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Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Grouping

NEA Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education

Found In: teaching strategies

Ability grouping, also known as tracking, is the practice of grouping children together according to their talents in the classroom. At the elementary school level, the divisions sound harmless enough - kids are divided into the Bluebirds and Redbirds. But in secondary schools, the stratification becomes more obvious as students assume their places in the tracking system.

In many instances, these students are given labels that stay with them as they move from grade to grade. For those on the lower tracks, a steady diet of lower expectations leads to a low level of motivation toward school. Consequently, in high school, the groups formerly known as the Bluebirds and Redbirds have evolved into tracks: College Preparatory and Vocational.

The educational practice of ability grouping emerged around the turn of the 20th century as a way to prepare students for their "appropriate" place in the workforce (Cooper, 1996). Students with high abilities and skills were given intense, rigorous academic training while students with lower abilities were given a vocational education.

The two most common forms of ability grouping are:

  • Within-class grouping - a teacher's practice of putting students of similar ability into small groups usually for reading or math instruction
  • Between-class grouping - a school's practice of separating students into different classes, courses, or course sequences (curricular tracks) based on their academic achievement

Proponents of ability grouping say that the practice allows teachers to tailor the pace and content of instruction much better to students' needs and, thus, improve student achievement. For example, teachers can provide needed repetition and reinforcement for low-achieving students and an advanced level of instruction to high achievers.

Opponents, however, contend that ability grouping not only fails to benefit any student, but it also channels poor and minority students to low tracks where they receive a lower quality of instruction than other groups. This, they claim, contributes to a widening of the achievement gaps. The National Education Association supports the elimination of such groupings. NEA believes that the use of discriminatory academic tracking based on economic status, ethnicity, race, or gender must be eliminated in all public school settings (NEA Resolutions B-16, 1998, 2005)

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