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Student Ability Grouping: Help or Hindrance?

This post was contributed by EducationWorld Web Assistant Joe Murphy.

Vivian Yees New York Times article Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor in Classroom focuses on a classroom practice that had declined in popularity~ but has started to make its way into schools again. The controversial strategy of grouping students by ability has become more favored in classrooms recently~ especially at the elementary level.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that 71 percenthad grouped students by reading ability in 2009~ up from 28 percent in 1998. In math~ 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011~ up from 40 percent in 1996.
Some teachers assess their students at the beginning of the year~ then put the more gifted students in faster-paced learning groups and those who test lower into a separate group. They essentially learn the same things~ but the higher group may go more in-depth on certain topics and cover more material~ since they move faster.

Many claim this could have a serious negative effect~ with teachers allocating better resources to the higher-achieving students. The lower-level students~ although not neglected~ might not be getting as many opportunities.

Another unintended consequence of ability grouping may be its potential to divide students by class and race. Minority students and those of lower socioeconomic status--often subject to lower expectations--tend to be overrepresented in remedial groups.

On the other hand~ proponents of grouping claim the practice allows teachers to give increased attention to lower-performing students. At the same time~ the higher-ability students gifts and strengths can be honed beginning at an younger age.

Without grouping~ some argue~ teachers are forced to teach in the middle to the whole class. This may result in the lower-ability students getting frustrated and giving up~ and the higher-ability students getting bored and distracting themselves and others.

Supporters of grouping suggest that when students are taught with others of their ability level~ the resulting peer effect can be positive. More advanced students may be challenged by young people who are equally or more advanced~ while lower-ability students may feel less intimidated and less frustrated working with children who are proceeding at a slower pace.

What are your thoughts on separating students by ability? How do you handle this issue in your classroom?