Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ability grouping works - and is essential in middle school and beyond

Why is ability grouping off the menu in so many school districts? What is so wrong with letting children learn among peers who grasp concepts at the same pace and with the same degree of complexity?

One of the biggest limitations of ability grouping is that it is equated with tracking  - and tracking has become a dirty word in education circles.

Tracking, of course, is an antiquated system where, at its worst, students were placed in different ability level classes and prevented from transitioning out of them. And sometimes the least experienced, least skilled teachers were assigned to those students most in need.

The rigidity of this model was wrong. The absence of resources for at-risk students was wrong. The assumption about human potential was wrong.

Yet, rather than create more fluidity, flexibility and vertical movement within the system, rather than place brilliant teachers with the most at-risk students, rather than insist on regular assessment to ensure that children do not slip through the cracks, many districts have chosen to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As a result, ability grouping has been eliminated from many school districts, especially from their middle schools, where it may be needed most.

This one-size-fits-all trend has been hailed as an antidote to the evils of tracking, a salve to the achievement gap, and the best shot at equity for all children. Mixed ability classes are prescribed to offset any potential insecurity students might feel if placed in a less challenging class, and presumably to inspire them to attain the same level of achievement as their higher ability classmates. Some students, who were perhaps overlooked and unfairly placed in less advanced classes, have risen to this challenge and demonstrated improved grades in heterogeneous, mixed-ability classes. Success stories like these have led to a widespread dismantling of ability grouping, despite the absence of sound research* to support this trend.

Here's how it works:

School districts that promote mixed-ability classes typically offer the following rationale:
1. Less advanced students will benefit from and strive to improve in the presence of high ability students, who should serve as role models;
2. All students will "learn from each other." Interactions with an intellectually diverse group of students is just as important as the curriculum.
3. Gifted and high ability students will "do just fine," regardless of the curriculum, and "differentiation" should provide sufficient academic stimulation. 

Have these proponents spent much time with middle school children? 

Do they really think that academically struggling students view intellectually advanced learners as role models, and that placement in such a class won't breed resentment, apathy and the low self-esteem they claim it will reverse? 

Do they really believe that advanced or gifted students will truly "learn" from academically struggling peers, and won't feel frustrated with the class, and compelled to mask their abilities so they can fit in? 

If they are honest with themselves, do they truly believe that any teacher can adequately differentiate instruction on a daily or even weekly basis?

Why make middle school even more stressful?

Middle school students struggle enough already. The social demands are enormous, the challenges of puberty, hormonal changes, and pressure to conform are overwhelming. Why create an even more stressful environment, where academically at-risk students are confronted each day with a sense of inadequacy, and where gifted students are faced with the choice of either "dumbing themselves down" to fit in or standing out as a "nerd" and risking ridicule? Most schools eventually offer advanced opportunities at the secondary school level, in the form of honors, AP or IB classes, but the academic needs of highly able middle schoolers are often viewed as less important.

Heterogeneous grouping and de-tracking are a well-intentioned, but perhaps misguided attempt to support academically struggling students. In an attempt to eliminate a culture of low self-esteem and low expectations, the "cure" may create more emotional hardship and fewer academic benefits than expected. When faced with a classroom full of high ability peers who grasp academic material at a faster pace, at-risk students may be forced to confront their skills deficits and suffer feelings of shame, inadequacy, and even lower expectations - exactly what proponents had hoped to avoid. Sound research (using control groups), rather than speculation based on wishful thinking should inform policy decisions.

Gifted children's academic needs are sacrificed for "the good of the whole" when ability grouping is eliminated. While some may adapt, many gifted students experience frustration arising from chronic boredom, and may respond by masking their abilities, underachieving, and becoming apathetic about school. Gifted children have an opportunity to interact and learn alongside students of differing abilities all day long - through sports, in extracurricular or non-academic classes, and on the playground. But it is unrealistic to assume that they will benefit academically when expected to suppress their intellectual drive for the good of the whole in large heterogeneous classes. As Fiedler and colleagues aptly noted:
"Can it be that our school systems are actually giving tacit approval to create underachievement in one ability group so that the needs of the other ability groups can be served? This, indeed, is egalitarianism at its worst."

