Ability Grouping in a Secondary Classroom

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Ability grouping refers to the practice of dividing students into separate classes or small groups based on their readiness or ability levels. Proponents of ability grouping claim that grouping allows teachers to tailor their instruction to students' needs (National Education Association, 2005) and "provide appropriate challenge and support" to reach children within their zone of proximal development (Woolfolk, 2007). Opponents of ability grouping, however, claim that grouping by ability is unfair because it deprives students of their "right to a common curriculum" and often results in lower quality instruction for students in lower tracks or ability groups (Oakes, 1985). They contend that ability grouping promotes inequity because low-income and minority students are overrepresented in low-tracks, thereby expanding the achievement gap (NEA, 2005; Hlebowitsh, 2007). There is no consensus among researchers, and professional organizations maintain different positions on ability grouping. The following literature review on ability grouping seeks to highlight the findings that provide support for and against ability grouping in education in general as well as in science education specifically. After summarizing the arguments for and against ability grouping, I argue that the evidence does not merit a structural overhaul of the educational system to eliminate ability grouping and tracking. Instead, the focus must be on implementation and instructional changes that can help us meet the needs and interests of each of our students. Ability grouping is not inherently flawed, but the criteria used to evaluate students needs to be multi-faceted, the flexibility to move between groups needs to be possible, and the instruction at all levels needs to be of the same high-quality in order for ability grouping to continue to justly occupy a central role in our public schools. In my classroom I will use differentiation and flexible grouping within an inquiry based science curriculum to ensure that all students have equal opportunity to learn.

Ability Grouping Defined

Ability grouping can be defined as the practice of placing students into classes or small groups based on students' readiness or ability (Kulik, 1992). Ability grouping can be divided into two main categories: between-class grouping, or tracking, and within-class grouping. Between-class grouping is a system in which students are assigned to classes, courses, or course sequences (also known as curricular tracks) based on their ability or achievement level, whereas within-class grouping is a system in which students within the same class are divided into groups based on ability (Woolfolk, 2007). Schools use grouping for different purposes, there are different types of grouping programs within the two broad categories of between-class and within-class, and researchers use different terms to describe similar practices. For example, Kulik (2004) describes how in much of the older literature, ability grouping refers to comprehensive grouping programs in which students are divided into groups, often high-ability, middle, and low-ability, and students are instructed in separate classrooms for the entire day. Some researchers refer to ability grouping as within-class grouping, other researchers consider all grouping programs except accelerated and enrichment classes to be ability grouping, and other researchers use ability grouping to be any of the above types of grouping. The term "tracking" is also used in different ways in the literature. Tracking can refer to programs in which students are divided into separate classes for fast, medium, and slow learners. Tracking can refer to different high school tracks of college preparatory, vocational, and general education. Finally, some researchers use tracking and ability grouping interchangeably when referencing any of the above grouping practices (Kulik, 2004). Within the literature review of this paper, I will use the language that researchers themselves have used, but will make note of language differences that complicate the comparison of studies.

Grouping students has its origins in the mid-19th century when the increasing number of students prompted a change from one-room, ungraded schools to primary-intermediary schools and then to graded, many-room schools. But even with such divisions, there was still a high failure rate and educators looked to ways to individualize education so that students could complete their schooling at different rates. After World War I, educators began to use intelligence tests and then standardized achievement tests to group students by ability. Studies did not show that homogeneous grouping was superior to heterogeneous grouping and proponents of progressive education thought that it was undemocratic and "stigmatized slower students." From 1935 to 1950, in response to such criticisms, ability grouping was used less than it was in the previous 15 years, but it was still used because educators found it convenient and it was popular among many teachers and parents (Findley & Bryan, 1970).

