Ability Grouping

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Purposeful grouping of students occurs in most primary and secondary school contexts. Tracking is the assignment of students to a special sequence or program of classes with other students of similar ability. Grouping is a flexible process of assigning students to classes or groups based mostly on prior achievement levels in particular curricular areas. There is periodic evaluation of performance, opportunity for the movement of students among groups and constant attention to student interests and needs. Feldhusen & Moon contend that "sensible grouping practices match student needs with curricular opportunities" (1992 : 65). It is my belief that student motivation is often enhanced through challenges provided by structured opportunities matched to student abilities.

Kulik (1992) defined ability grouping as "the separation of same-grade school children into groups or classes that differ markedly in school aptitude" (ix). External and/or internal test scores and school records [and teacher assessments/ recommendations] are used to make judgements about the composition of the various groups. Van Tassel-Baska (1992) described the process as "the organizational mechanism by which students at proximate ability levels within a school curriculum are put together for instruction" (68). Ability grouping has two major advantages: it honours individual differences and it allows the curriculum to be differentiated. Its main disadvantage is the tendency for teachers and students to create hierarchies of classes in a cohort and to modify their expectations and/or performance to suit their perceptions of those hierarchies. [Banding removes some of this disadvantage.]

Any gifted program requires acceleration and ability grouping to be successful. Van Tassel-Baska expressed her disquiet at the emerging trend towards seeing teachers of the gifted as being effective using cooperative strategies in the regular classroom. Gifted programs require acceleration and ability grouping for their success. Quite often the barriers to acceptance of these programs are erected by wary educators and administrators. Acceleration ought to be but is not "a routine strategy in gifted programs" (Van Tassel-Baska, 1992 : 69)."Gifted learners need some form of grouping by ability to effectively and efficiently accomplish several educational goals, including appropriately broadened, extended and accelerated curricula" (Rogers,1993 : 12).

Rationale for grouping

"Arlin and Westbury (1976) compared individualised instruction to whole-class instruction, and found that the instructional pace set by the teachers using the whole-class approach was equal to that of students in the twenty-third percentile of the class ability distribution"(Rogers,1993 : 12). This is the so-called Robin Hood tendency of whole class instruction where the richer in ability and performance are robbed of challenge, content and skill development to pay the poorer quarter of the class. Robinson (1990) saw cooperative learning as exploitative of bright students. The Coverage-Mastery Dilemma occurs because rapid coverage of material is of greater benefit to high achievers while high mastery of less material is of greater benefit to low achievers.

These two concepts are of fundamental importance to teachers trying to meet the needs of gifted learners in comprehensive classrooms. Given the broad range of tested ability in various subject areas in selective high schools, teachers face exactly the same problems as do their comprehensive school colleagues. Their lessons may well be pitched at the level of the lower quarter of their mixed ability selective school class. The majority of the gifted students in the class may well be able to handle a much more fast-paced or in-depth curriculum. Alternatively, by using more able students in mixed ability contexts in selective schools to lead discussions or to teach the less able in groups, teachers are robbing them of their right to be challenged in their classes. To a lesser extent the coverage-mastery dilemma can affect the methods of instruction used in mixed ability gifted classes. The more highly motivated gifted learners in a particular mixed ability class are willing and capable of more rapid paced coverage of material than their less motivated and interested peers. Teachers tend to pitch the pace of instruction at least in the lower half of the performance level of the class to ensure mastery of the material.

Five ability grouping options

Students in the same grade are divided into classes and instructed in separate classes for a full day or in single subjects.

Students from several grades are grouped together according to their level of achievement.

Ability groups are created within a single classroom. The trained teacher "provides each group with instruction appropriate to its level of aptitude" (Kulik and Kulik, 1992 : 73).

Richer and more varied educational experiences are offered.

Students proceed more rapidly through their schooling or finish at an earlier age.

