Ability Grouping – Has Its Time Returned?

gtchat 04262016 Ability Grouping


Students can and should be grouped to learn in a way that best meets their individual needs, and regrouped at reasonable intervals during their progression along a curricular continuum. This grouping may transcend age, homeroom, and grade level if it allows the student to be more successful.” ~ Ellis School, Fremont, SD


A discussion about ability grouping must inevitably begin by explaining the difference between it and the more controversial concept of tracking. Generally, tracking separates students into separate classes, whereas ability grouping occurs within classrooms. Today, most ability grouping is considered to be more flexible than in the past.

“Without ability groups future Olympic swimmers would have to paddle in the shallow end of pool till all were at same level.” ~ Jo Freitag, Gifted Resources

However, ability grouping like tracking has  garnered a lot of negative attention even in the face of recent research which presents many positive outcomes; especially for gifted students (see links below). One issue which seems to accompany any new practice being introduced into education is the lack of adequate professional development and training for teachers. It’s also important to consider the feelings and well-being of all children when changing the way they are grouped in classrooms.

“We confuse potential with need. Ability grouping meets a need, but it is seen as predicting who will succeed and who won’t.” ~ Shanna Weber

Of course, it was pointed out that ability grouping already exists in most schools that have athletics. In fact, without being able to develop athletic talent, sports would eventually cease to be what they are today. Sport talent is developed through identification of top athletes, providing the best coaches, and training. Some U.S. colleges seek commitments from top athletes while still in middle school. So why do schools turn their backs on their top academic talent?

“Ability grouping is “legal” in everything except academics. No one wants to admit someone else is smarter or better in academics.” ~ Carolyn K, Hoagies Gifted

Historically, schools grouped students based on factors other than ability; relying on observations only. The selection process or identification was often tied to human bias. An easy solution would be to screen all children. Flexible grouping and regrouping which responds to ongoing assessment of progress could be used rather than the inflexible system of strict tracking.

Preparation matters. In communities across the country, pipelines are in place to nurture and develop promising young athletes. Not so with academic stars. Why not? In a word, because singling out advanced students for special coursework involves tracking. But tracking is controversial. By definition, it involves differentiating students in terms of their skills and knowledge. Recent research on tracking that employs techniques to minimize selection bias and other shortcomings of previous research, has documented examples of tracking being used to promote equity.” ~ Brown Center on Education Report 2016 Section 2

We then turned out attention to recent research on structuring ability grouping to promote equity in high-ability tracks. States with a larger percentage of 8th grade students in tracked math classes have a larger percentage of high-scoring AP students four years later. Heightened AP performance holds across racial subgroups—white, black and Hispanic. (Loveless) Equity has a better chance to occur when the ‘human’ factor is reduced. Research suggests tracking high-achievers across the board boosts performance for all. (Card/Giuliano 2014) A transcript of this chat may be found at Storify.


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Global #gtchat Powered by the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented  is a weekly chat on Twitter. Join us Tuesdays at 8E/7C/6M/5P in the U.S. and Wednesdays at Noon (12.00) NZST/10.00 AEST/1.00 UK  to discuss current topics in the gifted community and meet experts in the field. Transcripts of our weekly chats can be found at Storify. Our Facebook Page provides information on the chat and news & information regarding the gifted community. Also, checkout our Pinterest Page and Playlist on YouTube.

Head Shot 2014-07-14  About the author: Lisa Conrad is the Moderator of Global #gtchat Powered        by TAGT and Social Media Manager of the Global #gtchat Community. She is a longtime  advocate for gifted children and also blogs at  Gifted Parenting Support. Lisa can be contacted at: gtchatmod@gmail.com


2016 Brown Center Report on American Education Part 2: Tracking and Advanced Placement 

AUS: Ability Grouping and Mathematics: Who Benefits?

Ability and Instructional Grouping Information

Should Schools Rethink Reluctance to Track Students by Ability?

Instructional Management/Grouping

Final Recommendations Fremont S.D. Strategic Plan Future of Education at Ellis School Committee (pdf)

How “Tracking” Can Actually Help Disadvantaged Students

The Resurgence of Ability Grouping and Persistence of Tracking (YouTube 4:08)

Effective Grouping of Gifted Students

Grouping Without Fear: Effective Use of Groups in Classrooms 

Amazing Classrooms: Engaging the High Achievers (YouTube 14:35)

Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor in Classroom

Sorting Kids at School: The Return of Ability Grouping

Effects of Within-Class Ability Grouping on Academic Achievement in Early Elementary Years (Abstract)

In Search of Reality: Unraveling Myths about Tracking, Ability Grouping & the Gifted (pdf)

Tracking in Middle School A Surprising Ally in Pursuit of Equity? (pdf)

Peer Effects, Teacher Incentives & Impact of Tracking: Evidence from Randomized Evaluation in Kenya (pdf)

The Effects of Grouping Practices and Curricular Adjustments on Achievement (pdf)

Education for Upward Mobility – Tracking in Middle School: A Surprising Ally in the Pursuit of Equity? (pdf)

Helping Disadvantaged and Spatially Talented Students Fulfill Their Potential: Related and Neglected National Resources (pdf)

INEQUITY IN EQUITY: How “Equity” Can Lead to Inequity for High-Potential Students (pdf)

Cybraryman’s Assessments Page

The Relationship of Grouping Practices to the Education of the Gifted and Talented Learner 

Photo courtesy of  Pixabay     CC0 Public Domain

Graphic courtesy of Lisa Conrad.

Posted on May 1, 2016, in Differentiation, Education, gifted and talented, gifted education, Identification, Teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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