What is ability grouping?

The quick answer:  Ability grouping is the practice of grouping students together based on their abilties.  This practice is sometimes referred to as ‘tracking.’ 


Let’s take a step back.  In a typical school classroom, students span in ability by about 6 years.  This means that in a 4th grade classroom, some of the students may be performing at a 1st grade level while others are performing at a middle school level.  This means that some students still need to work on basic addition while other students are ready to work on pre-algebra concepts.  That’s a big difference, right?  Yes. It is.  ​
​Each year, the teachers and administrators in your local school district work together to design these mixed ability classes.  Why?  Many people believe that ability grouping channels lower performing students — often lower income and minority students, into lower quality(or lower ability) instructional groups.  Many opponents of ability grouping argue that this widens the achievement gap, urging educators to provide the same education for all students.  Students who are identified as demonstrating ‘lower ability’ will likely never escape from this track.

On the other hand, ability grouping allows teachers to tailor the pace, content, and rigor to each students’ needs.  This, arguably, improves student achievement across the board.  Students who need more practice to achieve mastery will be given more practice.  Students who pick up concepts quickly will be able to move forward at a faster pace.  Ability grouping allows students to be appropriately challenged based on their academic needs.  For most students, this opportunity does not exist until high school when they may enroll in honors and AP classes.  Some schools may use ability grouping for singular subject areas — such as math or language arts.   Each district, school and class teacher uses ability grouping in different ways — ability grouped class assignments, regrouping for reading or mathematics, Joplin plan(regrouped for reading across grades), non-graded plans, special classes for high achievers, special classes for low achievers, within class ability grouping, etc.  

Nongraded plans are perhaps the most controversial and difficult to explain.  It is a very similar philosophy to that of a Montessori School.  This term refers to the practice of removing grade level designations and placing students in flexible groups according to performance level.  This is somewhat similar to my practices at HEROES Academy.  However, at HEROES we assign students to ‘new grades’ based on their performance.  This results in mixed-age classrooms with a finite range in ability level.  

While most schools do not use ability grouping for the majority of their programming, many schools offer some sort of accelerated math option.  Many schools have both a one-year and a two-year accelerated math option.  You can find out more about accelerated math options by clicking here.  In addition, remedial options are another way in which schools subscribe to ability grouping.  However, students are not typically grouped by ability for subject areas other than math.  

Ability grouping produces phenomenal results for gifted students.  Gifted students often suffer from underachievement and boredom when placed in standard ability classes.  When placed with their academic peers, gifted students are able to flourish.  Simply put, they are able to learn more.  A lot more.  Let’s take a look at some of the data..
  • A second grader performing at the 95th percentile in reading is reading at the same level as a fifth grader performing at the 50th percentile.  The same can be said for a similar comparison in mathematics. 
  • A fifth grader performing at the 95th percentile in reading is reading at the same level as a high school graduate.  The same can be said for a similar comparison in mathematics.  ​​
If that’s true, then what are they learning?  Realistically, not a whole lot!  However, if we can place them into classes based on their ability levels then these student can learn more and reach their fullest potential.  

At HEROES, I designed a program that is entirely based on ability grouping.  Students take a placement test to determine class placement.  We test their math, reading and writing skills to determine which classes are best fitted for their abilities.  Furthermore, we only accept students who are performing in at least the 80th percentile or above in both math and reading.  Thus, students are placed into classes based on their tested ability rather than their age or standard grade level in school.  This allows for students to be appropriately challenged. ​
​​Data from NWEA MAP Fall 2015 Normative Report. 

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