Multilevel Classes

The Detroit Plan (1919). Three bands were created based on the results of IQ tests X 20% Y 60% Z 20%. Standard methods and materials were used but individual schools separated students for single subjects. Administratively, it was easier for teachers because it reduced pupil variation in their classes. Of 56 studies on the effects of ability grouping, 51 reported on the effects of multilevel classes on the results obtained in achievement tests. The effect size (a division of the gain or loss for the experimental group by an estimate of the population standard deviation gain or loss for the outcome measure) was found to be 0.03. This result was consistent with Slavin's research on multilevel grouping effects on achievement (Slavin, 1987 , 1990

The Detroit Plan's XYZ tracking classes were subjects of 98 research studies. Slavin at Johns Hopkins conducted a meta-analysis of 47 of these while Kulik and Kulik at Michigan analysed 51. "Both analyses reached the same conclusion about lower and middle ability students : These students learn the same amount in XYZ and mixed classes" (Kulik,1992 : xii). Higher aptitude students gained 8% more in XYZ than mixed classes in the Michigan study but were about the same in the Johns Hopkins study. The problem lies with "curricular uniformity" (xii). The tracking system of XYZ classes creates "differential placement but not differential treatment" (xii). Grouping without differentiated curriculum does not increase student learning. The programs offered to gifted students must be modified to increase the depth and breadth of student learning and adapted to meet their special learning needs. Instruction needs to be differentiated too.

Cross-Grade Grouping

In implementing the Joplin Plan (1953), Missouri 4th, 5th and 6th graders were grouped together for reading by ability for one hour. Students were taught in many levels in separate classes, using different methods and materials. Great results in terms of literacy test increases were claimed, due to the infuence of the plan. (The teaching was differentiated for reading ability.)

Cross-grade grouping (or vertical integration) is used to make up composite classes for small candidature senior subjects in secondary schools to be allowed to run (eg. year 11 and 12, 2-unit music students in the one class or small LOTE classes, or a composite 11/12 Design and Technology class); for acceleration purposes (eg year 10 students in a Preliminary mathematics class; an accelerated class in years 7/8); for small junior electives (9-10); and in Primary Schools, composite grades-5/6

Eleven of fourteen studies of achievement effects for cross-grade grouping found that students learned more. (The average effect size was 0.30 of a standard deviation

The Michigan analysis covered fourteen cross-grade grouping studies and eleven within-class grouping studies. Similar positive effects were found for high, middle and low aptitude students. (Effect sizes ranged from 16% to 25% on grade equivalent scales)

Within-Class Grouping

Average and low ability children model on children of like ability, not on children of high ability" (Schunk,1987). This being so, within class grouping for ad hoc purposes is a common enough teaching strategy. Within-class grouping policy makes this practice structural for an identified group of students with special needs. "Cluster grouping of gifted youth is an administrative procedure in which all of the identified gifted youth at a grade level are assigned to one classroom rather than being dispersed among two or more rooms at that grade level" (Hoover, Sayler & Feldhusen,1993:13). Primary school teachers often create subgroups by ability for specific activities and purposes (e.g. reading, arithmetic, science, social science). Within-class grouping (cluster grouping in secondary schools) requires differentiated instruction and materials within the same classroom. It is a demanding intervention pedagogically.

"Clustered students are grouped heterogeneously with students of low and average ability but regrouped as a cluster within the same classroom for instruction in areas where their skills are at much higher levels"(15). The teacher assigned to the cluster grouped classroom "should be trained in working with the gifted and committed to differentiating instruction and curriculum for them" (Rogers,1993:13). Cluster grouping is a programming option "in which the top 5-8 gifted learners at a grade level are placed with a trained teacher of the gifted and the remainder of that teacher's load includes a normal distribution of ability" (10).

Teacher training in appropriate strategies for gifted learners is an important component of within-class grouping policy. Within-class ability grouping is an effective grouping option if appropriate planning, resources, materials and teaching practices accompany it. "There is every reason to believe that such forms of ability grouping, although short-term, are extremely beneficial to gifted learners when the materials for those groupings have been appropriately differentiated" (Rogers, 1993:10).

