Age or Ability: Student Grouping

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The practice of ability grouping, also known as student tracking, is the practice of keeping the advanced students learning together on a more advanced curriculum. While this was often practiced in the past, it fell out of favor during the 1990s when it was clear minority students were consistently left out. However, the gaps in ability are growing considerably, and many students are being left behind without aid while others are going under stimulated. This reality has led to a resurgence of ability grouping as well as many creative measures to help students without undermining their opportunities. 

The Debate on Ability Grouping

The current trend of grouping students by their abilities is a resurgence of a much older practice. However, this practice “fell out of favor in the late 1980s and the 1990s as critics charged that they perpetuated inequality by trapping poor and minority students in low-level groups” (Yee). After all, it is a delicate balancing ensuring that the achieving students are sufficiently challenged while the struggling students are not left behind. For lower achieving students are often encouraged by the example of those who lead the class in proficiency. However, the question remains how and where to balance these influences so that both students have the widest range of possibilities. 

The current resurgence of ability grouping has taken education experts by surprise, and it appears to have occurred naturally as a result of teaching taking the initiative. A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed,

Of the fourth grade -teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28percent in 1998. The analysis, by Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution, said that in math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996. (Yee)

This trend is closely linked with gender separation of students, as girls tend to mature faster and benefit from more challenges than boys of their same age. There is no doubt that ability grouping often leaves many minorities out, as the New York City gifted and talented programs which affect 3 percent of the elementary student population attest to which is dominated by white and Asian students (Yee). However, this is less a racial issue than it is a cultural issue, and many factors influence the support of successful students. Not least of these is nutrition, and for a student to excel they need consistent and strong nutrition. This is one chief way minorities fall behind. Another is cultural value placed on education. In some minority cultures it is not as valued to excel, and social pressure is put to keep the status quo. This is not so in Asian and white cultures that value intelligence. 

The need for ability grouping is becoming more impressed as gaps in ability between students of the same age continue to grow. In one example; When Jill Sears began teaching elementary school in New Hampshire 17 years ago, the second graders in her class showed up on the first day with a bewildering mix of strengths and weaknesses. Some children coated through math worksheets in a few minutes, she said; others struggled to finish half a page. The swifter students, bored, would make mischief, while the slowest would become frustrated, give up and act out. (Yee)

This is an all too common frustration for teachers who have difficulty fulfilling the lesson goals with such extreme gaps in ability. As Sears emphasizes, “My instruction aimed at the middle of my class, and was leaving out approximately two-thirds of my learners…I didn’t like those odds” (Yee). When forced to plow through it is most often the students who are slower being left out. The result of this is the newfound endemic of many students graduating high school with a fifth grade reading level, which is creating an ever widening gap between high school and college preparation. Ability grouping could go a long way towards supporting accelerated students in college prep, and also taking the time with struggling students to improve their basic reading and writing skills. 

However, in response to the limitations of opportunity in ability tracking, Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker of New York City has proposed a change. Quinn “proposed expanding the number of gifted classes while broadening the criteria for admission in hopes of increasing diversity. [However] The city’s Education Department has opposed the proposal, saying that using criteria other than test would dilute the classes” (Yee). This is the crux of the debate, the balance point needed is delicate and often unclear.

While this balance is most definitely needed, researchers opposed to the practice of ability grouping says that those left out are psychologically damaged. However, research in this area is unclear, as “Some studies indicate that grouping can damage students’ self-esteem by consigning them to lower-tier groups; others suggest that it produces the opposite effect by ensuring that more advanced students do not make their less advanced peers feel inadequate” (Yee). Perhaps the perspective and angle of the researchers in these studies contributes to the slanted findings, or perhaps both are true. However, according to,

John Hattie, who conducted a meta-analysis of more than 300 studies of ability grouping that included all grade levels and areas of curriculum. He concluded that ‘tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative effects on equity outcomes’. Hattie also examined the effects on subgroups of students and concluded that ‘no one profits’ including high achievers, from ability grouping. (Strauss)

The research on this issue is highly divided and inconclusive. One reason for this may be “the effect of tracking on performance is that schools that track students may be different in many respects from schools that do not. For example, they may attract a different pool of students and possibly a different pool of teachers” (Duflo). Accurate research would have to account for this, and include a strong random sample. This was done in Kenya in 2005 when “61 randomly selected schools, students were assigned to classes based on prior achievement as measured by test scores. In the remaining 60 schools, students were randomly assigned to one of the two classes, without regard to their prior academic performance” (Duflo). The results of this study were that all students benefited strongly from tracking and ability grouping. There is no one easy answer to this debate. 

