ERIC Identifier: ED290542
Publication Date: 1987-00-00
Author: Hollifield, John
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Ability Grouping in Elementary Schools.
Ability grouping of students is one of the oldest and most controversial
issues in elementary and secondary schools. Hundreds of research studies have
examined the effects of the two most common variants: between-class and
within-class ability grouping. Between-class grouping refers to a school's
practice of forming classrooms that contain students of similar ability.
Within-class grouping refers to a teacher's practice of forming groups of
students of similar ability within an individual class.
This digest summarizes the conclusions of Robert E. Slavin's 1986
comprehensive review of research on the different types of ability grouping in
elementary schools. The purpose of his review was to identify grouping practices
that promote student achievement.
WHY USE ABILITY GROUPING?
In theory, ability grouping increases student achievement by reducing the
disparity in student ability levels, and this increases the likelihood that
teachers can provide instruction that is neither too easy nor too hard for most
students. The assumption is that ability grouping allows the teacher (1) to
increase the pace and raise the level of instruction for high achievers, and (2)
to provide more individual attention, repetition, and review for low achievers.
The high achievers benefit from having to compete with one another, and the low
achievers benefit from not having to compete with their more able peers.
One of the main arguments against ability grouping is that the practice
creates classes or groups of low achievers who are deprived of the example and
stimulation provided by high achievers. Labeling students according to ability
and assigning them to low-achievement groups may also communicate
self-fulfilling low expectations. Further, groups with low performance often
receive a lower quality of instruction than other groups. Slavin sees as the
most compelling argument against ability grouping its creation of academic
elites, a practice which goes against democratic ideals.
HOW DOES GROUPING AFFECT STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT?
In his review, Slavin examines evidence on the achievement effects of five
comprehensive ability grouping plans in elementary schools. His review draws
conclusions about the effectiveness of the following grouping plans: ability
grouped class assignment, regrouping for reading or mathematics, the Joplin
Plan, nongraded plans, and within-class ability grouping.
Ability Grouped Class Assignment. This grouping plan places students in one
self-contained class on the basis of ability or achievement. In some
departmentalized upper elementary grades, the class may move as a whole from
teacher to teacher. Evidence suggests that ability grouped class assignment does
not enhance student achievement in the elementary school.
Regrouping for Reading and Mathematics. Under this plan, students are
assigned to heterogeneous homeroom classes for most of the day, but are
regrouped according to achievement level for one or more subjects. For example,
all students from various homeroom classes of one grade level might be re-sorted
into ability grouped classes for a period of reading instruction. Results
indicate that regrouping for reading or mathematics can improve student
achievement. However, the level and pace of instruction must be adapted to
achievement level. Furthermore, students must not be regrouped for more than one
or two subjects.
The Joplin Plan. This grouping plan assigns students to heterogeneous classes
for most of the day but regroups them across grade levels for reading
instruction. For example, a reading class at the fifth grade, first semester
level might include high achieving fourth graders, average achieving fifth
graders, and low achieving sixth graders. There is strong evidence that the
Joplin Plan increases reading achievement.
Nongraded Plan. This plan includes a variety of related grouping plans that
place students in flexible groups according to performance rather than age.
Thus, grade-level designations are eliminated. The curriculum for each subject
is divided into levels through which students progress at their own rates. Well-
controlled studies conducted in regular schools generally support the use of
comprehensive nongraded plans.
Within-class Ability Grouping. This plan is generally used for reading or
mathematics. Teachers assign students within their classroom to one of a small
number of groups based on ability level. These groups work on different
materials at rates unique to their needs and abilities. Too few studies have
been conducted on the use of within-class ability grouping in reading to support
or challenge its effectiveness. Part of the problem is that within-class
grouping is so widespread in reading instruction that it is difficult to conduct
research that includes a control group not using the practice. Research on
within-class ability grouping in mathematics clearly supports the practice,
especially when only two or three groups are formed. The positive effects are
slightly greater for low-achieving students than for average or high achievers.
WHAT SHOULD SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS DO ABOUT ABILITY GROUPING?
Slavin concludes that schools and teachers should use the methods proved most
effective, such as within-class ability grouping in mathematics, nongraded plans
in reading, and the Joplin Plan. The review recommends that schools find
alternatives to the use of ability grouped class assignment, such as assigning
students to self-contained classes according to general ability or performance
Based on his examination of the features of successful and unsuccessful
practices, Slavin recommends that the following elements be included in
successful ability grouping plans:
--Students should identify primarily with a heterogeneous class. They should
be regrouped by ability only when reducing heterogeneity is particularly
important for learning, as is the case with math or reading instruction.
--Grouping plans should reduce student heterogeneity in the specific skill
being taught, not in IQ or overall achievement level.
--Grouping plans should allow for frequent reassessment of student placement
and for easy reassignment based on student progress.
--Teachers must vary the level and pace of instruction according to student
levels of readiness and learning rates in regrouped classes.
--Only a small number of groups should be formed in within-class ability
grouping. This will allow the teacher to provide adequate direct instruction for
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Slavin, Robert E. ABILITY GROUPING AND STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT IN ELEMENTARY
SCHOOLS: A BEST-EVIDENCE SYNTHESIS. Baltimore, MD: Center for Research on
Elementary and Middle Schools, 1986.