Nine of eleven studies of the effects of within class grouping on examination scores yielded a 0.25 (SD) increase. Six of these studies reported effect sizes by ability groups : high (0.3) middle (0.18) low (0.16). Within-class grouping appears to favour higher ability students in its effects on their test achievement.

Enriched Classes for the Gifted and Talented

Hollingworth established enriched classes for gifted students in New York in 1916. Half of school time was spent on the regular curriculum and half was devoted to the pursuit of enrichment - languages, biography, history of civilization. Enrichment classes are designed to meet the needs of gifted and talented students, chosen as a discrete group. Usually a highly challenging academic program is offered with distinctive methods and materials.

Twenty-two of twenty-five studies of the effects of enriched classes for the gifted and talented showed that they achieved more when taught in special programs. The average effect size was 0.41 of a standard deviation. Gains for equivalent ability enrichment classes ranged between 33% and 41%. The strength of the effects achieved is a function of the adjustment in curriculum in accelerated and/or enriched classes and of the special resources usually made available. Specially trained teachers and supportive parents are important too. Vaughan, Feldhusen and Asher (1991) in a meta-analysis of enrichment programs showed that the effects found included significant gains in achievement and thinking skills for gifted youth.

In my opinion, the most significant interventions that can be made on behalf of gifted learners are placement in selective schools and delivery of enriched classes of instruction and employment of appropriate grouping policies within those schools.

Accelerated Classes for the Gifted and Talented

Cambridge Double Track Plan (1891) allowed special classes of bright children to cover six years curriculum in four years of schooling. New York City established "special-progress classes" (Kulik,1992:xiii) where three years were covered in two. Accelerated classes take a variety of forms : grade acceleration in special classes, radical acceleration of individual students, moderate advancement of groups of students, subject acceleration. Twenty-three studies of accelerated instruction (compressing the curriculum - 4 years to 3 or extending the calendar - 4 years to 3 with 5 summer sessions) were found. In one study design (11 cases) initially equivalent in age and aptitude groups were compared after one had been involved in an accelerative program. The effect size of the measured improvement was 0.87 of a standard deviation.

In another design (12 cases) accelerated students were compared with able non accelerants in grades into which accelerants had gone. The average effect size in measured improvement was -0.02 (Kulik & Kulik,1992:73-76). Thus the accelerants had suffered virtually no disadvantage by engaging in curriculum in classes designed for students a year older than them when compared to equally able students in those classes. In 23 studies of moderate acceleration by a class of students a meta-analysis showed accelerants outperforming equivalent ability non-accelerants by up to as much as one whole grade year equivalent.

What are the effects of grouping policies on gifted students?

The 1920's in America saw the mental testing movement at its height, as the influence of the Stanford-Binet approach to diagnosis spread. In Salt Lake City in 1927, two groups of elementary children of equivalent ability ranges were assigned to classes on the basis of ability grouping and mixed ability. The homogeneous classes outperformed the heterogeneous ones by approximately two months on a grade scale. These significant gains came from a controlled study - a rare occurrence.

By the 1930's John Dewey's progressive education philosophy was appropriate for a Depression-wracked America. Progressives believed that "the social spirit of the classroom did as much for children as formal instruction did" (1992:X). Heterogeneous grouping was more affordable and had the appearance of being more equitable in troubled times.

In the post-Sputnik rethink of American education academic and scientific excellence became priorities. Gifted education became more of a priority as talent in the Sciences was fostered actively. Grouping was back in vogue.

By the middle 1960's the civil rights movement stimulated general reflection on equity issues in education. Social reform did not seem to change access problems.

In recent American scholarship there has been an attack made on grouping by ability on the grounds that it is elitist. There is chronic under-representation of NESB and low SES students as well as minority cultures (African-American, Hispanic) in gifted programs in American schools. In NSW our major cities offer selective school education to any child of tested ability. Under-representation of minority groups is not such a problem except for indigenous children. Our selective schools offer great access advantages to students. Socio-economic selection does not occur as non-compulsory fees and free public transport for students make participation in gifted education in major cities available to all families.

Oakes (1985, 1990) advocated heterogeneous grouping as best for developing most basic skills. The value of this policy for the highly able is questionable (Feldhusen & Moon, 1992). Using bright students to teach others can be exploitative. Snow (1989) in his aptitude-treatment-interaction research concluded that there were psychological and cognitive differences between more and less able learners. Structured pedagogy suits less able learners but "the very scaffolding that helps raise the threshold of less able learners lowers the threshold of more able ones" (Feldhusen & Moon, 1992 : 64). In short, the learning styles of the two groups are antithetical.

In answer to the advocacy by Slavin (1990) and Oakes (1990) of heterogeneous grouping to equalise the effects of schooling the authors argue the impossibility of creating justice "by equal treatment of unequals" (1992 : 65). Even Slavin (1990) conceded that ability grouping is justified when there is a "true acceleration" (65) program - that is, a differentiated curriculum. Thus, even the severest critic of grouping in a comprehensive setting conceded that it was an appropriate intervention in a gifted context. Allen (1991) analysed the meta-analyses by Slavin and Kulik & Kulik and found positive effects for gifted students from homogeneous grouping.

If the grouping policy of the school is designed to serve a school population the majority of which need to 'master' basic skills as a primary priority, there may be some argument for heterogeneous grouping. However, where pursuit of individual excellence is the goal homogeneous grouping is necessary.

Gifted students need:

  • appropriate grouping
  • acceleration of instruction to the student's level of readiness
  • truly challenging classroom instructional activities
  • association with peers of equal ability
  • an enriched curriculum at all levels

Acceleration policy within each school is a variable impacting on the incidence and organisation of subject acceleration. The prevailing school leadership beliefs about grouping will affect the way accelerative interventions are designed and implemented. Ability grouping and acceleration are companion strategies. Given that ability grouping is a political issue, school leaders need to sell the benefits of enriched curricula and fast paced learning in ability grouped classes to school communities in selective schools.

Grouping Policies produce differential effects

Very few studies have addressed the issue of grouping for the gifted, but the reported gains are modest. Rogers (1991) responded to the attack on grouping by examining the various types of ability grouping and studies on them:

  1. instructional grouping in core academic areas, cross grade grouping and special interest grouping improve achievement for gifted children.
  2. ability grouping does not affect self-esteem significantly but does produce positive attitudes towards subject matter.
  3. ability grouping without curriculum and instructional provisions has no effect on any group of learners.
  4. cooperative learning models do not enhance gifted achievement unless ability grouping is employed in some form and mixing low and high ability students together does nothing for the high ability group.
  5. low ability students do not model their behaviour on gifted students.
  6. Indirect effects of ability grouping include planning for college or at least a positive developmental path for secondary students.

"High quality services should be available to all, but the nature and organization of those services should vary based on diagnosed need ..." (70).

Acceleration policies should be used in conjunction with grouping policies:

  1. Grouping should be used in tandem with other provisions : curriculum modification, alternative choice of materials and learning centres.
  2. Grouping should be flexible based on individual needs. Dyads, small instructional groups, cooperative learning groups and the seminar model are alternatives for teachers.
  3. Opportunities to interact with students at their instructional level should be provided - (eg.) special subject area classes or Advanced Placement classes.

Kulik and Kulik (1992) conducted a meta-analytic review of research involving grouping by ability. The meta-analyses by Kulik and Kulik and Slavin showed that different grouping programs produce different effects. Three different program types were identified:

  1. all ability groups follow the same curriculum
  2. all groups follow curricula adjusted to their ability
  3. programs making curricular and other adjustments for the special needs of highly talented learners are employed

The effects on academic achievement produced by ability grouping are a function of program type - the more that the course methods and teaching content are adjusted to the ability levels of the group, the higher the effects which result. Of the five reported grouping types, accelerated classes produced the largest effect size. At the same time "acceleration appeared to have little or no effect on students' attitudes towards school, participation in school activities, popularity or adjustment" (1992:76).

Feldhusen & Moon (1992) defended ability grouping for the gifted against the push for heterogeneous classes by Oakes (1985, 1990) and Slavin (1990). "The linkage among grouping, acceleration and differentiated curriculum is an essential aspect of the instructional service that produces higher achievement among gifted and/or high-ability students" (Feldhusen & Moon,1992:65). Abandoning grouping has been shown to produce problems (Gamoran,1990; Brown & Steinberg,1989). What gifted students need is appropriate grouping, acceleration of instruction to the students' levels of readiness, truly challenging classroom instructional activities and association with peers of equal ability.

Rogers (1992) found academic gains from a variety of grouping options with no significant social and psychological effects. The problem with grouping policies involved low representations of disadvantaged and minority groups in gifted programs. However, the costs of not grouping were felt in declining achievement levels and eroded motivation among gifted students.

The effects on academic achievement produced by ability grouping appear to be a function of program type. The size of the effects produced is highly related to "the degree to which the course content is adjusted to group ability in the program" (1992 : 76). Effect sizes were the largest in accelerated classes where the greatest curriculum and pedagogical adjustments were made. The meta-analysis by Kulik & Kulik (1992) of grouping for ability research showed that "multilevel classes generally have little or no effect on student achievement levels" because "adjustment of content to ability group is usually informal and at the discretion of individual teachers" (1992 : 76).

In NSW secondary schools in the junior years teachers usually have a great degree of autonomy when programming for the special needs of their classes. The curriculum to be followed is neither as rigid nor as prescribed as is the case in North American schools. It would be reasonable to expect greater achievement effects following 'banding' or 'tracking' by ability in NSW secondary schools.

Gagne's Model

Ability Grouping and the Gifted Student

Hoover, Sayler & Feldhusen (1993) surveyed applicants (N=165) for funding for gifted programs in Indiana, 28% of which were for the use of some form of cluster grouping. Two-thirds of the respondents had only recently commenced cluster grouping, had not been formally trained in gifted education, but felt that parents were positive about the concept. More than 90% of respondents used small group and project work, stressed thinking skills, felt the intervention was effective for the gifted and advantageous from a social-emotional perspective. An increased workload for teachers was a negative consequence. The authors recommend student-centred research to ascertain their academic, attitudinal and relationship perceptions of cluster grouping.

Fiedler, Lang & Winebranner (1993) attacked six myths about ability grouping. 'Tracking' is not identical to ability grouping which is not elitist. Gifted students will not 'make it' on their own. Heterogeneously grouped co-operative learning classes are not most effective for serving the needs of gifted students. Having gifted students as positive role models will not, of itself, improve class climate. Finally, ability grouping does not inevitably discriminate against racial and ethnic minority students. Identification methods are now more sophisticated than simple reliance on standardised test scores. NESB and SES factors are accounted for by educators when selecting gifted and talented students. Administrators need to be enlightened about ability grouping and have an awareness of the needs of gifted students or it is unlikely that subject acceleration options would be allowed.

Rogers (1993) investigated grouping options for the gifted. Academic, social and psychological effects were considered along with concerns about grouping the gifted as well as the costs of not doing so. Substantial academic gains for subject acceleration implemented as a small group strategy were found. The construct known as 'socialisation' includes knowledge of social skills, social maturity, participation in extra curricular activities, leadership activities and peer interaction ratings. However, very little research has been done on the effects of grouping on socialisation. For some accelerative options (non graded classrooms, early college entry) no differences in socialisation were found for gifted students. Telescoping and Advanced Placement programs reported modest gains in socialisation. "There has been no research reported on the socialisation effects of Subject Acceleration or with Curriculum Compacting" (Rogers,1993:11). Psychological effects include: self-esteem, confidence, emotional health, emotional development, creativity, risk taking and independence. The work by the The Kuliks on differential effects by ability levels found no differences in self-esteem for gifted learners in full time gifted programs. It is difficult to see a pattern in the few studies available on socialisation or psychological effects when grouping by ability. "It is likely that there are many personal, environmental, family and other extraneous variables which affect self-esteem and socialisation more directly than the practice of grouping itself" (Rogers,1993:11).

Corazza, Gustin & Edelkind (1995) reported on a DT-PI model mathematics program for 78 girls and 89 boys selected from District 22, Brooklyn grade six classes. After being selected through a testing process students were organised into variously sized classes using college level remedial tests with trained teachers at their local schools. Students commenced at their appropriate level and worked individually or in small, flexible groups. Mastery was set at 90% accuracy on chapter tests. Teachers were able to offer a high level of individualised instruction in classes with instructor student ratios of 1:15. At the conclusion of the program the test mean for the group placed them at the 70th percentile on a ninth grade norm. The DT-PI model was a dramatic success. "A pedagogy which takes into consideration the prior knowledge, ability, learning style, and motivation of each individual student and tailors an instructional strategy to satisfy his or her needs is appropriate for a broad spectrum of student ability" (Corazza, Gustin & Edelkind,1995:41). The philosophy of an 'optimal match' model removes the lock-step approach to curricular delivery to allow students to proceed at their own pace.

A major priority for education ought to be developing the potential of gifted students from under-represented groups : ethnic minorities, low income students and the handicapped. Acceleration policies should allow : opportunities for gifted learners to progress through the curriculum as determined by their demonstrated mastery of prior material; learners to begin school based on readiness and to exit it based on their proficiency levels, not on their ages; telescoping curriculum or grade skipping. Grouping policies should be used together with other interventions to maximise individual student potential.

Grouping needs differentiated curriculum before it will have any measurable effect on student achievement - the greater the differentiation the greater the effect size. My proposal is that stage four curriculum delivery should have profile selected classes in both selective and community bands. Accelerative interventions can be accommodated by making minor adjustments to classes. Attempts need to be made to individualise instruction. Experiences and skills development across a broad range of disciplines are pedagogical goals in stage four. Socialisation into subject-specific curricula and mobile learning environments takes time. Individual development in the pubescent period is irregular. Egocentric content and contexts are favoured. Stability in classes is desirable.

By stage five students have realised their abilities and their places in the academic 'pecking order'. The goals include: maximising individual potential in core and elective subjects while keeping up PD/H/PE and developing more awareness in vocational education. In my view, ability grouping is the most appropriate strategy to achieve these goals. More of the content of stage five subjects is prescribed than is true for stage four subjects. Rates of content delivery will need to vary widely. Mastery rates by students will vary widely. Differentiated curricula are still vital in this process of achieving 'personal bests'. While a School Certificate exists our clients will want to achieve their best possible results in it.

Acceleration should be possible for gifted learners engaging in stage four or five curricula. My view is that able learners can begin to access stage six curricula by Year 10 at least. Processes need to be devised to allow Year 7 and 8 students to routinely encounter stage 5 curricula and to move on to stage 6 curricula as appropriate in Year 10. Ideally, all of Year 7 would complete the Year 7 curricula by the end of Term 3. By the end of Year 8, certain classes may have completed the curriculum to Year 9 level. Thus opportunities for completing School Certificate requirements in several subjects should be possible for a majority of Year 9 students. By Year 10, a majority of students could have completed the Preliminary Course in one or more subjects. By the end of Year 11 a majority of students could have completed Higher School Certificate requirements in one or more subjects.

The time husbanded by a policy of structured acceleration in selective schools can be used to broaden the achievements of students - taking on extra HSC units - or to move forward to tackle an increasingly available number of tertiary level, dual accredited courses (in scheduled classes at school or university or on line). Alternatively, the extra time can be in part spent on co-curricular activities, sport, mentoring or self selected projects.

In short, the comprehensive curriculum was not designed for gifted learners. It can be mastered by them in a shorter time than indicated. To preserve their respect for the curriculum, challenging work at advanced level, delivered in open-ended, heuristic ways needs to be the focus of administratorrs and teachers in selective schools.


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