A Middle Way

Some teachers are cultivating a middle way of ability grouping in their own classrooms to make the best of their limited options. For example; At Public School 156 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which enrolls mostly African-American and Hispanic children, amny living in homeless shelters, Cathy Vail randomly sorts her fifth graders at the beginning of the year using lettered sticks. After six weeks of testing and observing them, she shifts them into ‘teams’ of seven or eight. Children may be assigned to different groups for reading and math, and can switch groups if they have shown progress, struggle to get along with other students in a group of need extra help with a particular lesson. (Yee)

This tactic has proven very effective and provides ability grouping and flexible structure within the classroom. This structure allows for all the students to learn the same lesson, but they are given different levels of assignments based on their skills. As the teacher emphasizes, “At the end of the day, they’re learning the same words, but just with different levels of complexity and nuance…It has to be done properly-you can’t make a kid feel small because they’re in group A” (Yee).

One issue with ability tracking that has been observed is a perceived stigma for those who are in the lower realms. It has been observed, “In many instances, these students are given labels that stay with them as they move from grade to grade. For those on the lower tracks, a steady diet of lower expectations leads to a low level of motivation toward school” (National Education Association). This may be a result of educator and parents’ perception rather than the reality of the appropriate nature of the curriculum. It has been an issue in schools today where teachers have to delicately step around the issues of student performance, speaking in homogenized and vague, idealistic terms. This practice is not serving student who need to understand the basic requirements of successful functioning in culture, and while this stigma should be removed it should be done through acceptance of the reality of where students are at. Where students are at does not have to inform where they could be, but denying the reality of this will surely do so (Tucker).

Researchers have found that four key strategies in ability grouping have a profound impact on the success rates:1. The means by which teachers modify the curriculum for each group contributes to the academic achievement of the students. 2. Maintaining flexibility in grouping, or the ability to move students based on achievement, contributes to continued growth in students. 3. Using multiple means of assessment prior to placement can contribute to the overall effectiveness of grouping. 4. single-subject grouping that allows students to be placed at high, middle or low in different subjects affects outcome of grouping. (Sosnowski).

Thus, when the polarized nature of the debate considering race, class, and opportunity is taken out of the equation tracking’s benefit begins to be made clear. The complexities of how and why students benefit from this is actual, psychological, and contextual. Teachers, parents, other students, and culture at large play a large role in helping this approach find its right development for all students (Vasilopoulos).  


Ability grouping is one of many creative ways to help students reach their potential. While the debate on the methodology is important, the underlying factors supporting consistent underachievement should be better highlighted in the debate. For if those factors could be addressed the gaps in ability would not be as wide. However, current methods of teaching to the middle of the class cannot continue without increasing the negative trends currently devastating the younger generations. Ability grouping is a viable option for helping students who thrive on challenges and the support of their peers. 

Works Cited

Duflo, Esther. “Can Tracking Improve Learning?” Education Next, Vol. 9 No. 3 (2009). Retrieved from:

National Education Association. “Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Grouping.”, 2016. Retrieved from:

Sosnowski, Jana. “The Pros & Cons of Ability Grouping in Elementary Schools.” Seattle Pi, 2016. Retrieved from:

Strauss, Valerie. “The bottom line on student tracking.” The Washington Post, 10 Jun. 2013. Retrieved from:

Tucker, Marc. “Student Tracking vs. Academic Pathways: Different...or the Same?” Education Week, 15 Oct. 2015. Retrieved from:

Yess, Vivian. “Grouping students by Ability regains favor in classroom.” The New York Times, 9 Jun. 2013. Retrieved from:

Vasilopoulos, Andrea. “Pros and cons of grouping students by ability.” New Approaches to Learning, 11 Jun. 2012. Retrieved from: