Ability Grouping

Ability Grouping Sociology Definition


According to British education author Jo Boaler, Ability grouping is a “generic term to encompass any grouping, whether within a class or between classes, flexible or inflexible, that involves students being separated according to perceptions of their ability.”

Ability grouping refers to organizing students in groups according to their skills and interests in a classroom setting. According to experts on ability grouping, this technique enables educators to tailor instructional material to meet students’ needs better and raise student accomplishment.

History of ability grouping in the United States

In the United States, ability grouping became more common in the late 1800s and increased gradually until the late 1980s. However, the National Governors Association and other strong coalitions opposed the practice of ability grouping in the 1980s. They questioned the inclination of instructors to discriminate against Black, Brown, and Poorer Students by harboring racial and class-based preconceptions.

Such classification decreased to as little as 27% by the middle of the 1990s. Then, after 2000, it regained. According to a poll conducted in 2006, 63 percent of instructors again used ability groups. In fourth-grade data from the government National Assessment of Educational Progress, the increase from 28 percent of kids in ability groups in 1998 to 71 percent in 2009 was much more evident. In addition, there was a substantial increase from 40% of pupils in math ability groups in 1996 to 61% in 2011.

Two types of ability grouping research

In general, there are two categories of ability grouping research studies.

(1) Extensive, quantitative meta-analyses centered on pupil performance.

(2) Smaller-scale, mixed-methods studies that prioritize the grouping experiences of instructors and students.

Different Forms of Ability Grouping

Between-class and within-class ability grouping are the two most prevalent types. The technique of dividing students into various classes according to academic ability or prior performance is known as between-class ability grouping. In contrast, within-class ability grouping separates students in a classroom into groups according to their academic standing, previous performance, or personal interests. The instructor typically forms these groups, which may be diverse or homogenous.

A. Within-class ability grouping

B . Between-class ability grouping

B1. School-wide cluster grouping

B2. Total school cluster grouping

B3. Multilevel ability grouping

B4. Tracking

B5. Cross-grade grouping

A. Within-class ability grouping

Assignments for within-class grouping may be either heterogeneous or homogenous, and the instructor usually decides according to the student’s aptitudes, successes, talents, or interests. For example, children are typically grouped in the classrooms for small-group tutoring in primary schools according to their academic levels.

While homogeneous groups are made up of students with the same or comparable skills, heterogeneous groupings contain students with a variety of talents.

Since groups are designed to be adaptable, students are free to join and leave assignments as they see fit and according to their performance and requirements. Teachers regularly evaluate pupils to judge their development, and the findings are used to reassign students to other groups. This flexible ability grouping technique aims to adapt to the changing demands of each student in a classroom.

Through differentiated teaching, within-class ability groups seek to increase success and close the achievement gap between students of various ability levels.

In addition to academic distinctions, varied backgrounds, languages, and cultures are often present in classes. Furthermore, within-class groups are often used to satisfy the requirements of all students in response to the different and developmentally heterogeneous classes.

Teachers must modify their lessons for within-class ability groups to be effective. For example, students may be divided into smaller groups depending on performance, reading proficiency, or hobbies after instructors have taught a lesson to the whole class.

The same content may also be taught to mixed ability groups within a class if prompting, modeling, and pace are adjusted to the requirements of the learners in each group.

In any case, for ability groups to function well, instructors must modify the curriculum to meet the academic demands of each kid.

B . Between-class ability grouping

Several versions of between-class ability grouping are used in primary schools.

B1. School-wide cluster grouping

The placement of high achievers or gifted children in a regular education classroom is known as school-wide cluster grouping. This design aims to moderate excessive disparities in student ability and provide an equalized range of accomplishment levels in the classroom.

While teaching, the instructor distinguishes the curriculum and instruction for students of various abilities. This kind of between-class grouping has successfully addressed the academic demands of both high achievers and pupils at lower tiers.

B2. Total school cluster grouping

Total school cluster grouping is a particular kind of cluster between class grouping where pupils are placed for the academic year according to their performance levels. The classification of students includes subgroups like high achievers, above average, average, poor achievers, and special education.

