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Analysis of Ability Grouping

There are lots of ways to teach, but few teaching methods generate as much controversy as the use of Ability Grouping.  Here, we will briefly discuss what ability grouping is, the different types of grouping and the pros and cons of grouping.

What is ability grouping?

Simply put, ability grouping is the practice of placing students of similar “ability” level together in a classroom to allow the teacher to tailor his or her teaching to their specific level.  This would allow a teacher to create lessons focused in one specific level of ability, as opposed to what happens in a heterogeneous, or mixed-level classroom, where a teacher would have to differentiate instruction to fit the various levels of ability one would generally find in a typical classroom.  Supporters of ability grouping say that this makes it easier for a teacher to be able to specifically target lessons to the ability level of the group.

Types of Ability Grouping


Generally, tracking means grouping kids to full-time groups based on ability gleaned from test scores or teacher observations.  In tracking, students are grouped with others of similar “ability” for the full school day, in all subjects.  This is becoming a less common-type of grouping in the United States.

Between-Class Grouping:

Between-class grouping involves grouping students across a grade level, or even multiple grade levels into ability groups for a certain subject.

Within-Class Grouping (Flexible Grouping):

The teacher maintains a mixed group of students, but will break that group into much smaller ability groups for certain subjects, like reading.  A teacher with 20 students could have 4 or 5 small reading groups within a classroom that the teacher is responsible for.


The deliberate grouping of small sets of students of similar ability within a regular mixed classroom.  Clustering is sometimes done with students identified as High Ability students.  In this type of grouping, a teacher would have a regular mixed-ability level classroom, with a pocket of identified high-ability students placed together to better tailor some instruction to their level.

Does Ability Grouping Work?

Surprisingly, the answer is “yes” and “no”.  Largely, studies of ability grouping show that ability grouping works very well…for high ability students.  And doesn’t work well for lower-ability students.  Studies have shown that students in higher-ability groups make larger gains than their non-grouped peers.  Subsequently, it has been shown that students in lower-ability groups make smaller gains than their non-grouped peers.  Why the difference?

The answer seems to come largely from the quality of the learning experience.  Often, students who are placed in high-ability groups tend to get a more rigorous, challenging educational experience.  The expectations for these groups are high, and therefore the students perform at a higher level.  The students are challenged and taught in more higher-order thinking skills.  Sometimes the high-ability groups are taught by the more experienced teachers.  The criteria for selecting students for groups effects this quality of experience, as well.  In some processes of selecting students for grouping, not only are test scores taken into account, but sometimes behavior and motivation also come into play.  This means that, in some cases, only the highly motivated, or the best behaved end up being put in a higher-ability class.  With a class full of highly-motivated and well-behaved students, it is little wonder that students themselves often state that they feel that in higher-ability classes, they are getting a much better education than those in lower-ability classes.

Conversely, the opposite is sometimes true of the lower-ability grouped students.  Poorly behaving or lower-motivated students are sometimes placed in lower groups based more on behavior than ability.  Opponents of ability grouping would argue that poorer and minority students also are at a disadvantage in grouping placement.  Also, less-experienced teachers are often called upon to teach the more basic lower-level courses.  Teaching is sometimes done at a more basic level and is not sufficiently challenging to the students.  And students in lower-level groups sometimes express that they feel they are not getting as good of an experience as their higher-level peers.

Should We Even Use Ability Grouping?

This is where much of the controversy lies in ability grouping.  Supporters of opportunities for higher-ability students would argue that yes, you should ability group because success for higher-ability students has been shown time and again.  Not surprisingly, the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students  supports ability grouping and cites studies showing its support and argues that ability grouping does NOT have a negative effect on lower-ability students.

On the other hand, opponents of ability grouping say that the disadvantages that the lower groups are placed at is the reason we shouldn’t have ability grouping.  They argue that criteria for grouping too often puts poor and minority students at a disadvantage.  The National Education Association opposes using ability grouping and they also cite studies showing support for their viewpoint.

Where ability grouping gets its most support, even from detractors, is in within-class ability grouping.  In this type of grouping, all students get the same quality level of educational experience, all having the same teacher in the same classroom.  Studies have shown achievement gains in this type of grouping for all group levels.


In the end, the arguments for and against ability grouping are many.  Supporters of both sides cite valid arguments in favor of their point of view.  One can easily find studies and sources supporting one view or the other.  The challenge is in the hands of schools to make the best use of these arguments to make the best educational experience for their students.  If a school chooses not to ability group, it must take care to create those opportunities to help all the ability levels, at their level.  If a school chooses to use ability grouping, it must then ensure all levels are grouped fairly, are challenged properly and are given a top-quality educational experience.


Fiedler, E. D., Lange, R. E., & Winebrenner, S. (2002). In Search of Reality: Unraveling the Myths About Tracking, Ability Grouping and the Gifted.  Roeper Review, 24(3), 108-112.

Hallam, S. (2002). Mixed Up? The Pros and Cons of Ability Grouping. Education Journal, 64, 24-26.

Hallinan, M. T., Bottoms, E., & Pallas, A. M. (2003).  Ability Grouping and Student Learning.  Brookings Papers on Educational Policy, 6, 95-140.

McCoach, D. B., O’Connell, A.A. & Levitt, H. (2006). Ability Grouping Across Kindergarten Using an Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Journal of Educational Research, 99(6), 339-346.

Tiesco, C.L. (2003). Ability Grouping is Not Just Tracking Anymore.  Roeper Review, 26(1), 29-36.

Zevenbergen, R. (2003). Ability Grouping in Mathematics Classrooms:  A Bourdieuian Analysis.  For the Learning of Mathematics, 23 3), 5-10.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Cindy Brady permalink
    May 30, 2016 12:59 pm

    Well written Mr. Lucas. As you know, this is an area that many schools and individuals struggle with on a regular basis. I have been pleased with what I see at Syracuse Elementary during our Intervention times. These flexible groups, across grade level, that are based on a specific skill for small blocks of times are seeing results in student achievement. This is a result of staff efforts and they work to provide the best education possible for our students.
    Thank you for being an important part of the Syracuse Elementary family! We are blessed to have you.

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