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Advantages and Disadvantages of Ability grouping

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5448 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Ability grouping is viewed by workers as a controversial educational practice (Ansalone, 2006; Rubin, 2006) because it has been the subject of more research studies (well over 500) than almost any other educational practice” (George & Alexander, 2003, p. 414). The proponents who include teachers and parents maintain that ability grouping specifically targets instruction thereby needs of a particular group of students is met while opponents maintain that the expected advantages often are not materialized.  According to Snider and Schumitsch (2006) ability grouping promotes stigma and destroys academic motivation, especially among the slow learning students; self-esteem is regarded to be the condition that aids student achievement. Generally speaking, child-centered teaching methods embrace the child as a whole and give emphasis in meeting the socio-emotional and cognitive needs of the child.

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William and Bartholomew (2004) statistically analyzed data from the General Certificate of Secondary Education and Key Stage 3 tests. The data analysis provided the basis for measuring achievement which is independent of the individual’s ability. William and Bartholomew noted that grouping by ability level had little impact on overall Mathematics achievement. Moreover, the group placement produced increments in academic achievement for high-achieving students at the loss of these gains among the low-ability students. Also noted is that performance in mathematics did not vary across school type and ability group placement.

Burris, Heubert, and Levin (2006) reported contradictory results and revealed that high attaining students are not affected when integrated with students whose ability is below theirs. A longitudinal approach was conducted which examined scores in Mathematics achievement tests in six succeeding years. Data obtained from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) were likewise collected. The problem tackled the belief that ability grouping is the cause of persistently low academic achievement in schools. The research probed on the impact on Mathematics achievement when high attaining students are grouped with students in the lower ability levels. The study revealed that highly achieving students were unaffected by the ability grouping.

Venkatakrishnan and William (2003) reported that tracking students in mathematics affected them differently. ANCOVA model showed that high-achieving students were not advantaged significantly when placed in the tracks’ however, student progress in the heterogeneous group detected significant progress-prior achievement correlation. This indicates that when placed in mixed-ability group, low-achieving students attained the most advantage while setbacks on high-achieving students are minimal.

Robinson (2008) noted that ability grouping in kindergarten reading classes significantly correlated with greater benefits for the Hispanic students when compared to students of other ethnic backgrounds. However, benefit was reduced during summer and the first grade, unless during the first grade, ability grouping is continued. There is robustness in the study results suggesting that variations in instructional strategies at the start of the school could prove effective and a more economical means of bridging the achievement gap faced by an ever growing student population.

Liu (2009) found that students in low-ability groups perceived lower academic self-concept than the average and high-achieving groups. A noteworthy outcome in the study is that the low-ability student participants largely improved in academic confidence and overall self-concept in English while the high-performing group remained stable in these respects.

Tach and Farkas (2005) utilized national ECLS-K data in estimating the predictors and impact of reading ability grouping in the kindergarten and first grade levels. The research noted that prior performance in the test is the most significant predictor of the placement followed by the teacher’s subjective evaluation of the student’s classroom learning behavior. Both of these variables could be attributed to the differences in the effect according to social class, gender, or race when ability grouping is first implemented. The study revealed that in kindergarten and first grade classes where ability grouping is introduced, a higher placement positively affected learning behavior and reading performance of students. Placement in an ability group as well as evaluation of teacher regarding student behavior both significantly influenced student’s increase in reading performance, even net of prior scores to reading achievement tests. The grouping takes group- and individual-level performance variations that appear during preschool which widen even more than during the first two formative schooling years.

Totten and Bosco (2008) measured the effect of ability grouping in a university geology class. Students from the nine sections in elementary geology laboratory class were administered a Mathematics Proficiency Basic Skills Test (MPBST) before the start of the semester. The results of the MPBST divided the student respondents to homogeneous, heterogeneous, and self- selected groups. GTAs were assigned blindly to the sections so they have no knowledge as to how the classes were grouped. Grades became the gauge for student achievement by computing the scores obtained from individual work, ten quizzes, and two examinations and 11 group laboratory reports. Within and between group comparisons were applied on the scores using descriptive and inferential statistics. The findings of the study suggest that students from the homogeneous group demonstrated the highest academic performance in introductory geology.

