Exploring the Conflicts Involved With Ability Grouping

Summer 2004 Masthead

Valerie Pare
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT


Most everyone has a special talent that sets him or her apart from everyone else. Some people are phenomenal musicians, mechanics, artists, athletes, or chefs, while others may be phenomenal mathematicians, scientists, writers, or historians. Each of these specialized skills requires a certain degree of innate ability, a certain degree of training, along with a willingness and desire to excel at that skill. An expert musician or an expert mathematician will not benefit from instruction designed for a beginner, nor will a beginner benefit from instruction designed for an expert. Instructors in any of the above-mentioned areas must recognize the level of mastery that their students already possess and be able to create an instructional regimen accordingly.

As Walberg (1989) indicates, “Teaching students what they already know or are as yet incapable of knowing wastes effort” (as cited in Fiedler, Lange, & Winebrenner, 1992, p. 7). Therefore, classroom teachers are responsible for finding ways to teach material in a manner that reaches a diverse set of students effectively and productively. Tracking and ability-grouped classes are designed to account for these differences by matching a student’s needs with appropriate instruction. As uncontroversial as that statement may seem, many difficulties arise during its implementation. Creating a classroom environment that caters to individual needs is among a teacher’s greatest challenges. Even after many generations of research, researchers still struggle to agree on the most effective way to create academically and socially productive environments for students. Ability grouping and tracking have been both advocated and protested over the past 100 or more years, since their benefits and harms are still predominantly unclear.

It is important to take a comprehensive look at both the detrimental and beneficial effects that ability grouping and tracking can have, since “the last thing any educator wants to do is to be responsible for educational decisions that are harmful to anyone” (Fiedler, Lange, & Winebrenner, 1992, p. 3). Ability level classes and tracking have become so frequent within American classrooms today that educators have grown dependent on them. As a result, we must also examine and research alternative methods of dealing with students’ diverse needs.

Historical Bases for Ability Grouping

It is plausible to assume that early civilizations recognized that particular members within their society possessed talents or abilities that surpassed the majority. In many civilizations, these individuals were given special opportunities or were offered training that others were not. Distinguishing the most talented individuals (whether that talent involves music, art, intellect, athleticism, or strength) and pulling them aside for specified training, is one form of ability grouping (Shermis, 1994). Gifted education and specialization programs, in this sense, have been around for centuries. According to Shermis, it was in the best interest of these beginning civilizations to identify and provide special training to those members of their society who had the promise of becoming priests, soldiers, or rulers. In some instances in history, educational opportunities were offered exclusively to the upper class. Many people assumed that ability was related to wealth and social status. Therefore, in many societies, higher education was not available to anyone demonstrating potential, but only to those within the upper realm of society.

There was not great concern for distinguishing ability or offering differentiated education for children of early America. Schooling during this time became available and mandatory for all children, and particular ability considerations were not the priority (Davis & Rimm, 1994). Ability grouping within the public education system was not regularly implemented until the mental testing movement of the early 1900’s. Alfred Binet produced an instrument that was created to identify below-average students who required an alternative form of education. However, this instrument was later used to also distinguish normal, above-average, and exceptional children (Davis & Rimm). Kulik (1992) states that many teachers in the 1920’s recognized that they needed to meet the needs of a diverse set of students and that “no solution seemed more appealing than grouping together for instruction students who were similar in ability” (p. 5). Mental testing began to make this solution possible and many educators welcomed classifying students according to their performance on such tests.

Although mental testing was frequently questioned in the years to come for its accuracy, ability grouping was still relatively undisputed up until Dewey expressed his belief that grouping schemes were essentially insufficient (Kulik, 1992). Dewey’s argument involves a description of multiple intelligences and a realization that one’s ability in arithmetic computation does not necessarily correspond with one’s ability in reading comprehension. Ability-grouped classes became less commonplace throughout the years that followed since teachers and researchers learned that children were too unpredictable and too inconsistent for grouping to work effectively (Kulik). Burr (1931) and Keliher (1931) conducted many studies that came to these conclusions and highly influenced mainstream opinions during the 1930’s. And thus, interest and practice in ability grouping began to decline.