In the late 1950s, ability grouping came to occupy a dominant place again after the launching of Sputnik; in the post-Sputnik era mathematics and science were the focus of curricular changes and an emphasis was placed on educating the most gifted and talented students (Hlebowitsh, 2007). "The practice of ability grouping was assumed rather than questioned in that era" (Lynch, 1994). In the 1960s, the "War on Poverty" and the issue of racial separatism shaped reform in the school system; schools began to focus on "educationally disadvantaged" students instead of the academically talented and gifted. Child-centered approaches of instruction became the focus. In the 1970s, the pendulum shifted again; reports that "the public school was marginal to the economic and cognitive lives of children" surfaced and "alternative school options and earlier work opportunities were given more consideration and weight" (Hlebowitsh, 2007). The "back to basics" approach to education of the 1970s shifted to a focus on "academic excellence" after the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. Reform reports of the 1980s attacked ability grouping and tracking and called for a comprehensive school program that was committed to general education (Hlebowitsh, 2007; Kulik, 2004). For example, Boyer (1983) advocated for general education for all students provided in a single-track school; Goodlad (1984) asserted that students should be randomly assigned to classes (cited in Kulik, 2004).

Even with these calls for reform, ability grouping continues to be widely present within the present day American public school system. Hlebowitsh (2007) writes that it is "simply not a politically realistic option" to completely eliminate ability grouping or tracking, and "tracking and ability grouping in general have strong support from both parents and teachers." In elementary schools, grouping usually occurs within the class; similar ability-level students are grouped together for reading and mathematics, but the majority of instruction occurs in a "wider self-contained classroom" without ability grouping. In middle school and high school classrooms, the practice of between-class grouping is more common. In the United States, one-fourth of middle schools use between-class grouping for all subjects, one-third use no between-class grouping, and the remainder use between-class grouping for one or more subjects. 92% of high schools use between-class grouping for some subjects; 42% use between-class grouping in math and science.

Educational researchers continue to debate the merits and fairness of ability grouping. There is no consensus among researchers as to whether ability grouping should be eliminated or promoted, and the following literature review cites research that supports both sides of the argument.

Literature Review: Why Students Should be Grouped by Ability

A meta-analysis by Kulik and Kulik (1982) on ability grouping in secondary schools found small but positive effects for overall achievement. High-ability students in honors classes or enriched classes experienced the greatest positive effect. Students in classes grouped by ability had more positive attitudes toward the class content than those not grouped. In 1991, James Kulik updated his original meta-analysis by examining data by specific types of grouping programs: multilevel classes, cross-grade grouping, within-class grouping, enriched classes, and accelerated classes. Kulik confirmed his earlier findings that high-ability students usually benefit from ability grouping. He also found that different grouping programs do have different effects on achievement. When a common curriculum is used for students in all groups, grouping programs do not have a significant effect on student achievement. Cross-grade and within-class grouping that make "moderate curricular adjustments" have "moderate effects" on achievement. Enriched and accelerated groups that make "large adjustments for learning rate" have "strong effects" on achievement. This suggests that "grouping strategies are effective only when grouping arrangements are accompanied by appropriate curricular changes for the groups. Changing a child's associates will not by itself change the amount a child will learn" (Kulik, 2004).

Additional research supports the benefit of ability grouping on academically gifted and talented students. Specifically in the science classroom, Hoffer (1992) found that students in high groups learn more than students in a nongrouped school. Loveless (1999) writes that if schools were detracked, "the achievement gap is indeed narrowed but apparently at the expense of students in regular and high tracks, representing about 70% of 10th graders in the United States" (Loveless, 1999). Loveless bases his claim on a national study that suggests that low-track 10th graders assigned to heterogeneous classes instead of low tracks, gain 5 percentage points in achievement. Average students and high-ability students, on the other hand, lose 2 percentage points and 5 percentage points, respectively, when placed in heterogeneous classes. Epstein and MacIver (1992), however, found that for any ability level, students in heterogeneous algebra classes do not achieve as much as students in tracked algebra classes.