Powell (2008) assessed if grouping students in accordance to reading ability would impact the self-concept of third to fifth graders who have below average, satisfactory, and above average reading skill. Independent t -tests showed significant differences in self-concept levels. Among the third graders, only the average learners significantly improved in the self-concept scores since they obtained higher scores during post-test. In the 4th grade students, statistical differences exist in the self-concept of below average learners. Fifth grade students did not show any change in self-concept despite the grouping.

Ireson and Hallam (2005) established pupils’ liking to attend school and correlated this construct, experiences of pupils during lessons, self-concept and school setting. Stratified sampling was done and selected 45 mixed secondary comprehensive schools. The schools represented various types of ability grouping methods in years 7-9. When the other variables were controlled statistically, extent of ability group in the school did not exert any significant effect.

Karademir and Ucak (2009) investigated the effect of ability grouping on the academic achievement of 7th grade students in “If there were no pressure?” in Science and Technology Education during the second semester of AY 2006-2007 in an elementary school. Using co-variance analysis, there were significant differences detected in academic achievement (p<0.05), specifically in the medium low, high-low, and high-medium classes. While there are no significant differences in the females (p>0.05), the reverse was noted among the males.

Lleras and Rangel (2009) examined the effect of ability grouping on Hispanic and African American students at a primary school. Data analyzed were taken from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and results supported the differential effect of ability placement. Students with low reading ability learned substantially less compared to those grouped higher. The latter group slightly learned more over the first years of schooling against those from classrooms where grouping is not practiced. In sum, the study questioned the notion that ability grouping beneficially affect the first few years of learning in school.

The paper published by Toomela, Kikas, and Mottus (2006) dealt with concerns on the quality of schooling and impact of ability grouping on the academic achievement of 147 students from two mainstream town schools, one rural school, Step-by-Step school and an “elite” private school. Two assessment periods were performed: at start of age 7 and grade 3. First, an assessment on the respondents’ cognitive abilities was conducted followed by proficiency in mathematics and Estonian language was evaluated. Results indicated that attendance in the elite private school correlated to abilities and increase in academic performance. However, a Multiple Regression Analysis using both school and average cognitive ability of the school the child attended negatively affected those in the elite private school.

Valdez (2010) conducted an action research focusing on a ninth-grade Algebra I class at Kensington International Business High School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The study commenced last February 2010 and completed in March 2010. Students were assigned to two groups, namely: failing and passing students. The former repeated the first half of the Algebra course while the latter continued. The principal respondents of the study were passing ninth grade students. Data were collected from interviews, teacher observations, assessment results, journals, and student questionnaires. In summary, the results implied that reorganization of the Algebra I course into two, Algebra IA and Algebra IB benefitted the achievers and the teacher.

Researchers like Ellison and Hallinan (2004) noted that students in Catholic high schools outperform public secondary schools in standardized achievement tests. Though many follow up research has been conducted focusing on this finding, the effects of ability grouping on academic achievement is given little attention. Because it is an almost universal method practiced in middle and secondary schools all over the US, ability grouping channels opportunities for learning to students. The authors also traced the historical background of ability grouping and reviewed findings pertaining to effects on ability grouping, the process of assignment, and mobility across groups of students in every school sector. Analyses implied that implementation of ability grouping in Catholic schools contributes to higher achievement.

Saleh, Lazonder, and Jong de (2005) examined the effects of various grouping arrangements on academic achievement, social interaction as well as motivation. Students varying in ability were randomly assigned to two ability groups – homogeneous or heterogeneous ability groups. The students took the same botany course. The main findings indicate that below average students increased in achievement and learning motivation when integrated to the heterogeneous group. Average students better performed in same ability group while above average students show comparable learning outcomes in both groupings. In terms of social interaction, heterogeneous group placement produced more individual elaborations, while more collaborative elaborations in the other group.