During the 1950’s, American education became the focus of much scrutiny, primarily because of American competition with Russia, where Russian technological advances and abilities seemed to surpass our own. As a result, government officials began to offer their support in the implementation of special opportunities to foster the needs of intellectually talented students (Kulik, 1992). The focus of school systems seemed to be geared towards these students alone, and gifted students were not merely separated from their peers, their curriculum was adjusted to meet their demanding needs and potentials.

Kulik notes that the first major movement away from these specialized programs for gifted and talented students occurred during the civil rights movements of the 1960’s. During this time, equity became a major theme in American schools. For the first time, educators and civil rights activists were looking at the disadvantaged student, not the student of average or high ability. Many educators wanted to ensure that no student was overlooked and that every student was given a fair amount of educational opportunities. This goal was difficult to implement, since every student requires a different degree of instruction and benefits from a different set of opportunities. Clearly, we can conclude from this back and forth attitude over ability grouping that our ever-changing society results in our ever-changing attitude over its benefits and/or potential damages.

Common Models of Ability Grouping

Ability grouping is more than a one-dimensional program when implemented in educational systems. There are many different levels and intensities of ability grouping, and many different ways to separate students who are perceived to have different abilities. Kulik (1992) distinguishes five different grouping plans that in certain school systems are used either independently or simultaneously.

  • XYZ classes: This grouping plan divides a single grade into several different abilities for a particular subject and each ability level is instructed in a separate classroom.
  • Cross-Grade Grouping: This model takes students of the same ability across several grades and groups them together. In this setting, students are taught exclusively with peers of a similar ability.
  • Intra-class Grouping: In this model, each classroom includes students with a wide range of abilities. In general, there is whole-group instruction when appropriate and small-group instruction when ability differences need to be taken into consideration. Within these classes, teachers form ability groups and offer separate instruction to each group when necessary while students of different abilities work on separate, ability-appropriate assignments.
  • Advanced Placement and Accelerated Classes: The fourth grouping plan refers exclusively to the instruction of gifted and talented students. In this plan, most classes include students of high, average, and low ability. However, it provides specialized instruction and accelerated classes for students with extremely high aptitudes in specific subject areas.
  • Enrichment Programs: The final grouping plan refers to only those who are gifted and provides more varied and richer experiences than those that are offered in the regular classroom.

The first time the XYZ approach was used to divide students by ability, the top 20%, the middle 60%, and the bottom 20% had their own classes. Students could move from one classification to another based on the teacher’s perception of whether each student seemed to belong among his/her peers. In this initial effort to implement ability grouping, no adjustment of curriculum or of instructional methods was made. The major purpose of this grouping was to reduce ability variation in each classroom to make things easier for the instructor. Few school systems used grouping as an opportunity for students to be exposed to different curriculum that adequately aligned to their needs. Eventually, XYZ classes did evolve to the point where the groups of students with successively higher abilities received more extensive work. This type of ability grouping gives teachers the opportunity to present a differentiated curriculum that is suitable and challenging for each ability level.

XYZ classes and cross-grade grouping are both typically associated with the term tracking. Within these structures, there are generally three different types of classes for students: college preparatory, general, and vocational (Lush, 1994). The college preparatory track includes students who anticipate attending college and whose parents and teachers expect them to. The academic demands for this track are typically quite high and often contain Advanced Placement or college-credit opportunities. Students in the general track are encouraged to try their best and may also be encouraged to consider post-secondary schools and colleges. And finally, the vocational track is for students who may not choose to further their academic education after high school. Students in this track may join the work force directly out of high school.

Intra-class grouping is perhaps the most widely accepted form of ability grouping that exists within the above-mentioned systems. Several concerns are addressed in this plan: first, students of all abilities have the same instructor, thus leveling what some believe is an unfair advantage to higher ability students; second, it addresses the fact that certain students have exceptional capabilities, thus it provides the opportunity for enrichment opportunities; and third, students who are struggling have the opportunity to express their questions in a less intimidating environment. In an intra-class grouping environment, teachers present a lesson to some of the subgroups, while the remaining subgroups work on other projects or assignments (Kulik). While this is the philosophy of intra-class grouping, and in theory there seems to be worlds of potential, there is no complete analysis of techniques that would make such a system work. In practice, this form of ability grouping calls for differentiated instruction, which would hopefully challenge each student appropriately. When this within-class grouping was practiced in a mathematics education research study of 8 separate classrooms, Kulik found that the effects were either positive or not significant. Thus, the study did not find that there were any adverse effects to the intra-class grouping technique, and therefore, that it was a worthwhile practice.

