Ability Grouping

by Anita Churchville

Fear of returning to the oft-criticized academic tracking of students has led progressive educators to be reticent to group highly able/gifted students by ability. However, recent research supports the effectiveness of ability grouping for the highest performers and, concomitantly, the detriments of the exclusive use of heterogeneous grouping. In 2016, The National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper on the positive academic outcomes of ability grouping for gifted/highly able students in grades four and five. A large, urban school district decided to create separate classrooms for identified gifted children, even if there was only one eligible child, and to allot the remaining classroom seats to other high-performing students.(1) A Brookings Institution researcher also noted the connection between tracking in mathematics in middle school and a increased percentage of high Advanced Placement scores in high school.(2) These two timely studies force us as educators to consider the concept of tracking from a different perspective:

Is it ethical to hold highly able/gifted students back for the seemingly innocuous purpose of promoting equity and inclusion?

In the age of inclusion, how do we avoid tracking for lower-performing and disadvantaged students while simultaneously ensuring that all students grow at their own pace?

The key lies in reducing the bands of ability within a classroom. Even with a strong background in differentiation and exceptionalities (including students with disabilities and students who are profoundly gifted), I cannot help but acknowledge what an impossible feat it is for one classroom teacher to truly differentiate for the lowest and the highest students in the classroom when the gap is too great. One answer is to group low, low average and average students in one classroom and average, high average and top performers in another. In this way, differentiation and challenge provision become viable modes of instruction. High-performing students are less likely to be utilized as unpaid tutors for struggling students, and they can begin to realize the growth to which all students are entitled.

(1) David, et al. “Can Tracking Raise the Test Scores of High-Ability Minority Students?” NBER, NBER, 17 Mar. 2016, www.nber.org/papers/w22104.Loveless, Tom. “2016 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?”
(2) Brookings.edu, The Brookings Institution, 19 Aug.2016, www.brookings.edu/research/2016-brown-center-report-on-american-education-how-well-are-american-students-learning/.