The results of the study of Cheung and Rudowicz (2003) revealed that ability grouping did not have any significant negative effect. Grouping was done according to prior academic performance. Those in the more homogeneous group significantly reported higher self-esteem and academic achievement in the subsequent school years.

The effects of ability grouping in mathematically gifted students on academic self-concept and boredom were established by Preckel, Gotz, and Frenzel (2010). Students were shown to report very pronounced low math academic self-concept at the early period of the academic year. Interventions should therefore be implemented to counterbalance this negative effect. There is no evidence that gifted students are bored in the regular classes. The students gave different reasons for the experience of boredom in class and that there are changes in boredom attributions over time. This supports the notion that gifted classes should be provided appropriate levels of challenging tasks.

Dukmak (2009) investigated the interaction between teachers and students in various learning environments in selected middle primary schools in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These environments were as follows: same- and mixed-ability and same- and mixed -ability learning groups in one classroom. The sample were 16 low-and high-achieving males and females. The results demonstrated that students with high academic performance in all learning settings had more interaction with low-achieving students. Females from high-achieving groups interacted more frequently with males sharing same academic ability as they are. More interaction was observed among boys in same-ability classrooms compared to that in mixed-ability classrooms; among females, the trend was the opposite. Same-ability students interacted more when compared with the mixed-ability students. The results likewise revealed that more teacher interaction with males and achievers. Low-achieving males received more teacher interaction than females of their academic level. Teachers interacted more with males who are high academic achievers in same-ability than in mixed-ability classrooms. In mixed-ability classrooms, teachers had more interaction with low-achievers of both gender than those of their academic status in same ability classrooms.

Lipps, Lowe, Halliday, Morris-Patterson, Clarke, and Wilson (2010) showed evidence that academic tracking is associated with depressive symptoms. They sampled students from Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent. More than half of students reported experiencing depression while 19.2% and 10.7% felt moderate and severe depressive symptoms, respectively. Jamaican students significantly reported higher depression compared with those in St. Vincent and St. Kitts and Nevis. Students in the higher tracked tended to obtain significantly lower scores in BDI-II than lower academic track students.

Mulkey, Casambis, Steelman, and Crain (2005) employed a mixed methods design using the conceptual framework and analysis of surveys. Data collected by the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 were subjected to further analysis. The survey data were taken at two years of interval. The findings revealed that academic self-esteem was significantly lower in the high- than the low-level ability group.

Chiu, Beru, Watley, Wubu, Simon, Kessinger, Rivera, Anahi, Schmidlein, and Wiqfield (2008) concluded that academic self-concept in Mathematics was significantly affected by ability grouping but not the overall self-esteem of students. The researchers found evidence that students are comparing with each other within rather than outside their ability group. It was likewise shown that students more likely compare themselves with students who performed better than themselves instead with those who had poorer performance.

Teachers’ and students’ attitudes towards ability grouping

The attitude of the teachers toward the ability of their students influences tracking decisions according to Watanabe (2007). The same author suggested that teacher’s philosophies and expectations, specifically their belief that providing students with various skills opportunities to have access to higher level college courses and enrolment in the required prerequisites influences practices of college placement.

A qualitative research was employed by Chisaka and Vakalisa (2003). In-depth one-on-one interviews were done with educators, school administrators, and students. Informal conversations with these respondents complemented the formal interviews since relevant themes also emerged. Documentary analysis, observations, as well as limited participation were the means of gathering data. The principals findings of the study were as follows: little or no preparation among teachers in low-ability classes; slow learners felt that the school administration and high-achieving students discriminate them; students in high-ability classes maintained that teachers who “bunked” their classes view them as intelligent to independently learn and that slow learners had no desire to learn and are disruptive; poor social interaction among learners from both groups creating a social stratification which is unhealthy. It was also concluded that the negative effects of ability grouping outweighed the expected benefits. Therefore the practice warrants further re-examination.

