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Is Ability Grouping the Way to Go?
Or Should It Go Away?

From time to time, Education World reposts a previously published article that we think might be of interest to administrators. We hope you find this archived article to be of value and thought provoking.

Logic, emotion, and research often clash in the longstanding debate over the advantages and disadvantages of ability grouping (tracking). Should it be left up to the courts to decide whether such grouping is fair or not?

Is ability grouping (or tracking) an efficient way to handle differences in student abilities? Does such grouping benefit students---or does it unfairly label them? Research, logic, and emotion often clash when responding to those questions.

Ability grouping increases student achievement by allowing teachers to focus instruction, proponents say. Teaching a group of like-ability students allows teachers to adjust the pace of instruction to students' needs. For example, a teacher might instruct at a slower pace---providing more repetition and reinforcement---with a group of low-achieving students than he or she would with a group of high achievers. A class of high achievers might be given more opportunities for independent research and cooperative group discussion than a group of low achievers would be given; high achievers might be asked to apply their skills to solving higher-level thinking problems too.

So goes the theory behind grouping by ability.

But is that fair? Is the theory supported by research? And what do the courts have to say about grouping by ability?

In a comprehensive review of research on different types of ability grouping in the elementary school, Robert E. Slavin (1986) found that some forms of grouping can result in increased student achievement. Slavin's review focused on five grouping plans.

  • Grouping students as a class by ability for all subjects doesn't improve achievement.
  • Students grouped heterogeneously for most of the school day, but regrouped according to ability for one or two subjects, can improve achievement in those areas for which they are grouped.
  • Grouping heterogeneously except for reading instruction (commonly referred to as "The Joplin Plan") improves reading achievement.
  • Nongraded instruction---instruction that groups students according to ability rather than age and that allows students to progress at their own rates---can result in improved achievement.
  • In-class grouping---a common approach in which teachers break out two or three ability-based groups within a class for instruction---can benefit student achievement. (Slavin's research supports this practice for math instruction. Findings related to reading instruction aren't as conclusive; in-class grouping is so widespread a practice for teaching reading that it's difficult to find "control groups" for such a comparative study.)

Any grouping plan, Slavin concludes, must allow for frequent reevaluation of students' skills, and such grouping must allow for easy reassignment of students who show progress.


Ability grouping doesn't improve achievement and is harmful to students. Such grouping should be banned, says Anne Wheelock, author of Crossing the Tracks: How "Untracking" Can Save America's Schools (New Press, 1992). The practice of grouping by ability is too widespread and too widely accepted, Wheelock adds.

Wheelock says that about 60 percent of elementary schools practice some form of whole-class ability grouping, including Chapter 1 classes and special classes for gifted students. Survey results published in Education Week (see Resources below) in 1995 found that two-thirds of U.S. high schools were at least moderately tracked.

Ability tracking is harmful for a number of reasons, Wheelock told Instructor in A Talk with Anne Wheelock.

  • The criteria used to group kids are based on subjective perceptions and fairly narrow views of intelligence.
  • Tracking leads students to take on labels---both in their own minds as well as in the minds of their teachers---that are usually associated with the pace of learning (such as "slow" or "fast" learners). Because of this, we end up confusing students' pace of learning with their capacity to learn.
  • We associate students' placement with the type of learners they are and therefore create different expectations for different groups of students.
  • Once students are grouped, they generally stay at that level for their school careers, and the gap between achievement and 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.

Wheelock doesn't dismiss all forms of ability grouping. For instance, she notes, a group might be set up within a class to help students who are having difficulty with a specific skill. Or a group might be formed to "pre-teach" a skill to a group of students who might have difficulty grasping a concept.


Carol Nelson tells the stories of "Rick" and "Monica," two of her college students who were majoring in elementary education in Organizing for Effective Reading Instruction. Those two students talked about the effects on them of ability grouping when they were in elementary school.

Rick wrote about why he always worked so hard to remain in the middle group. "The higher group, you see, always had so much stuff to do and I never saw those kids out to recess because they had to stay in and finish what they had started. Now the lower group was not the group to be in either. Even as young as first grade, I knew what it meant to be in the lower group and how those kids were thought of as "lower" than the rest of us. This is the problem with labeling and grouping."

