strong classroom community to bridge the learning gap between ELLs and non-ELLs. Kibler et al. (2019) also suggested that we allow room to understand “the complexity of building academic communities across language differences and the varied ways in which teacher practices may play a role in the development and maintenance of integrated classroom communities for adolescents.” (p. 708). Their research contributes to the idea that it is important to create a classroom culture of empathy and compassion.

Impact

The research outlining the effects of ability grouping in addition to grouping ELLs show how the practice can influence all students, both positively and negatively. To prevent any negative effects, I have begun flex grouping my students during our intervention block. I teach in a small group setting based on exit tickets and other assessment data. This has been extremely helpful because I am able to target the exact areas in which each student needs extra support. The groups change every day and no student feels isolated or as if they are consistently being separated from their peers because of what they cannot do. This also prevents students from being permanently attached to a reading level or certain proficiency level based on standardized testing data. This practice encourages teacher use of student’s zone of proximal development to create within class flex groups. This may require more planning on the teacher’s end, but it is more beneficial to students and varies across content areas and performance standards.

In an effort to contribute to a competent and fair society, Portes, Canche´, Boada & Whatley (2018) recommend educators implement culturally responsive teaching. Culturally responsive teaching acknowledges and includes student cultures in all aspects of teaching. This will teach students about respect, empathy and compassion. These habits of character will then contribute to create well-rounded citizens. By including aspects of student culture, I think we prepare all students for the real world. Ability grouping is a trend that sends a message of separation based on what one is able to do. I think inclusion of cultures will refute that message and teach acceptance. The entire practice, specifically the grouping of ELL students is a topic that deserves more research.

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