Self Perceptions That Result From Grouping Practices

In adolescent years, self-esteem will always be challenged, no matter the circumstances. Society worries that intellectually gifted students cause the average and below average students to make “such day-after-day comparisons that can devastate self-concepts and devitalize children” (Davis & Rimm, 1994, pp. 11-12). It is difficult for school systems to know how to respond to society’s growing concern. If a school system pulls these students out of regular classrooms and offers them programs to nurture their intellectual capabilities, people think it is giving the students who are not included a negative feeling of self-worth. They worry that providing the intellectually gifted students with opportunities not made available to the regular population will make them feel unimportant and undeserving.

If this is a legitimate concern, then one would expect there to be similar concerns and outrage when students with non-academic talents are offered special enrichment opportunities. However, this is not the case. People tend to view special opportunities for these students (i.e., students with a remarkable ability in the arts or in sports) to be necessary for their development (Davis & Rimm). These opportunities probably have a similar effect on the population of students who can be made to feel unimportant and undeserving because they were not offered special enrichment in these areas. However, there only seems to be hostility when special programs cause students to feel intellectually inferior (as opposed to musically or artistically inferior) to their peers.

It seems that the findings regarding how ability grouping situations influence a student’s self-esteem are slightly ambiguous. On the one hand, the research previously discussed mentions that ability grouping and tracking systems force (almost always negative) labels onto students. For instance, Merina (1993) implies that students in a low-end classroom setting will, as a result of being distinguished as being of low ability, see themselves as untalented and unintelligent. Clearly, this reflects a poor self-image. When a student determines that he/she is labeled, it may limit his/her potential and performance. Unfortunately, labels are difficult to break and even more difficult to avoid all together. Supporters of the de-tracking movement seem to think that the elimination of tracking will result in the elimination of labeling. Even if tracking were replaced with heterogeneous classes, students would probably still feel the presence of a label by their teachers and peers. The only difference is that this label would not necessarily be determined by the class schedule, but rather by each student’s performance and reputation or according to some other means. Regardless of how classrooms are constructed, labeling, will always exist, and subsequently self-esteem may always suffer.

What are other self-image concerns that can result from heterogeneous classrooms for the lower ability student? Hallihan (2000) asserts that there can in fact be damaging effects when students are challenged beyond their ability. She references research that shows that an intimidating environment can lead to “a loss of self-confidence [and a] fear of failure” (p. 26) that will be detrimental to any child’s learning. In addition, Kulik (1992) references many studies where the research also reflects that without ability grouping students’ self-esteem can still be lowered or destroyed. When students see themselves struggling more than the rest of their peers, they will be too intimidated to ask questions or seek the educational assistance that they may require. These students may not feel as though their gifted or more abled peers value their opinions and contributions in class. Student involvement in the classroom is critical for meaningful student learning. Many argue that students who do not express their misunderstandings and confusions to their teachers and peers will not benefit from the classroom experience. If a student believes he/she lags too far behind peers, he/she may be hesitant to ask for clarification or to ask for more time to complete an in-class activity. Without being able to express individual needs in the classroom, students may lose motivation to achieve. Intuitively, students of high-perceived ability have an improved sense of self-esteem when placed in heterogeneous classes as opposed to homogeneous higher level ones. These findings are a result of a 1992 analysis by Kulik, which compiled data from 13 different research studies that measured self-esteem in students of ability separated classrooms. Self-esteem was measured through a series of self-acceptance and self-perception surveys. High ability students who are in a classroom of mixed-ability peers have gained the perception that all levels of learning come easily to them. They tend not to encounter many difficult learning struggles and have the confidence to contribute to classroom discussions. When these students are placed in classrooms where they are exposed to higher-level material and are among peers who are of similar ability, they lose some of their confidence. It is not necessarily a bad thing for these students to struggle in the learning process understand that learning does not always come so easily. However, it is still necessary to notice that there are self-esteem problems to consider with grouping practices and the intellectually gifted.

