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Homogeneous or Heterogeneous: Which Way to Go?

Share Is ability grouping the best way for students to learn or does it hold many back? Education World takes a look at recent information -- from researchers and from teachers -- on the issue.

Does homogeneous grouping of students enable the largest number to experience the most learning success? Or does heterogeneous grouping create a setting in which more students can perform to the best of their abilities? A heated controversy rages over these two, familiar positions.

Leading the charge for detracking -- the breakdown of homogeneous groups into hetereogeneous groups -- was a special January/February 1997 issue of the Harvard Education Letter. Authored by guest editors Leon Lynn and Anne Wheelock, the article began by stating:

"Evidence is mounting that schools that reserve the highest quality educational opportunities for the "best" students -- as determined by a selection process that is often flawed and discriminatory -- are denying many students the opportunity to achieve their full potential. This injustice is made even more onerous by the rising importance of standards-based school reform, which seeks to hold all students and schools accountable to higher levels of learning. Schools cannot embrace high standards for all students without addressing the barriers that prevent many students from equal educational opportunity."


Tracking and ability grouping have been hotly debated for nearly a century. In an essay titled The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate, published in July 1998, Tom Loveless delineates the issues surrounding the question of tracking.

Though tracking and ability grouping are widely used terms, what they actually mean in the contexts of different schools various greatly. In this essay, ability grouping is described as when students are organized into groups within classes, creating, for example, "bluebirds" and "redbirds" groups in reading instruction. Tracking, on the other hand, refers to grouping students between classses, offering academic courses in subjects that reflect differences in students' prior learning or ability.

Tracking in particular has spawned fiery debate. "Critics," according to Loveless, "charge that tracking not only fails to benefit any student, but that it also channels poor and minority students into low tracks and dooms a vast number of students to an impoverished education. Defenders of tracking, on the other hand, argue that high ability students languish in mixed ability classes, that it is nearly impossible, for example, for teachers to lead students through the plot twists of King Lear while simultaneously instructing in phonics. In the last decade a turning point in this debate occurred as education policymakers in several states launched initiatives to discourage tracking."


Teachers and administrators engage in lively discussion on listservs, such as the Middle-L listserv. One such discussion involved tracking.

One math teacher found the following happens when ability grouping is used in math:

  • "Test scores do not improve in the lower-ability group. They only rise in the higher group, and then only slightly.

  • Attitudes of the students in the lower-ability math group actually go down. There is no one to model excitement and enthusiasm. And, they quickly become very bored with the curriculum.

  • The lower ability group tends to receive more drill than ever -- more of the same, instead of a more hands-on approach, problem solving, projects, etc.

  • Also, besides modeling excitement, what's missing are the students who share their strategies and thinking for solving problems. They need that modeling, too."

On the other hand, some teachers argue for homogeneous grouping. "Heterogeneous grouping is a true political soapbox," says one teacher. "Administrators love to boast that their school has heterogeneous grouping...but the administrators aren't in the classroom, and they don't see the disappointment on the faces of each students when a new experience is presented and not everyone remains 'on the same page.'"

"That ideal [of heterogeneous grouping]," he adds, "is an ideal....Truth is, in our experience the low-end kids tend to pull down the high-end kids, rather than the other way around. The class pace slows, and the teacher has to in effect devise two lesson plans for each period, one for the accelerated students and another for those who have low skills."

Another teacher takes the middle road. "I, too, have read some research on ability grouping. I found that it helps in certain areas, such as math, but students shouldn't be ability grouped throughout the day in all academic areas..."

She continues, "[As] a language arts teacher, I have found that I like a mixed ability group because they can play off one another and the highs seem to bring up the lows in some cases. I have never found that the gifted child has to 'come down' to the lower level student. Language arts is an area where all can be successful if they work toward their strengths....some of my best readers and writers are not necessarily "gifted" students. (Don't we just love those labels!)"

So, as the debate rages on, a consensus on ability grouping and tracking is difficult to reach. Perhaps the most common conclusion among teachers actually dealing with this issue in the trenches is that ability grouping can work in certain situations, but not in others, and that flexibility is necessary so that students do not become tracked without the clear ability to move from group to group.


  • Is Ability Grouping the Way to Go---Or Should It Go Away? (A July, 1997, Education World story on this issue.) 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?

  • The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate Delineates the essential points of the debate, with sections such as What Is Tracking?, The History of Tracking, The Research, Principles for Future Policy, and Impact of Grouping on Achievement.

  • The Harvard Education Letter The Construction of Low Achievement: A Study of One Detracked Senior English Class

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World

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Originally published 01/25/1999
Links last updated 02/12/2004