Teachers may alter category assignments like school-wide cluster grouping when students’ performance levels rise or fall. However, except for the high achievers who are allocated to a single classroom with a designated instructor, students from each category are spread equally throughout the classes.

Comprehensive professional development instruction on the curriculum, methodology and teaching methods for gifted education is provided to teachers of high ability classes.

To promote accomplishment for all students, this strategy seeks to reduce the number of academic levels in a single classroom and support instructors with differentiation.

B3. Multilevel ability grouping

Multilevel ability grouping involves putting students in the same grade into groups according to their abilities or for a particular topic. Again, standard materials and techniques were used without making any distinctions in curriculum or teaching for the various groups. The fact that they were in a class with classmates who had comparable skills was the sole difference.

The effectiveness of this kind of multilevel class was often negligible to nonexistent. The grouping of kids for a given subject area depending on success or aptitude, which includes a range of curricula, resources, and tactics for various learners, is a more typical example presently found in primary schools. When this happens, education is created to suit the students’ equivalent needs.

Teachers use pertinent courses, an adequate pace, and proper tactics to encourage effective learning. In the example of mathematics, one instructor teaches prealgebra to adept students, another teaches algebra to high-ability advanced students, and a third teaches basic arithmetic concepts to struggling pupils. In addition, students can transfer in and out of classes using a system known as flexible ability grouping when their academic success and learning increase or decrease.

B4. Tracking

At the secondary levels, tracking is the permanent allocation of pupils in classes for instruction. While students in low-tracked classrooms concentrate on developing their fundamental reading skills and preparing for tests with low-level content, students in high-tracked courses have a faster-paced, more rigorous workload. Because the course sequences for students in certain ability levels or tracks are considered full-time and are seldom changed, tracking differs from flexible ability grouping.

B5. Cross-grade grouping

Cross-grade grouping is similar to multilevel grouping, with the exception that it often includes additional courses and achievement levels as well as students from other grades.

The Joplin Plan, in Carol Lynne Tieso’s opinion, is the most well-known cross-grade grouping assignment.

Primary reading pupils were first grouped across grades as part of the Joplin Plan. For reading instruction catered to their readiness levels, students from various grades would divide into other classes before returning to the general education classroom for the rest of the day.

Instead of focusing on the student’s specific grade levels, the instructors would use textbooks and instructional materials pertinent to the student’s skills. Instead of having a classroom full of kids with different abilities utilizing a range of resources, this allows instructors to tailor the curriculum and teaching to match the comparable requirements of the group. 

Pros of Ability Grouping

1. Taking into account various cultural and social contexts

Pupils’ cognitive, physical, social,  and emotional growth also varies. In addition, the willingness to learn, self-interests, and preferred learning methods of students change, and each of these variations may be impacted by culture,  gender, and socioeconomic status.

2. Customized pace

Teachers may choose their speed to instruct pupils with comparable academic ability. This leaves out the possibility that some pupils would be forced to wait or speed through a subject. Students are free to move on to more complex material and higher levels without waiting for their classmates to catch up, while other students are free to take their time and benefit from the additional support rather than pushing themselves to finish a topic when they may be slipping behind.

3. Individualized and targeted teaching

Ability grouping allows teachers to modify both the teaching style and the curriculum’s content for the grouped pupils. Furthermore, as it considers each group’s various learning styles and academic levels, it may aid them in enhancing their academic performance.

4. Teachers may assist students in need.

Grouping students according to academic performance may help instructors focus and guide students struggling with a specific idea and provide them with the support they need to advance.

5. Very compact class sizes

Compared to bigger, more homogeneous random groups where students may easily drift off when the class turns into a lecture due to its size, smaller groups are more participatory and help students concentrate and absorb subjects better. Additionally, students will have the chance to raise questions and have them answered right away, which may not be feasible in bigger classrooms when everyone’s knowledge of a topic varies.

6. More personalized service

Teachers often divide their attention evenly among all students in hybrid courses. However, in classrooms using ability grouping, instructors may more readily focus their attention on the slow or low-capacity learners who need it the most and teach at a speed that works best for each group. Thus, ability grouping courses give more tailored attention.

