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Classroom Leveling, Tracking, and Ability Grouping

Introduction and Historical Perspective

When discussing controversial and popular topics in education, it seems like everyone has an opinion on the matter.  Unlike grade retention, the debate surrounding ability grouping, tracking, and leveled classrooms does not have clear empirical evidence to validate its use within American schools.  While many researchers have investigated various components of academic tracking and student groupings, there's still only limited evidence of the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) from which to make a definitive conclusion.  The debate continues. 

Prior to the 1960s, tracking and leveling programs were once very popular in the United States.  However, the civil rights movement advocated for the removal of these types of education systems because disproportionately high numbers of minorities, low income, and black students were placed into the lowest leveled classrooms.  Amid the fight against cultural segregation and discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s, tracking and leveling became subject of several legal cases and quickly fell out of favor in American educational systems.  (See Moses v Washington Parish School Board, Marshall v Georgia, or Hobsen v Hansen for information about the legal issues and challenges during and since this time.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, these practices were openly discouraged and continued to be criticized in both public and professional educational circles.  Concerns about social stigmas, discrimination, and inadequate resources to meet the needs of low performing students tended to make policy makers shy away from engaging in any sort of tracking or grouping.  This shift aligned with the era of special education mainstreaming, which supported the idea that students with disabilities should be taught in general education settings.  It was a dicey time in American education.

However, around the turn of the millennium, ability groupings and tracking programs slowly began to reappear within schools around the country.  In March 2013, a report issued from the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on American Education indicated that these practices were continuing to gain popularity and favor within American elementary schools.  In this summary of the findings, it is stated that this resurgence is a effect of the federal changes mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  The report indicated that from 1998 to 2009, a survey of 4th grade teachers showed that their usage of ability grouping more than doubled in the area of reading -- from 28% to 71%.  In a similar time period (1996-2009) mathematics ability groupings also became the norm -- rising in occurrence from around 40% to 54%.  In 2011, this statistic grew even higher; 64% of teachers reported using some type of mathematics ability groupings in their classrooms, which was the highest frequency in nearly 20 years.  The author later commented on his research, stating that he is happy to see that educators and researchers are once again looking at empirical studies - not fear of inequality - to make educational decisions.

What are leveled classrooms?  Ability Grouping?  Tracking?  Streaming?

Researchers and educational writers use a variety of terms to describe similar concepts.  Some writers comment that other writers use these terms interchangeably and inaccurately.  There is certainly variability among professions as how to properly define each of these unique systems, which further causes confusion while debating the effectiveness of these programs.  I have defined each of the terms in my own words below; key differences have been underlined.

  • Leveled Classrooms (Leveling)
    • An entire classroom setting in which the teacher is responsible to instruct in all core subject areas.  Students are assigned to that class because they share a similar academic performance history.
    • This type of program is almost exclusively used in elementary schools.  This is not common in middle or high school settings.
    • For example, an entire second grade class may have three separate classrooms; one classroom designed for the lowest performers, one for the average students, and one classroom for the highest achievers.
    • Student placement within leveled classroom are not typically designed to be changed mid-year.  Students usually attend the same level of classroom during the entire school year, even if their classroom performance suddenly starts to drift away from their peers.
    • This model is similar to high school tracking programs.  The primary difference is that elementary leveled classrooms tends to be designed to remediate learning delays in the early years of schooling, while high school tracking programs tend to accept each student's current ability and create a graduation plan tailored to that students strengths and weaknesses.

  • Ability Grouping
    • Refers to a classroom of mixed-ability students taught within the same classroom with each other.  The class is composed of students with heterogeneous academic abilities.
    • This model allows students of all ability levels to be enrolled in a single classroom, but instruction is provided to these students based on their academic needs.  It is possible that more than one lesson would be presented at a time, if the teacher differentiates instruction appropriately.
    • A variation to this model occurs when these small groups do not receive this tailored instruction within their typical classroom.  For example, the lowest performing students in mathematics may receive instruction in their usual classroom from their usual teacher while the average-performing students complete their math work in a nearby classroom.  All students then return to the classroom when mathematics time is over.
    • Ability groups are defined by subject area; they are regularly are regrouped as student's needs and performance changes.
    • Many adults may remember the "bluebirds, redbirds, and blackbirds" from their childhood; this is a modern take on that same principle.
    • The Kansas' MTSS system is an example of this model. 

  • Tracking
    • A series of classrooms which are designed to provide a progression of coursework to complete a specific academic track.
    • This type of program is used almost exclusively in high school settings; this allows students chose to take courses which interest them personally.
    • Typical examples of tracking programs include coursework specific to fine arts, building trades, mathematics, science, history, or English/Language Arts.  These courses often require prerequisites (for example, a student must take Precalculus before taking Calculus 1 or Calculus 2.)
    • The Brookings report showed generally about 75% of high schools using some type of tracked mathematics programming.  This rate has held steady for about 20 years. 
    • A student may enroll in two or more tracks at the same time.  For example, a student may be enrolled in an advanced English/Language Arts courses, yet also be taking lower level mathematics classes.
    • Students may chose to switch between "tracks", although students usually know which courses are best suited for their needs and elect to stay within the track they've started.
    • This model is similar to the leveled classrooms of the elementary grades; the important difference is that tracking is a series of classes over several semesters of enrollment.