Hallam, Rogers, and Ireson (2006) explored arts and sports teachers’ attitudes towards ability grouping. The respondents were 45 secondary school teachers who have adopted different ability grouping levels. The questionnaire used elicited responses regarding teachers’ beliefs regarding ability grouping and its effects. Overall, physical education teachers demonstrated the most positive attitudes; drama teachers, least positive and arts and music teachers, moderately positive. Thus, the best determinant of attitudes was the subject taught. The findings of the study supported that notion that arts and sports teachers positively perceive mixed-ability teaching.

The study of Hallam and Ireson in 2006 revealed that “of those pupils who expressed a preference 62% of pupils indicated a preference for setting, 24% for mixed-ability classes, and 2% each for streaming, banding or an unspecified other. Seven percent said that they didn’t know” (Hallam & Ireson, 2006, p. 587).

Later in 2007, Hallam and Ireson conducted a follow up study determining the students’ level of satisfaction with their present ability group placement. About 38% wanted to change to another group and62% of the lowest achieving students were more desirous to switch their group placement.

The research of Hallam and Ireson (2008) compared teachers’ attitudes in teaching different subjects in high, low, and mixed-ability classes in 45 secondary schools. There were more than 1500 teachers covering a wide range of subject specialists and they completed a questionnaire asking them their thoughts and beliefs regarding ability grouping and its impact. More supportive perceptions were noted in mathematics and foreign language teachers in comparison with English and Humanities teachers. Business, design, ICT, PE, arts, and science teachers expressed intermediate perceptions. The perceptions of the teachers were determined partly by the conceptions on the nature of the subject being taught and the type of ability grouping that is adopted in the school.

MacQueen (2010) examined attitudes of teacher-respondents toward ability grouping based on the interviews conducted in three schools. The research discussed how the beliefs of teachers on this strategy affect practice in literacy classroom situations. The study concluded that the practices of teachers negatively impact regrouping strategy which compromised student learning.

Chen (2006) investigated practitioners’ rationale and the experiences of students in flexible ability grouping. The researcher conducted interviews of four teachers utilizing this practice and surveys of 70 5th grade students at an elementary school located in southern California. Results suggested that despite the usefulness of ability grouping in planning and instruction, perceptions of low-achieving students were slightly more negative compared to that in high-achieving students.

Ansalone and Biafort (2004) showed in their study that 70% of teachers reported adjusting classroom presentation according to the ability group while an even percentage reporting that more time is needed to cover the lesson in the low-ability tracks. Seventy-one percent employed “special teaching techniques” in aiding the delivery of instruction by track. According to 62% of teachers, more course material is provided in upper-track groups. While there are differences in the curricula according to the ability group, such as repetition of lesson and slower discussion pace, most educational sociologists fear that the presentation of the specific curriculum and the whole educational experience of low-achieving students will be different substantially and simplified conceptually. While the answers to the interviews are pointed towards curricular modification, many comments conveyed a desire and feeling among teachers to willingly work in presenting the whole curriculum to the entire students and assisting them regardless of ability group. Little support is given to the notion that low-achieving students cannot be taught. While more than 70% of teachers in the survey reported adjustments to the curriculum in accordance to track, the general response indicates that the teacher would still want to present the same curriculum to students despite being in the lower- or upper-track levels.