Monica wrote "I have nothing but bad memories about my reading groups in elementary school. I was constantly being left behind and humiliated by my teacher No attempt to help me as an individual by my teacher was ever made---and if it had, it probably wouldn't have been a pleasant one. I think that teachers should be more patient with those students who have reading problems and maybe offer other ways to help than put them in the low group."


Writing in Harvard Educational Review (see Resources below), Kevin G. Welner and Jeanne Oakes assert that the courts can play an important role in "detracking" America's schools. They point to research (Fullwood, 1991) that revealed that 53 percent of White Americans regarded African Americans as likely to be less intelligent that Whites; 55 percent of White Americans felt Latinos were likely to be less intelligent that Whites. Where does that perception come from? The perception might be based, in part, on school systems that track their students according to ability. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) might have started the era of desegregation, Oakes says, but ability grouping has canceled out many of the possible benefits of that landmark decision. Tracking, in many cases, is just another form of racial segregation. One test of the use of ability grouping was highlighted in an article which appeared in the magazine Principal (see Resources below). In that article, authors Perry A. Zirkel and Ivan B. Gluckman wrote:

Approximately half the students in the Augusta, Arkansas, school district are African American. The district has used ability grouping since 1970, when it was forced to dismantle its segregated system. In 1991, an African American parent filed suit, claiming that the district's ability grouping and placement practices violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

In 1992. . . . the district changed its policy of maintaining three homogeneous ability groups (low, middle, and high) for each class, an arrangement which saw a disproportionate number of African American students in the lower ability groups. Under the new policy, grades K-3 would gradually move from homogenous to heterogeneous grouping over a three-year period, and grades 4-6 would retain homogenous grouping only for math, reading, and language arts under a so-called "modified Joplin plan."

The court decided that the Augusta district's pervasive ability grouping policy for grades K-3 violated the Fourteenth Amendment, but that the modified Joplin plan for grades 4-6 did not violate the Constitution [Simmons v. Hooks, 843 F. Supp. 1296 (E.D. Ark. 1994)]. The difference appeared to be the evidence, in the form of expert testimony, that grouping for reading had beneficial effects that outweighed the stigma of homogeneity.

In their conclusion, Zirkel and Gluckman note, "the legal boundaries are, on the whole, notably broad with regard to ability grouping. Principals should recognize that the answer to the issue of heterogeneous versus homogeneous groups is in many cases a matter for educators, not judges, to determine."


So is tracking a fair way for educators to deal with the wide disparity in students' abilities? Or is it a form of discrimination that has few benefits for students and ought to be outlawed? The issue has been the subject of debate for many years---and will be for years to come. One thing is certain: Further research is essential for educators (and, perhaps, for the courts) charged with making informed decisions about the advantages or disadvantages of ability grouping.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Related Resources

  • It's the Law: Ability Grouping
    By Perry A. Zirkel and Ivan B. Gluckman, Principal, September 1995.
  • Ability Grouping: The New Susceptibility of School Tracking Systems to Legal Challenges
    By Kevin G. Welner and Jeanne Oakes, Harvard Educational Review, Fall 1996.
  • Tracking May Not Be as Common a Practice as Assumed, Study Says
    The results of a survey published in Education Week, May 3, 1995.
  • An Organizational Analysis of the Effects of Ability Grouping
    A study of the effects of ability grouping in 92 honors, regular, and remedial English classes in eighth and ninth grade, by Adam Gamoran, Martin Nystrand, Mark Berends, and Paul C. LePore, American Educational Research Journal, Winter 1995.
  • Learning: Tracking
    By Naomi Barko, Parents, January 1996.

Related Sites

Does Ability Grouping Help or Hurt? -- A Talk with Anne Wheelock
Grouping students by ability is one of the most talked-about topics in education. Does it benefit students? Inhibit their learnin? Not matter?

Ability Grouping in Elementary Schools
An ERIC Digest report by John Hollifield. This report summarizes the conclusions of Robert E. Slavin's 1986 comprehensive review of research on the different types of ability grouping in elementary schools.

Organizing for Effective Reading Instruction
An ERIC Digest report by Carol Nelson looks at studies of within-class reading ability grouping.


Originally published 07/18/1997
Last updated 02/24/2009