What needs to change 

It is time to institute ability grouping, particularly at the middle school level. This approach not only improves academic scores for children at all levels, according to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research studybut may offset some of the social and emotional turmoil these students experience. Recent studies, including meta-analyses, have supported the advantages of ability grouping in secondary schools, have attested to its social/emotional and self-esteem benefits, and have shown that de-tracking efforts do not always provide the desired outcomes educators seek.

Flexible ability grouping is effective, equitable, and based on what students truly need. As Olszewski-Kubilius has stated:
"When used properly, ability grouping does not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from moving - either up or down - during their educational careers. Rather, flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student's readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time."
Flexible ability grouping within a classroom, through compacting or clustering, can be a viable option in elementary schools. But separate classes may be necessary in middle school and beyond for academic subjects (e.g., math, reading/language arts, science) to ensure that students receive the education they need. Ability grouping is a cost-effective solution that supports students' academic and social/emotional needs, as long as all children are treated fairly, their progress is routinely assessed, they have equal access to exceptional teachers, and can transition to different groups and classes when indicated. Let's be realistic about the needs of all children - especially those on both ends of the continuum - and reinstate ability grouping.

What are your thoughts about ability grouping?

* Many studies on de-tracking are confounded, for example, by the following problems: 1. an absence of control groups comparing students in ability grouped classes with those in heterogeneous classes; 2. lack of clarity regarding criteria for entrance into different class levels; 3. lack of long-term follow-up; 4. assessing only a few variables; and 5. studies comparing at-risk students in "lower track" classes taught by less than adequate teaching staff, who then transitioned into classes with highly skilled staff.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education page blog hop on educational options. To see more blogs, click on the following link:

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  1. We absolutely agree - and feel that ability groupings are essential to meeting the specific needs of each child, across disciplines. Grade designations and age awareness do provide important guideposts, but we do not rely on age-based or grade-level curriculum to determine which courses are best suited to a particular student. Instead, classes are grouped by subject and ability levels with as many as three years in age between the oldest and youngest students in a given class, a practice also called “cross-grade grouping." Thanks for a great article.

    1. Thanks, Grayson School. So great that you go beyond ability grouping to cross-grade grouping, and truly address each student's individual needs. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful post about the problem and solution! My hope is that improved identification of high-ability students in diverse populations (and better support in early childhood / pre-K) will eventually help address or eliminate any legitimate concerns about ability grouping. Thank you so much for bringing attention to this need!

    1. Emily, Thank you for your comments. I agree that the more gifted students are accurately identified in all populations, the less people will doubt the necessity of this approach. Thanks again.

  3. This needs to be brought down to the elementary level, too.

    1. Bonnie, I agree with you. It would be ideal for gifted kids in particular. Thanks for your comments.

  4. To start off with I agree on the potential value of ability groups or tracks (and I'll use the terms interchangeably). At the same time, for me at least locally the detracking movement and the complicated intersection of tracking with race and class is the most significant ongoing educational trend. Its also a battle which is mostly being lost.

    So I want to put out a series of questions that are driving part of the debate:

    1. Are flexible groupings really the answer? If you imagine easily moving between groups, can the groups have different curriculum? Since the more different they become the more likely one is to be missing prior knowledge and unable to make the transition. Or on the other hand, what are the groups offering if one easily moves between them? If the end point is the same no matter which group you're in and everyone constantly shifts then why did we bother to split the kids up in the first place? I think this dichotomy between flexible groups in name only where few actually switch, or differentiation in name only where the material is essentially the same regardless of the kids is one of the huge problems with this idea.

    2. Is this really workable? We almost never see systems where lower tracks work very well. That points to some fundamental problems. There are powerful incentives to not teach every track equally well across the bands and likewise powerful incentives to get into upper tracks regardless of ability. How do we place every student fairly? And then what if there is a link between learning disabilities or behavioral issues and performance. Are we clustering classes with enough disruption that they never have a chance to function well?

    3. Finally, there is a lot of research in this area. There have been studies both for and against tracking and clustering. Effects have been shown where achievement did not drop when heterogeneous classes were put in place and lower performing students did improve. Likewise, there are ones showing kids at the cutoff points performed up to their peers when placed in a higher track. I think there's a need to engage with all this data and move beyond just our instincts about what works. (Because frankly, the instinct to view tracking as de-facto segregation is proving more persuasive than arguments for tracking as a way to make education fit kid's needs.)

