Should schools group students by ability?

Writing for the Fordham Institute, Scott J. Peters and Jonathan Plucker recently reviewed the research on student ability grouping in middle and high schools. Excerpts from the piece appear below:

One of the most contentious debates in American education focuses on whether to group students into classrooms using some measure of prior achievement. Whole class grouping by prior achievement or content mastery is most common for math instruction, less common for English and reading, and least common for other subjects; it appears to be more common in middle schools (48 percent) than in elementary schools (24 percent).

The research on instructional grouping, however, is more positive than grouping critics would have us believe. On balance, though, we find that large-scale studies and meta-analyses of grouping show evidence of positive effects for high-performing students and little downside (and often upside) for lower-performing students.

In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Kate Antonovics, Sandra E. Black, Julie Berry Cullen, and Akiva Yonah Meiselman, who looked at the effects of “tracking” on Texas students from 2010 to 2019, the authors measured how exposure to more- or less-grouped classrooms influenced math achievement as measured by where students fell in comparison to their peers across the state. In other words, how does being exposed to more- or less-grouped classrooms influence student academic achievement, as compared to the rest of the state, and how do those effects differ for students who start out lower achieving versus higher achieving? 

The findings are somewhat complicated because of rigorous multiple estimation methods and because effects were examined for students achieving at or below the 25th percentile, as well as students at or above the 75th percentile. In the end, the analyses suggest, greater exposure to instructional grouping is associated with no change in predicted math achievement for low-achieving students, but is positively predictive of upward percentile mobility for high-achieving students. A 1 standard deviation increase in grouping exposure for kids who were in the top 25 percent of math achievers in third grade predicted a 1.3 percentile-point increase in eighth-grade test scores. Instead of scoring at the 80th percentile among eighth graders in Texas, the student would score just over the 81st percentile. And although there were no similar positive effects for lower-achieving students, the students did end up in smaller classes. The authors hypothesized that this might have helped mitigate any hidden negative effects of grouping on lower-achieving students, but there’s no way to know from these data. 

This study does not support or contradict a school’s decision to engage in more or less grouping by prior achievement. Instead, it simply shows that this kind of grouping does not appear to harm or hold back lower-achieving students, while it does seem to help higher-achieving students a bit.

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