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The purpose of Fan’s study (2007) is to investigate the attitudes of students and teachers on ability grouping in Freshman English instruction. It tested whether students from the different ability groups varied in their perceptions towards the practice. In addition, it likewise explored the variations in the perceptions of students and teachers. Participants were 676 second year university students and 17 teachers. Questionnaires were self-administered to determine the perceptive of students and teachers towards ability grouping for the school year. Data were analyzed using descriptive and inferential statistics; t-test and and one-way ANOVA tested the hypotheses. Similarities in student perceptions (level A and B) were summarized in the following: First, students manifested positive or neutral attitudes toward ability grouping in English instruction. Second, students regarded that improvement in English proficiency is related to their personal learning attitude. However, some differences were detected between levels A and B students in “psychological effects” and “instruction and material”. First, level B students considered that when they are learning together with similar level colleagues, learning anxiety and pressure are reduced compared with level A students. Second, level B students also viewed that teachers could modify their pace of teaching and evaluate them by their level in comparison to level A participants. In addition, there were significant differences in the perceptions between the students and teachers. First, students believed that learning with classmates in different classes increased motivation when compared to the teachers. Second, teachers maintained that because of the grouping, teachers can assess students in terms of their ability level in comparison with the students. Moreover, teachers also viewed that improvement among students in English is associated to their learning attitude against the students’ views.

Despite ongoing researches that establish the effectiveness of ability grouping, schools are increasingly maintaining and applying stratification practices such as streaming, banding and setting in order to raise levels of attainment. While past English studies investigated various elements of school-level grouping methods, there still is a research gap since there is no attempt on the part of the researchers to elucidate ways that head teachers frame the problems, pursue and consider equity and influence decisions and practices at the school-level pertaining to grouping methods. The paper of Trigg-Smith (2011) reviewed how policy climate contributes to the decisions of the school with regard to ability grouping, how the head teachers work, how existing theories of intelligence and ability reinforce the grouping methods, plausible frameworks for the exploration of equity in the grouping, importance of the impact head teachers have on the grouping, and recommendations as to the countermeasures leaders can adopt to curb inequity and further structural change.

Grouping criteria

In schools, the process of assigning students to a particular group is referred to by Kelly (2007) as “student/parent” informed choice system; choice which means that the students can enroll in any class which they are eligible for. On the contrary, the description of the policy is misleading; based in a number of school curriculum guides, the school decides the student’s eligibility because of the prerequisite grade requirement which is most commonly obtaining score better than the cutoff in a standardized test, teacher recommendations, prior course taking, and other vague requirements. The author emphasizes that employing both objective and subjective assignment criteria creates placement practices ranging from highly to less restrictive. While standardized tests, quota systems, and rigid scheduling form part of highly restrictive placement criteria, test placement is avoided in less restrictive criteria allowing overrides following assignment of course. The criteria promotes “catching up” during summer and put forward a less elite-centric philosophy.

Watanabe (2007) concluded that out of 6 teachers, 5 recognized that the choice of the student on the course to take is a significant element on how tracking is defined. However, no one of the teachers in the study conceptualized the definition of tracking and its manner of implementation. In addition, it was observed that the perceived level of student preparation critically determined granting access to high level subject by the teacher. Scores in standardized tests, prior coursework, and grades were the most often utilized indicators measuring the skills and level of preparation of the students.


In this chapter, findings are summarized and conclusions are drawn based on the results. A discussion of the issues related to this study and possible implications for educators and administrators follows. Finally, recommendations for future research and practice of this study are shared.

Summary of the Study

The issue of ability grouping in schools has been the subject of debate for many years and will be for years to come (Hopkins, 2003). Many have feared that ability grouping will hinder the advancement of students with low ability since there will be an emphasis on basic knowledge instead of advanced learning. On the other hand, proponents insist that that grouping by ability has the potential of improving student achievement by increasing level of motivation. The only certain conclusion is that further research on ability grouping will benefit both educators and school administrators. Hence, this examination of perceptions on ability grouping was conducted.

This proposed study looked to explore the pros and cons of ability grouping as it pertains to student academic achievement. This study also examined the perceptions on ability grouping from various stakeholders to include administrators, teachers, and parents in the educational system at the middle school level.

