A Classroom Divided: Is Grouping Students by Intelligence a Good Idea?


No two students are alike in the classroom, but many may be similar.

In that regard, ability grouping in the classroom, once popular in the 1960s and ’70s, makes sense. By placing high achievers in one cluster and lower achievers in another, educators can teach the same material but modify activities and assignments to each group.

The practice fell out of favor in the 1980s and ’90s because critics said such segregation singled out low-performing students often by race and class.

It’s now 2013, and what’s old is new again. In our schools, ability grouping is making a huge comeback.

“Ability grouping may be more prominent in schools today because of the push for differentiated instruction,” Jerusha O. Conner, assistant professor of education at Villanova University, told TakePart. “DI is an approach to teaching that enables teachers to tailor the curricular material and pedagogical approach to particular students’ needs by grouping them, sometimes on the basis of readiness, sometimes on the basis of interests or learning style.”

Conner said that many experts and educators consider differentiated instruction linked to standards to advance equity and fairness in the classroom.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in fact, wants schools to consider ways to reinvent education, and grouping has been thrown out as an option.

The Huffington Post explained that an administration memo about Duncan’s High School Redesign plan implied that “high schools could be encouraged to throw away ideas about grade level...in an effort to make sure kids who are falling behind get extra help.”

The National Education Association is not so keen on grouping students. On the NEA website, the group states that in the past, “students with high abilities and skills were given intense, rigorous academic training while students with lower abilities were given a vocational education.” In that regard, the National Education Association, “supports the elimination of such groupings.”

Grouping and tracking of students came about in the 1890s when the Committee of Ten, started by the National Education Association, created intellectual programs in schools to single out students for academic futures in colleges or skilled jobs that required only vocational training. 

The Brookings Institute first noted the return of grouping in a March 2013 report. The author, Tom Loveless, wrote, “These trends are surprising considering the vehement opposition of powerful organizations to both practices.” Loveless added, “Critics argued that tracking and ability grouping do not separate students into socioeconomic status-related groups by accident.”

Over the last 10 years, however, Loveless said grouping has returned, especially in the subjects of reading and math. He lists several reasons, including No Child Left Behind and the prevalence of state tests.

“The increased use of computer instruction in elementary classrooms cannot help but make teachers more comfortable with students in the same classroom studying different materials and progressing at different rates through curriculum,” he wrote.

While this may be the current trend, the critics may have been onto something 30 years ago when they aimed to halt grouping.

According to one study, “Teachers assigned to higher tracks and parents of bright students prefer ability grouping. Teachers in lower tracks are less enthusiastic and need support in the form of materials and instructional techniques to avoid the disadvantages of tracking.”

Conner said that sorting students across classes, whether through leveling, tracking, or streaming, does nothing to help students. She says such grouping, “typically results in and reinforces unequal access to high-quality educational experiences, with low-income students of color usually bearing the brunt of these practices.”

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