Ideally, educators would implement programs that promote self-confidence, high self-esteem, and a positive self-image. However, it seems that all structures of classrooms whether they distinguish ability or not, may give reason for a student to feel poorly about him/herself. According to Kulik’s (1992) findings, he concludes that the effects on self-esteem have a leveling effect, and no one program is really any more detrimental than any other program in producing negative self-concepts. It is difficult to claim that a student has a negative self-image because of a grouping practice, since many circumstances can cause the same insecurities.

Effects on Achievement

The ideology behind ability grouping is to raise the achievement level of all students by creating an environment that is most suitable to fit their needs. It is important to determine whether the goals of grouping are in fact being met. To understand the effects of ability grouping on achievement, the impact on overall achievement must be addressed. Gamoran’s (1990) study of ability grouping in the eighth and ninth grades for both English and History classes determined that overall achievement was not affected by grouping. More specifically, ability grouping prompted higher ability groups to learn more and lower ability students to learn less. In essence, the improvement in achievement for the higher ability groups was cancelled out by the decline in achievement for the lower ability students. This seems to be the trend in most studies done on how achievement is affected by grouping practices; the highly able students benefit while the less able students suffer.

Kulik agrees that the most profound and positive outcomes that ability grouping creates are on the high aptitude students, in all ability grouping systems. Enriched and accelerated classes for gifted students raise their achievement and broaden their experiences in school. Kulik concludes that enrichment classes advance students’ achievement and have many other benefits. For instance, highly able students are granted the opportunity to be exposed to material that moves beyond what is measured on standard achievement tests or that is offered in statewide curriculum. Such material is valuable and inspirational for students, even if its effects on achievement are not easily measured.


Those in favor of eliminating ability grouping, which would include many gifted education programs, worry that the mere practice of identifying intellectually gifted students is, in itself, elitist (Shermis, 1994). People ask, “[W]hy give ‘gifts’ to the gifted,” (Schwartz, 1994, p. 2) when they already have advantages over their peers? Today’s society is so concerned with fairness and equity in education systems that any specialized program is being attacked (Sykes, 1995). As a result, mixed-ability classrooms are replacing all forms of differentiated classroom structures, including gifted education programs in certain school districts.

Intellectually gifted and sometimes just intellectually motivated students are often the objects of ridicule within society. The “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student” bumper sticker phenomenon summarizes some people’s perception of the gifted student (Sykes). Essentially, this perception is that distinguishing and showing pride in academic arenas is arrogant and conceited. Among such a culture of ridicule, many people in society do not like the idea of smart students receiving what some may argue is a richer education (even if they are more capable of receiving one). Society is so worried that the school system is promoting elitism that it wants all students to receive the same curriculum at the same time. With this perception in mind, ability grouping is being challenged. Some people fear that separating the most intelligent of students into their own classroom harms the average and below-average student, and should therefore be abolished.

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Davis, G. H., & Rimm, S. B. (1994). Education of the gifted and talented (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Fiedler, E. D., Lange, R. E., & Winebrenner, S. (19922). In search of reality: Unraveling the myths about tracking, ability grouping, and the gifted. Roeper Review, 16, 4-7.
Gamoran, A. (1990). Classroom instruction and the effects of ability grouping: A structural model. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston, MA.
Keliher, A .C. (1931). A critical study of homogeneous grouping. New York, NY: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Kulik, J. A. (1992). An analysis of the research on ability grouping: Historical and contemporary perspectives (RBDM 9204). Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
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Merina, A. (1993, November). Is there life after tracking? NEA Today, 12.
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Shermis, S. S. (1994). Talent development in social, historical, and philosophical perspectives. In J. B. Hansen & S. M. Hoover (Eds.), Talent development theories and practice (pp. 5-24). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.
Sykes, C. J. (1995). Dumbing down our kids: Why American children feel good about themselves but can’t read, write, or add. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.


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