The purpose of this research was to gain further insight on ability grouping as an educational policy but based on the perspective of administrators, teachers, and parents in three middle schools within a rural school district. This study intended to allow for inference on the effective strategies and techniques of implementing ability grouping in the operation of the school. Information collected in this quantitative research was gathered from surveys given to the administrators, teachers, and parents. Findings from this research will be forwarded to the district superintendent in hopes of providing guidance for improving classroom instruction and raising student achievement. Ultimately, this research serves to shed light on an instructional approach that should increase student achievement.

The following four research questions acted as lenses to guide the research:

Will administrators have an overall positive perception of ability grouping at the middle school level?

Will teachers have an overall positive perception of ability grouping at the middle school level?

Will parents have an overall positive perception of ability grouping at the middle school level?

Summary of Findings and Conclusion

The current research addressed the question of educational tracking and its continued use in contemporary American education, especially considering that the bulk of literature has pointed to its negative outcomes on students. After identifying the key stakeholders in this debate, namely teachers, school principals, students and parents, an attempt was made to assess the perceptions of each in order to arrive at an understanding of the mechanisms that keep this educational practice in place.

R1: Will administrators have an overall positive perception of ability grouping at the middle school level?

A full account of the results for Question 1 is presented in Chapter 4. It was hypothesized that administrators will view ability grouping at the middle school level positively. Descriptive analysis of the survey responses for administrators indicated that their perceptions were moderately in favor of ability grouping. However, this means that administrators did not necessarily have an overall positive perception of educational tracking in the middle school.

Most administrators reported having background knowledge of ability grouping. Responses consisted of agree (66.7%) and strongly agree (33.3%) including a mean rating of 4.33 and a median rating of 4.00.

Administrators perceived that ability grouping will result to improvement in student’s scores in standardized tests. Responses were evenly spread through undecided (33.3%), agree (33.3%), and strongly agree (33.3%). Mean and median rating was 4.00.

Administrators slightly agreed that ability grouping expands the teacher’s capacity in meeting students’ needs. Responses include disagree (33.3%), agree (33.3%) and strongly agree (33.5%). Mean and median rating was 3.67.

Administrators slightly agreed that ability grouping increases student motivation. Responses include disagree (33.3%), agree (33.3%) and strongly agree (33.3%). Mean rating was 3.67 while median rating was 4.00.

Most administrators perceived that ability grouping increases teacher effectiveness in planning instruction. Two administrators (66.7%) strongly agreed while one was undecided (33.3%).

Administrators agreed very slightly that when students are grouped according to ability, they become more confident in terms of student achievement. One administrator disagreed (33.3%) while two of the administrators agreed (66.7%). Mean rating was 3.33 while the media rating was 4.00.

Most administrators perceived ability grouping to be an unfair practice to students. Their responses included undecided (33.3%) and agree (66.7%). Mean rating was lower at 3.67 compared to the median rating at 4.00.

Administrators were ambivalent on whether ability grouping creates a positive learning environment. Most could not decide (66.7%) or agreed (33.3%) to the statement. Mean rating was 3.33 while median rating was 3.00.

Administrators strongly agreed that teacher input is essential in the appropriate ability group placement of students. Their responses were agree (66.7%) and strongly agree (33.3%). The mean (4.33) and median (4.00) rating showed relatively strong agreement.

Administrators strongly agreed that placing talented students along lower-achieving groups would lower self-esteem. The mean and median rating for this statement was 4.00.

Administrators’ perceptions were divided on whether ability grouping only benefits high school students. Their responses to the statement were strongly disagree (33.3%), disagree (33.3%), and agree (33.3%). The overall mean and median rating indicated a moderate level of disagreement.

Administrators had mixed perceptions on whether ability grouping would improve overall education of students. Their responses to the statement were disagree (33.3%), undecided (33.3%), and agree (33.3%). The mean and median rating indicated undecided at 3.00.



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