Advantages & disadvantages of ability grouping

Updated July 20, 2017

The ability grouping theory in education is the process of selecting classes and groups of students based on similar abilities and academic achievements. High, mid-level and low achievers are grouped together so that teachers can focus instructions based on the groups' needs. High achievers are provided with advanced levels of educational opportunities; low achievers receive additional support and resources. The ability grouping theory is advantageous for high achievers, disadvantageous for low achievers. (See Reference 1.)


Teachers can benefit from ability grouping by being able to create a customised curriculum, instead of a broad-based educational plan. Teachers can focus on providing lesson plans suited to a narrower range of needs and goals. (See Reference 2.) Studies show that teachers respond differently to varying groups. Secondary schoolchildren in low achiever classes spend more time studying alone, completing worksheets and taking quizzes, whereas high achievers spend more time engaged in activities. Teachers are more likely to form bonds with and respond positively towards high achievers and show negative emotions, such as hostility and condescension, towards low achievers. (See Reference 4.) Inexperienced or less capable teachers often teach the low achievement group. (See Reference 3.)


Labelling students based on achievement sets expectation levels. High achievers are expected to meet and exceed challenges. Teachers of low achievers tend to compensate and make excuses for students' low achievement levels in an effort to protect the low achievers' feelings. This reaction can be perceived by students as a lack of competence in their academic endeavours. (See Reference 4.) Low achievers do less homework than high achievers. (See Reference 2.) Students are often judged as being fast or slow learners and are grouped by how fast they learn and not by their capacity for learning. (See Reference 2.)


Permanent groups that are labelled as high or low achiever groups are unsuccessful. Students are placed with similar students for the entire day without interaction with other achievement levels. The most successful groupings are when students are grouped together, both high and low achievers, for most of the day and regrouped for one or two subjects. Regrouping for reading or math instruction improves academic achievement. Groups should be based on ability, not intelligence or overall achievement. This type of grouping allows frequent ability assessment and regrouping to reflect ability changes. (See Reference 1.)


Ability grouping opponents argue that grouping students based on academic performance is racially biased and reflects discrimination. Low achievement classes tend to be composed of poor and minority students. (See Reference 2.) A recent National Science study showed African-American and Hispanic graduates were far more likely than white or Asian graduates to have taken general or remedial math courses versus advanced math classes, such as algebra II or calculus (See Reference 2.) Courts have found schools guilty of racial segregation based on ability grouping. (See Reference 3.)

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About the Author

Jodi Strehlow has been a freelance writer since 1992 and has experience writing employee how-to handbooks. Jodi earned an Associate of Arts in social and behavioral sciences from Merritt College and a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from San Francisco State University.