    That all paints a pessimistic picture. But the need for differentiation is real too. I'm just not sure we really have a model that balances the needs of the whole population well yet.


    1. Ben, Thank you for your thoughtful feedback. You raise some excellent points. It is a tough situation, and I think a lot of the reasons ability grouping is avoided is to prevent segregating based on race or SES (although this also occurs in schools without racial diversity). I suspect that most educators decide that some group of kids need more attention, and the needs of others will have to be sacrificed to some extent.

      I agree that studies of academic improvement have provided mixed results, and would also suggest that many of the studies are limited due to the absence of controls. But as a psychologist, I am focusing more on the students' psychological and social adjustment, and addressing the assumptions expressed by many regarding the presumed social/emotional benefits of mixed ability classes.

  5. Insightful post, and as a former middle school teacher, I used to enjoy the ability grouping in my math classes. Having said that, I would refer everyone to John Hatties extensive work in showing the effect size of ability grouping. It seems to be a nonfactor at best and possibly a small setback. The research in Visible Learning is quite eye opening.

    Great post, nonetheless.

    1. DownSouth, Thank you for your comments! I looked at Hatties' work and it seems really interesting. I can see that ability grouping for gifted students was not considered to be a very substantial influence on achievement based on his findings.

      Since I am not familiar with his work (and I am a psychologist - not an educator), my comments will be limited to this...

      Most gifted students "achieve" regardless of class placement, since they are smart and school is easy for them. Some underachieve, and some coast along without reaching their potential, but most get grades that look acceptable at the very least. Many are underachievers-under-the-radar

      But the concern I am stressing in this post is mostly related to gifted students' social/emotional functioning - not their achievement status as much. And I am also concerned about the emotional effects high-risk students experience in mixed ability classes, which can be even more damaging.

      Thank you for your thought-provoking feedback, though, and the link to this interesting research. It certainly highlights the complicated nature of evaluating education and how it affects all students.

  6. What is "ability" and how do you measure it? Every definition and measurement that I've seen is disadvantageous for some kids. Twice-exceptional kids, for example, may be high-ability or low-ability, depending on how you measure it.

    Does our "ability" change during our lives? I always think of "ability" as rather static, in which case ability-grouping doesn't offer much flexibility.

    Practically, how would an 9th-grader who has been in a low-ability class for 2 years move into a high-ability class? How would that child close the gap between the curricula?

    Would students still be put into grades based on age? In that case, how would we overcome the Relative Age Effect?

    1. On-Tech, You provide some great questions! I don't know that I am uniquely qualified to answer all of these - but I'll offer some opinions. I hope that other readers will chime in with ideas as well.

      I agree that ability is tough to measure. Certainly, IQ, despite its drawbacks, is a validated measure, and there are some achievement tests that can be useful. A wise, skilled teacher can often recognize how well a student adapts to the pace and intensity of instruction, although many students can remain hidden. Most students who are either struggling or bored will make their status known - either in school, at home or through their performance. When this occurs, further investigation is needed. Typically, though, when children grasp concepts easily, quickly, with little effort, they may need more stimulation, and when they struggle, they need more help. This seems pretty basic.

      The question regarding whether "ability" changes over time also hinges on how one views ability. If it is skills/experience-based, then of course, we all improve. If it is related to IQ, then there is a margin for improvement, but in general, we stay within the same general range. We may improve, blossom, develop our potential, etc., but someone with a 100 IQ is not going to acquire a 140 IQ any more than someone with a 70 IQ is going to acquire a 100 IQ. This, of course, does not mean that the skills-building improvement that occurs for a given student would not warrant movement to a higher level of challenge in school. Similarly, a student in too demanding a class should have the option of stepping back to a less demanding class.

      Unless the class involves sequenced learning, such as math, I would not see a problem with a student moving, for example, from a grade-based history to an honors history class. Again, I am not a teacher, so cannot speak to how this would work, but I have seen it occur many times with students I have worked with and it has not been a problem.

      The age-based placement policy is pretty rigid in most school districts. It would be nice if there were more flexibility, but I don't imagine that is going to occur any time soon in public schools.