What is Ability Grouping?

On the surface, the concept of ability grouping seems harmless enough. Essentially, children are grouped with others that share their abilities and talents at an early stage in their education. This practice is also associated with ability tracking, a different approach later in the educational path that has a similar impact, and there’s a less positive side to it. In the article below, we’ll explore what this educational policy does, what it means, and how it impacts the overall quality of individual educations within the public school system.

The Best Intentions

Grouping young children with others who share their tested abilities and intelligence levels may not seem harmful when viewed in the early elementary stages. However, this practice canalizes children for their entire educational career, and has been shown to have a negative impact on their self-esteem and ambition to achieve above their nominal group level.

Resource: Top 10 Best Online Master of Arts in Teaching Degree Programs

The practice of ability grouping has rebounded in recent years, in spite of significant opposition from prominent voices within the educational community. Grouping takes place within the classroom, seeking to match students to curriculum and fellow learners that match their particular abilities. It is typically practiced at the elementary level, where a single teacher presides over a class of students who may exhibit different learning styles or levels of comprehension across the array of subjects. The teacher then rotates through the groups, spending instructional time with each.

Different groups are given names such as “redbirds” and “bluebirds” or called after the title of the particular books each group is studying in their reading lessons. While there is purported elasticity in group membership, with a child changing groups based on demonstrated progress or skill, pure grouping pedagogies present some substantial problems. It should be noted that this differs markedly from the flexible grouping approach, which is part of a holistic instructional approach that uses assignment-based group effort as a teaching tool.

But That Doesn’t Sound Bad at All

The issue is not simply that a single classroom is divided into groups with different skill sets or learning progress rates. In fact, a similar technique that emphasizes cooperative learning strategies between groups of different skills or understandings has a dramatically different result. The issue is that, in almost every documented study, ability groups were defined by deeper characteristics of race, socioeconomic status, and native language.

That’s where the difficulty begins. As children who are separated into these types of groups progress, educational expectations solidify, which they are not encouraged to breach. The level of education also sets, with students in lower ability groups receiving a markedly simpler and less rigorous education than their age peers in other groups. At the end of the day, groups that were given the innocent names of animals or different reading books, become a concrete reflection of a classist society.

Studies conducted by various educational monitoring societies and agencies have shown that this practice may be on the rise again in American public schools. While the data is highly focused, it does not shed adequate light on the full range of age groups subjected to grouping pedagogy in Kindergarten and grades one or two. However, it does indicate that ability grouping is used to a greater extent in later elementary grades in the subjects of reading and mathematics, which presages a greater reliance on the sister policy of tracking during the higher levels of education.