Support for within-class grouping comes from a meta-analysis by Lou et al. (1996); the meta-analysis indicates that within-class grouping is a "useful means to facilitate student learning, particularly in math and science courses." In general, homogeneous ability groups had higher student achievement than heterogeneous groups. Medium-ability students performed significantly better in homogeneous groups than in heterogeneous ability groups, high-ability students' achievement was not significantly effected by group composition, and low-ability students learned significantly less in homogeneous groups. In a meta-analysis, Slavin (1987) found, however, that "there is no evidence to suggest that achievement gains due to within-class ability grouping in mathematics are achieved at the expense of low achievers."

In sum, researchers have found that academically gifted and talented students, or high-ability students, are the ones that receive the most benefit from ability grouping. Some contend that low-ability students are harmed by ability grouping, but other researchers have not found support for such a claim. Low-ability tracks or groups and the negative effects on students in these groups that have been reported by some researchers, is often the focus of the argument why we should not group students by ability.

Literature Review: Why Students Should Not be Grouped by Ability

In Keeping Track, Oakes (1985) found that "nearly all students can learn as well in heterogeneous groups as in tracked classrooms." She argued against tracking based on her observations that the quality of education between high-track and low-track classrooms was dramatically different. Low-track groups focused on basic skills and rote learning whereas high-tracks focused on higher cognitive skills. Oakes (1985) cites a high-track science student's reflection on what his class learned, "We have learned the basics of the laws of relativity, and the basics of electronics. The teacher applies these lessons to practical situations." A low-track student stated, "I can distinguish one type of rock from another." Oakes (1990) furthered her argument by citing the difference in teacher quality between low-track and high-track classes. Lower-tracks were more likely to have more uncertified teachers and more teachers without a B.A. or B.S.; in general, low-track teachers in math and science were less prepared both academically and professionally. Students' comments indicate that high-track teachers are more concerned with students' individual needs and interests whereas low-track teachers were less organized and enthused (Oakes, 1985). In the many ways that low-track instructional experiences differ from high-track instructional experiences, those that oppose ability grouping argue that tracking increases the gap between high-track students and low-track students and depresses the achievement of low-track students (Gamoran, 1987; Kerckhoff, 1986).

Another argument against ability grouping is that it contributes to racial and socioeconomic inequity. Low-income students and students of color are overrepresented in lower tracks and Oakes (1990) and these students suffer the most from tracking. Slavin (1990) argued that ability grouping does not have much effect on low, average or high ability students and "given the antidemocratic, anti-egalitarian nature of ability grouping, the burden of proof should be on those who would group rather than those who favor heterogeneous grouping.

My Position

The above literature review indicates that there clearly is not a consensus among researchers on ability grouping. For example, for every study that claims that ability grouping is detrimental to low-ability students, there is a study that indicates that ability grouping does not harm low-ability students or can actually help low-ability students. Researchers on both sides of the debate are also able to respond to the criticisms and evidence of the opposing view. Opponents of ability grouping claim that it promotes inequity and proponents of ability grouping claim that it promotes teaching to the "middle" and therefore does a disservice to students who lie outside of the middle, including high-ability and low-ability students (Tieso, 2003). Bode (1996) states that the debate over ability grouping is a debate of equity versus excellence and some "of these contradictory conclusions can be attributed to the fact that different outcomes - academic versus social - are being referenced."

Given the debate among researchers, it is challenging for teachers and educators to advocate for rigid tracks in which students are evaluated based on their intelligence and achievement and then placed in permanent tracks. At the same time, it is also challenging to advocate for the complete elimination of ability grouping given the data that it can be academically beneficial especially to the gifted and talented students. I argue that a compromise between the two extremes should be implemented in the classroom in the form of flexible grouping and differentiation. I believe that ability grouping can be used successfully when the criteria used to evaluate students is multi-faceted, the flexibility to move between groups is present, and the instruction at all levels is of the same high-quality. A pedagogy based in interactive social constructivism that embraces inquiry, flexible grouping, and differentiation can respond to the unique needs, interests, and abilities of all students and provide everyone with an equal opportunity to learn.