7. Boosting self-assurance

Students in trouble may sometimes form harmful opinions of themselves in courses with diverse ability levels, such as calling themselves the “stupid child” or the person with the lowest test result. However, students are more likely to provide the same answers in a group setting outside of class, which reduces feelings of competitiveness or inadequacy.

8. A quicker rate of learning

Exceptional students may sometimes get bored or even act after completing their job or absorbing material more quickly than their colleagues. However, they may proceed more rapidly alongside their classmates with the same capacity level in groups or classes that use ability grouping.

9. Less intimidation

Individual students may feel less scared about contributing to the conversation and showing their work to other group members when they are all working on comparable ability levels.

10. Advantages for gifted children

When talented children are taught with other gifted pupils, they may accomplish more.

Cons of Ability Grouping

1. Discrimination

Ability grouping is risky because it allows teachers to discriminate against economically poor, black, and brown pupils who may struggle academically for several socioeconomic reasons. The NAACP and other well-known organizations have denounced ability grouping for disproportionately placing minority children in “average” or “low” groups, where they may face poor education and other biases.

2. Subjective grouping criterion

Frequently subjective criteria that need to be regularly revised serve as the foundation for categorization. Because students are categorized according to their grades, test results, and perceived academic competence, some may be added to groups where they do not belong. For instance, if a student has poor test results due to making little effort to learn material for an exam or other reasons, even if they are brilliant and capable of producing great work, they may be placed in a lower category. This claim is supported by author Anne Wheelock’s study on ability grouping, which reveals that placement into groups is often determined by an individual’s subjective assessment of intellect.

3. Labeling

When students are grouped, they often classify themselves as being at a certain level of academic competence. This also applies to educators who could place more value on a student’s membership in a group than on their actual skills and aptitudes. Labels like “slow” or “fast” learners often persist in instructors’ and students’ thoughts and may have a detrimental effect on individuals in the average or low ability groups. 

According to Anne Wheelock’s research, ability grouping caused pupils to categorize their abilities and to adjust their teachers’ expectations for them depending on their groupings. Students from higher groups may also use harmful and dividing terms to describe members of lower groups.

4. Stagnation despite an expansion

Teachers sometimes neglect the time-consuming chore of routinely reassessing pupils and rearranging them. According to Anne Wheelock’s study, pupils are likelier to stay in their initial ability group throughout their academic careers. Students at this level stagnate despite academic gains and advances and get education using incompatible teaching strategies.

5. Low self-worth and other internal struggles

Being placed in a lower-level group may substantially negatively affect a student’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. As a result, the student may not progress since they believe that an average score is the most they can do. Students may also judge their performance against that of their more accomplished peers, which may have adverse psychological effects.

6. Teachers’ additional assignments pressure affects them

Teachers are under additional pressure to effectively use the ability grouping tool while evaluating, reevaluating, grouping, and re-grouping their students’ education. Reevaluating and re-grouping pupils based on improvements may end up being skipped by teachers who don’t have the time to teach many groups of children, much alone preparing for the sessions. The effects on pupils and the instructors who must meet their demands might be long-lasting.

7. Teachers are held to unrealistic standards

Even the best professors sometimes treat pupils differently based on their groupings in their subconscious minds. For instance, if instructors accidentally start to have lower expectations for struggling pupils, these children may begin to believe that nobody believes in them and act worse.

8. The achievement gap is widening

Since low-capacity learners get specialized attention, time spent in groups is time away from the usual classroom teaching, which may lead children to lag and decrease the likelihood that they will be capable of returning to mainstream training.

9 . Lost opportunity

There are no possibilities for pupils to benefit from the knowledge of those with better skill levels if all of the youngsters in the group are performing at a lower level.


Ability grouping may be a valuable tool for instructors, but it must be used correctly to avoid labeling kids in a manner that might lower their motivation and restrict their possibilities in the classroom.

Ability grouping shouldn’t be applied to kids as a one-size-fits-all strategy. Depending on the histories and levels of each student, some forms of ability grouping may be more helpful or damaging than others in terms of academic performance and psychological health.

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