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Ability Grouping: Answers to Common Questions

by Mary Ann Swiatek, Ph.D.
Reprinted from C-MITES News, Spring 2001

"Ability grouping" refers to the practice of placing children of similar academic ability together for instruction. In some cases, students who are assigned to different groups are exposed to different curricula and/or educational methods; in other cases, students in all groups study the same material in the same way. Here are answers to some of the most common questions on ability grouping, based on current research.

Does ability grouping increase the academic achievement of gifted students?

Yes. Ability grouping clearly benefits gifted students. Such students have unique characteristics requiring specialized instruction, such as the ability to learn quickly and to deal with abstract concepts at younger-than-usual ages. Given these special needs, perhaps it is not surprising that students who are grouped with other gifted individuals in school learn more in a year than students who have classmates of more varied ability.

Should the curriculum vary by ability group?

Yes. Although gifted students benefit slightly from ability grouping even when course content is not altered, they gain much more when the curriculum is adjusted to suit their academic needs. For example, many mathematically talented students are ready to learn statistics/probability, geometry, and pre-algebra long before those topics are introduced in school. If the advanced material is presented, gifted students will learn it, thereby boosting their academic achievement.

Standardized achievement tests show that gifted students can gain nearly a year more when ability grouping is paired with academic acceleration (i.e., teaching the usual material at a faster-than-usual pace) than when ability grouping is used alone. On average, gifted students for whom ability grouping is paired with enrichment activities outperform equally gifted students in mixed-ability classes by 4 to 5 months in a year. Both acceleration and enrichment, when paired with ability grouping, generate greater achievement among gifted students than does ability grouping used by itself. Over the course of a year, ability grouping alone produces in gifted students an academic increase of about one month over mixed-ability classes.

Does ability grouping hurt the self-esteem of gifted students?

No. Parents and teachers may assume students will become arrogant if they are identified for a high ability group, but there is no evidence that this occurs. Others assume gifted students' confidence and self-esteem will drop if they are placed with other highly able students. Self-esteem is, in part, a product of a person's comparing himself or herself to others, a process called "social comparison." Students who are grouped with other highly able students may experience a slight decrease in the perception of their academic ability. Even if this does occur, it is nothing to worry about. If such changes occur at all, they are very slight. Gifted students' academic self-esteem does not drop below average when they are grouped by ability. Further, if a slight decrease does occur, it is specific to academics and simply reflects the reality of the new social comparisons. Ability grouping is not related to a dangerous drop in self-esteem for gifted students.

Does ability grouping hurt average and below average ability students?

No. Research suggests that lower ability students achieve at the same rate whether or not they are involved in ability grouping. Further, lower ability students experience few changes in self-esteem that are related to ability grouping. When changes are experienced, they are likely to be positive—that is, the self-esteem of lower ability students may increase when they are grouped with other students of similar ability. This slight increase is to be expected given the impact of social comparisons on self-esteem, as discussed above.

Are gifted children who are NOT exposed to ability grouping at risk for problems?

Yes. A 1993 U.S. Department of Education report, National Excellence, noted that the regular school curriculum fails to challenge gifted students, most of whom have mastered up to half of the material before it is taught. When such students are forced to study material they already know and to spend much more time than necessary on each new topic, they become bored. Boredom is a risk factor for academic problems, including loss of interest, lack of motivation, and underachievement. Such problems may occur even with ability grouping, if the curriculum is inappropriate for gifted students.

Social and emotional risks may be present in mixed-ability settings, as well. The more outstanding a student's abilities, the more likely that student is to have difficulty fitting in socially with fellow students in a mixed-ability classroom. Therefore, highly gifted individuals often benefit socially, as well as academically, from ability grouping.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the research on ability grouping is to quote James and Chen-Lin Kulik:

…the damage would be truly profound if…schools eliminated enriched and accelerated classes for their brightest learners. The achievement level of such students would fall dramatically if they were required to move at the common pace. No one can be certain that there would be a way to repair the harm that would be done.

For more information, see the chapter, "Ability Grouping," by James A. and Chen-Lin C. Kulik, in the Handbook of Gifted Education, edited by N. Colangelo & G. Davis (1997, 2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


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