  • Streaming
    • Used to describe a process similar to tracking in other countries; streaming is not usually seen in the K-12 classrooms in the USA.
    • These results often result into a predefined set of coursework and class progression, based on that student's specific set of skills, interests, or abilities. 
    • Streaming programs tend to be vocationally based, not determined by academic need.  For example, a student who has high science and mathematics ability may be placed into an engineering stream in middle school and follow a series of classes which will allow that student to graduate high school with skills specifically designed for the engineering field.
    • In European and Asian countries, streaming begins earlier than the tracking systems of American high schools.  In these countries, streaming tends to begin around age 11-12.  In these countries tracking is not a fluid system; students who are streamed into a given course of study do not typically switch and begin working in an alternate stream.
    • Magnet schools could be considered the American equivalent to streaming programs from other countries.

Criticisms of these Practices

  • The National Education Association (NEA) "supports the elimination of such groupings" today, citing that such groupings may be discriminatory in nature.  It is unclear whether NEA supports the removal of all ability groups, or only the ones which may be discriminatory in nature.  No empirical data is cited to explain why NEA made this recommendation.
  • In this Instructor Magazine post, Anne Wheelock, (the author of a 1992 article advocating for the removal of school tracking), was interviewed and asked to share her thoughts about tracking again.  She stated that, "although [tracking] is widespread and widely accepted, ability grouping generally depresses student achievement and is harmful to kids."  The interview states that a large problem with tracking is that the achievement gaps actually widen when students are placed into leveled classrooms. "Once students are grouped, they generally stay at that level for their school careers, and the gap between achievement levels becomes exaggerated over time. The notion that students' achievement levels at any given time will predict their achievement in the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
    • [No empirical research was sited in this interview, and the date of the follow-up interview was not disclosed].
  • In 2007, University of Sussex researchers found that when students were taught in heterogeneous ability groups, and provided instructional strategies which required students to hold each other accountable for their learning, these students out performed their peers who were placed into ability groups without peer accountability.
    • [The study, while published in the UK, used data from American students.  The study also does not compare the same strategies used in ability groups compared to non-ability groups.]
  • This 1992 article by the American Society for Curriculum Development's Educational Leadership publication, starts their research review with a powerful punch: "grouping and tracking do not increase overall achievements in schools, but they do promote inequity, research suggests. To reduce inequality, we should decrease the use of both practices, and, where ability grouping is retained, improve its use."
  • As this Slate post indicates, one problem with the growing popularity of these types of classrooms is the Pygmalion Effect. This psychological phenomenon refers to the reduced (or increased) performance students demonstrate when their teachers have predisposed views of their ability.  For example, students in classes designed for low-achieving students would be more likely to continue to reach low standards, if the effects of teacher expectations hold true. 
    • [For more information about this psychological principle, you can download my my free presentation on the topic.]

Support for these Practices

The largest support for the use of ability grouping and/or tracking is found when comparing the outcomes of high-achieving students.  When highly capable and high performing students are placed into classrooms full of other similar students, the research almost always demonstrates that these students raise their academic achievement.  For example, this 2003 Roeper Review journal article is quite clear: that "flexible ability grouping, combined with appropriate curricular revision or differentiation, may result in substantial achievement gains both for average and high ability learners."

The National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) clearly supports the use of ability grouping for high achieving students, and offers research findings to show that students in these settings can obtain an entire year's worth of extra academic growth when compared to their peers in typical settings.  Furthermore, the NRC/GT asserts that little evidence can be shown that any student (even low achievers) is actually harmed by ability grouping.

Information from the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students (C-MITES) corroborates with the NRC/GT findings.  This webpage states that not only is ability grouping helpful to high academic performers, but that not providing such groupings is actually harmful to students who would otherwise continue to be educated in typical classroom settings.  C-MITES also agrees that low achieving students who are placed into ability-leveled groups do not have any negative social repercussions.  Instead, low achieving students may actually prefer to work with students who share similar academic needs and enjoy being in classrooms where they are not the only student who is struggling. 

As this New York Times story points out, one reason for educators moving to support ability-leveled groups is simply out of convenience for teaching.  When groups are leveled, differentiation is easier to accomplish.  The article summarized it well: "teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement."

What the Research Actually Shows

Perhaps the best meta-analysis of the plethora of research conducted in this area was conducted by Dr. Robert Slavin in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  He did not conduct his own field research, but compiled and summarized the hundreds of studies conducted prior to that point.  In the end, he published two separate research reports - one related to elementary schools and one for secondary schools.  In both of these research reports, he found the same overall result: the net effect of ability grouping vs. nonability grouping is null.  There are no statistically significant differences between heterogeneous and homogenous classrooms.