I will first describe the key components of my position (interactive social constructivism,

inquiry, differentiation, and flexible grouping), indicate the benefits of using such strategies individually, and then discuss how the combination of instructional practices will benefit all students.

The theory of interactive social constructivism asserts that real learning occurs through active engagement with phenomena, through connections between new ideas and previous experiences and thoughts, and in learning communities (Krajcik et al., 2002). Inquiry-based teaching and learning enables students to interact with natural phenomena, with their own ideas, and in collaboration with others; it is based on the theory of social constructivism. Students construct their own understanding of science concepts, principles, and practices as they engage in real scientific questions. The National Research Council (1996) describes inquiry-based science as an individual and social process that is "hands-on" and "minds-on." Students have the opportunity to directly interact with natural phenomena by asking scientific questions, designing investigations to address these questions, collecting and analyzing data, and formulating, sharing, and justifying their explanations. The National Research Council (1996) deems these to be the essential elements of inquiry. In inquiry-based teaching and learning active, direct experiences compared to passive, abstract experiences, increase students' retention of information and further their understanding (Krajcik et al., 2002). Bredderman (1983) and Shymanksy et al.'s (1983) research on inquiry indicates its effectiveness for science process skill development and increased content knowledge. Scruggs et al. (1993) found that students taught through inquiry had better scores on delayed tests of achievement, indicating that students retained the concepts and processes.

During my teacher education practicum experiences, I have seen the value of an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning. For example, I designed an investigation on roller coasters to investigate energy conservation and transformation; I know this active, direct experience was effective because as students were working I listened to them talk with their peers about how they should change the roller coaster track, what to do when they got inconsistent results, and what their results meant. I saw them actively engaged in critical thinking.

Flexible grouping strategies group and regroup students based on learning needs, abilities, and interests. Students are frequently assessed and group placement changes when students' achievement changes. (Woolfolk, 2007). Castle et al. (2005) performed a 5 year longitudinal study of flexible grouping in a high-need elementary school; they found a10% to 57% increase in students who reached mastery level. Grouping in general, whether homogeneous of heterogeneous, is supported in the literature. Lou et al. (1996), in a meta-analysis, found that small group instruction, regardless of the type of groups used, leads to positive effects in students' attitude, achievement, and self-concept when compared to students that are not taught in groups. When cooperative groups are used, students positively depend on each other to reach a shared goal yet maintain individual accountability. Groups support, encourage, and challenge each other while developing interpersonal skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). Students involved in cooperative learning benefit from working in a social context in which classmates and teachers can help students understand and work through problems that students were not able to master on their own (Krajcik et al., 2002). Working together enables students to bring their own strengths to a group. Students approach problems in different ways; students can learn from each other, providing insights that they would not have been exposed to if they were only working independently. The benefits from cooperative learning are many: higher achievement, greater long-term retention of concepts, more use of higher-level reasoning strategies and better problem solving, and greater transfer of learning to individual tasks (Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Barron, 2000).

I observed the value of cooperative learning on many occasions during my practicum experience and during my own teacher education program. For example, during a physics investigation in one of my classes, we submerged a styrofoam ball into a beaker of water that was sitting on an electronic balance. We poked holes in the ball and observed a decrease in apparent weight even though we had not removed any material. I suggested that Archimedes principle was involved and my group mate suggested that Newton's Third law was involved. Together we were able to integrate the concepts and fully understand our observations even though we had not been able to do so on our own. We engaged in science as scientists do science, collaborating with each other and offering new insights. I believe that we need to give our students this same opportunity if we want them to construct knowledge of science concepts and processes.

Differentiation, according to Tomlinson (2000), is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that is based on the following beliefs: Same-age students differ in readiness to learn, interests, learning styles, experiences, and life circumstances. Student differences are significant and impact what students need to learn, the pace at which they need to learn, and the support they need to successfully learn. Students learn best when learning experiences are situated in their zone of proximal development, or the phase at which they can succeed with appropriate support. Students learn best when their learning experiences are relevant to their experiences and interests. Students learn best when classrooms foster a sense of community. And, the "central job of schools is the maximize the capacity of each student."

