Ability grouping is the practice of differentiating groups of students either within or between classes. Within-class ability grouping refers to the practice of separating students within the same class into smaller groups, usually for math and reading. Between-class ability grouping refers to putting different students on entirely different academic program tracks based on their abilities. Remedial and gifted/talented (G/T) are the two most common between-class tracks.
If your sonís school has ability grouping, you may be wondering if it works to your sonís advantage. While people who have opinions on ability grouping tend to have strong ones, the fact is that there are benefits and drawbacks to the practice, whether your child is on the G/T track or the remedial one. When students are grouped into classes according to their abilities, teachers are better able to tailor instruction to the studentsí level. Since teachers usually teach to the mean (the average) ability of their students, ability grouped students have a more closely clustered mean, resulting in an overall more relevant educational experience. Further, when students are with their true peers (those whose abilities are on a par with theirs), they are more likely to contribute in class, to ask for help when they donít understand, and to feel confident in class. These factors are especially important for boys who tend to be overwhelmed by girls in class discussions, at least at the elementary and middle school levels.
Of course, ability grouping has its drawbacks as well. When students are tracked with other students of the same ability, some element of diversity in the classroom is lost. Further, parents have alleged that G/T students tend to receive more talented teachers than do their remedial counterparts. Finally, there is an argument that students are elevated by the higher-ability students around them. The incentive to achieve may be lost if all of the students in a class are remedial.
Anecdotal opinions are one thing, but what does the evidence say about the effects of ability grouping? Because the research on this subject is comprehensive, there are several permutations for which results are decisive. For students who are grouped within a class according to their math and reading ability, research demonstrates that students of all abilities benefit. For students who are grouped between classes and using the same curricula, there are no appreciable differences in student achievement. However, for students who are grouped between classes and using different curricula, G/T students have significant gains, while remedial students see little difference in performance.
So is ability grouping right for your son? Research would suggest that if your son is gifted, he would likely benefit from being grouped with other gifted students. If, however, your son needs extra instruction on core subjects like math and reading, it is likely that he would not achieve better or worse results by being grouped with other similar students.
If your son goes to a school with ability grouping, chances are good that you have little to no say as to which group he is placed in. However, being aware of the benefits and drawbacks of ability grouping does make you an informed education consumer. The more you know, the more of an advocate you can be for your son.