Ability grouping in schools: Some evidence

I believe grouping by ability enables — but does not automatically cause — teachers to teach to students' abilities and current knowledge. A general principle of education is that optimal learning occurs when students are grappling with material slightly above their comfort zone. If the work is too simple, students don’t learn much. If it’s too hard, they’ll grow frustrated. Grouping by ability, then, is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for teachers to teach optimally.

Here’s some evidence for my belief:

Programs that entail only minor adjustment of course content for ability groups usually have little or no effect on student achievement. In some grouping programs, for example, school administrators assign students by test scores and school records to high, middle, and low classes, and they expect all groups to follow the same basic curriculum. The traditional name for this approach is XYZ grouping. Pupils in middle and lower classes in XYZ programs learn the same amount as equivalent pupils do in mixed classes. Students in the top classes in XYZ programs outperform equivalent pupils from mixed classes by about one month on a grade-equivalent scale. Self-esteem of lower aptitude students rises slightly and self-esteem of higher aptitude students drops slightly in XYZ classes.

Grouping programs that entail more substantial adjustment of curriculum to ability have clear positive effects on children. Cross-grade and within-class programs, for example, provide both grouping and curricular adjustment in reading and arithmetic for elementary school pupils. Pupils in such grouping programs outperform equivalent control students from mixed-ability classes by two to three months on a grade-equivalent scale.

Programs of enrichment and acceleration, which usually involve the greatest amount of curricular adjustment, have the largest effects on student learning. In typical evaluation studies, talented students from accelerated classes outperform non-accelerates of the same age and IQ by almost one full year on achievement tests. Talented students from enriched classes outperform initially equivalent students from conventional classes by 4 to 5 months on grade equivalent scales.

Posted by James on Friday, August 06, 2010