Tomlinson (1999) describes how these beliefs can be put to practice; the key principles that guide differentiated classrooms include the following: The teacher focuses on essentials. The teacher emphasizes key concepts and processes so that students do not "drown in a pool of disjointed facts." Assessment and instruction are inseparable. Assessment is an "ongoing and diagnostic." The teacher uses assessment data to modify products, processes, and content to meet students at their level of readiness, interest, and learning styles. The teacher respects learners by "honoring both their commonalities and differences, not by treating them alike." The teacher and students collaborate and students have choice in what and how they learn. And the teacher and the student work together flexibly; sometime instruction is in a large-group, small-group, or individual. "The goal is to link learners with essential understandings and skills at appropriate levels of challenges and interest." Renzulli (1994) and Tomlinson (2000) cite evidence that differentiation leads to improved academic achievement and Thousand et al. (2007) notes that differentiation can bring "positive academic and behavioral outcomes for diverse learners, increased capability to personalize support for students, and the increased effectiveness of instruction."

How do these instructional practices fit together to benefit all students? Inquiry-based teaching and learning, based on interactive social constructivism, embraces many of the principles that Tomlinson (1999) lists as guiding differentiated classrooms. Differentiation focuses on connections and key concepts and skills rather than on discrete facts. Inquiry-based science also emphases central concepts and processes in science; it differs from the traditional view of science as a set of isolated facts to be memorized (NRC, 1996). Differentiated classrooms use collaboration among teachers and students to design what and how students learn (Dotger et al., 2010). Inquiry-based teaching and learning encourages student choice about what students investigate, how students investigate, etc. The NRC (2000) provides a framework for inquiry that ranges from guided-inquiry, or more teacher-directed, to open-inquiry, or more student-directed. In this way, students and teachers can work together to create a curriculum that is effective and interesting for all.

Dotger (2010) describes how inquiry is compatible with differentiation: The assumption is that inquiry is "beyond some students' capabilities." Students can be in heterogeneous groups and select a role that will take advantage of their strengths. "For example, drawing and labeling, writing, presenting findings, or sharing data with peers are parts of the inquiry process that go beyond design or data collection." Students can work together in homogeneous groups. One form of differentiation would be to provide a more guided-inquiry format to students in need of more assistance and high-ability groups could conduct an open-inquiry investigation. It is key, no matter how groups are formed, to conduct ongoing assessments of students' interests, abilities, and learning styles. In this way, instruction and groups can be modified to consistently challenge students and reach them in their zone of proximal development.

Inquiry-based science and differentiation are both student-centered. A curriculum grounded in choice allows "students to become agents in their own learning and increase their motivation for learning in the science classroom" (Dotger et al., 2010). A classroom in which we are attentive to students' interests and abilities and use multiple formative assessments to create and adjust groups can help meet the needs of all students. Opponents of ability grouping contend that low-ability students' academic achievement may suffer in ability groups. Proponents of ability grouping argue that high-ability and low-ability students may suffer without groups if the teacher teaches to the "middle." Ignoring the academic diversity of our students will do them a disservice. We, as teachers, must help all students excel by honoring their "differences and commonalities" (Tomlinson, 1999). By employing flexible grouping in our inquiry-based and differentiated classrooms, we can address the concerns of both proponents and opponents of ability grouping. Instruction is tailored to individuals' needs and interests and students move between homogeneous and heterogeneous small groups and large groups and individual tasks. Students and teachers work together to design relevant, interesting, and educational investigations and students have the opportunity to directly interact with natural phenomena.

Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science calls for improving quality, increasing relevance, and broadening the availability of science, mathematics, and technology to all Americans (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990). We have a responsibility to help all students learn. Flexible grouping, including ability grouping, used in a differentiated inquiry-based classroom can help all students achieve academically and will leave no child behind.