The ASCD post states that the real achievement gains are made when changes to curriculum occur as part of the ability/tracking programs.  When students are given instructional materials at their level of instruction, achievement will increase, regardless of the class composition.  The post reports that, "the studies Slavin reviewed provided almost no information on what occurred inside the classrooms after students were assigned.  In some studies, teachers may have provided exactly the same instruction to the grouped and ungrouped classes, and there would be little reason to expect achievement benefits or detriments to ability grouping.  In other studies, teaching quality may have favored one group or the other, leading to outcomes that differed by group.  Slavin's ultimate conclusion echoes a finding that is more than half a century old: ability grouping has no effects on achievement unless teachers use it to provide different instruction to different groups."

If you want to see a fantastic summary of the research findings of Slavin and others, I'd suggest you read this 1996 review of the available findings by Dr. Bonnie Grossen at the University of Oregon.  To quote Dr. Grossen's findings, "The research cited in support of dismantling achievement grouping systems at best finds that the effects of achievement and mixed-ability grouping are the same (Slavin, 1990). The implication of this research is that low achievers will likely remain unsuccessful in 'detracked' schools."  In effect she concludes that ability grouping doesn't equalize student learning, but removing those groups also will not increase student performance.

Mr. Wright's Position and Commentary

This issue is a highly debated issue, and has been for several decades.  Despite the hundreds of research studies conducted over the past century analyzing this topic, it is still unclear whether large scale ability grouping (tracking, leveling) can be academically helpful to students.  Research and professional commentary also vary on whether such practices are helpful or harmful to student's social-emotional development. 

I believe that contemporary research should be directed at the academic growth measures before and after such practices are implemented, not whether such practices are discriminatory.  Using empirical data to make placement decisions would eliminate the possibility of personal bias or discrimination of any student.  Here's an interesting 2005 New York Times article related to this issue.

The general consensus of the available research does indicate that ability grouping, when done with differentiated curriculum based on the students' needs, is academically superior to heterogeneous groupings for two distinct student populations.  Both the gifted/talented students, as well as students who are placed into small, dynamic ability groups have consistently been shown to improve their academic performance. 

The writer of the ASCD post makes a couple of statements which, I believe, really get to the heart of the debate.  He states, "to place the debate in its proper perspective, we must remember that decisions about grouping are preliminary and that what matters most comes next: decisions about what to do with students after they've been assigned to classes. Given poor instruction, neither heterogeneous nor homogeneous grouping can be effective; with excellent instruction, either may succeed."  He goes on to say, "students in remedial classes performed especially poorly compared to ungrouped students with similar family backgrounds and initial achievement. With low-group losses offsetting high-group gains, the effects on productivity were about zero, but the impact on inequality was substantial."  I feel that it does a very nice job of explaining the pros and cons of ability grouping and tracking. 

This post from Education World is another well-balanced critique of the issues.  You can also read teacher comments about these practices on this AtoZTeacherStuff thread.

The primary concerns about the utilization of tracking and ability groups are: equity in education, and discriminatory practices when placing students into these groups.  These concerns have been evident for at least 50 years. 

There does not appear to be any research that concludes that academic losses are exacerbated for any student who has been educated using a tracked system.  Opinions and research vary as to whether these students suffer any social stigma or long-term negative effects from being placed into leveled groupings.

The research and supports the use of ability groupings for students who are gifted and talented in academic areas.  The only caveat to doing so would be that some researchers have found that doing so actually widens the gap between student ability levels.  (This is possible if the high achieving students continue to improve their performance, while the average students continue to perform at average level.)  Some would argue that this inequality of education is harmful.  My position is that if we are able to increase student performance for a some of our students, even if only a portion of the student population, we should engage in that practice.

Advocates from both positions of the issue indicate that if tracking, leveling, or ability groupings are to be used, they must be used using appropriate resources for the students within that group.  Schools should not spend money to buy new supplies for one group of students, and leave the old supplies for the other group.  Both sides of the debate agree that doing so would be a discriminatory practice.  Using differentiated curriculum for each ability group is encouraged. Using the same materials for differing levels of performance would be inappropriate.

Dynamic ability groupings are best; student placement within groupings should be considered regularly and allowed to move to the most appropriate group several times throughout the school year.

When looking at small scale ability groupings, the "Joplin Plan" is favored.  Using the knowledge he gained from his research, Dr. Slavin created a reading program titled "Success for All" (SFA) which is now used in thousands of schools across the nation.  SFA is based upon the Joplin Plan, which is an empirically supported model of ability groupings in elementary schools.  You can read more about the Joplin Plan and the SFA program on this post at PBS.org.

In high school settings, the impact of student attitudes toward school cannot be ignored.  Highly capable and academically talented students will probably continue to demonstrate growth.  Students who have historically been underachievers will also likely continue to struggle to meet grade-level expectations.  When tracking programs are utilized in high school settings, educators must be cognizant of the social and emotional impact of such programs when evaluating student satisfaction and exit outcomes.