Problems with Ability Grouping

“There is real value in teaching children in diverse, heterogeneous classrooms.” John A. Van de Walle.

Tracking students is bad for all students! The district administration wants to add multi-age classrooms and group our kids by ability levels. In one breath they say that they are not ability grouping– or tracking–, but then why do multi-age classes if that is not the case? There is much research on the subject of tracking and how it negatively affects all learners, but particularly the at-risk learner. Why not raise the bar for ALL of our students? Please read these quotes, investigate the research and click on links to learn more about tracking and how DIFFERENTIATION and INTEGRATION in a problem based learning environment are actually the keys to effective instruction.

Watch this video on Ability Grouping Theories


According to the National Education Association (NEA), ability grouping is detrimental to ALL students.

For the research inclined, here are two articles available via the EBSCOhost online research database. Both advocate the negative effects of ability grouping. They are aptly named:

Alternatives to Tracking

Removing Instructional Barriers

“A key concept related to guided reading is that the grouping is dynamic- temporary, not static. Teachers group and regroup students as they gain behavioral evidence of their progress. A system for interval assessment such as a benchmark assessment conference using running records even two or three times a year is not enough. The benchmark information is old news in a few weeks. To make effective decisions for readers, you also need an efficient system for ongoing assessment using running records.”

Source: The Reading Teacher (A journal of research-based classroom practice). Dec 2012/ Jan 2013 – Article: Guided Reading: The Romance and the Reality by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.

John Hattie’s current research tells us that “There is a strong relationship between how students are labeled and treated. Labels rarely lead to making decisions in terms of what works best for student learning”. Hattie also advocates for strong student-teacher relationships. Elementary teachers can develop stronger relationships with students when they have their own classrooms.

“The performance of students who have the most challenging goals is more than 250% higher than the performance of students with easier goals”, (Hattie, 2009).

“Tracking has a minimal positive effect on learning outcomes but a profound negative effect. In most cases tracking fails to achieve the desired outcomes”. (Hattie, 2012).

Dr. Joseph Renzulli states that “True differentiation requires that we look at all the characteristics of the learner in addition to achievement level”. (2010)

“Differentiation is a journey that all teachers must take. With multiple levels of achievement, interests, readiness, learning and product styles represented in each classroom, effective and meaningful differentiation may be the most important attribute of the 21st century teacher who wants to help each student make continuous progress in learning.”
(Dr. Sally Reis 2002)

“Economically disadvantaged students benefit as much as advantaged students when provided with higher level critical thinking learning environments”. (Zohar and Dori, 2003).

According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM): “The existence of low-track math classes will deny students who are placed in those classes the opportunity to learn the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM), and instead achievement differentials may widen instead of narrowing”. ( “Teaching Children Mathematics”, September, 2012).

“Tracking can have a serious negative effect on expectations and opportunity to learn. High expectations for all must be accompanied by adequate support for both high-and low-achieving students. Teachers must be given the training and the resources to provide the best mathematics for every child” (NCTM, 2000)

“The strong message of the Equity Principle is high expectations for all students. All students must have the opportunity and adequate support to learn mathematics regardless of personal characteristics, backgrounds, or physical challenges. The message of high expectations for all is intertwined with every other principle in the document as a whole. In contrast, with expectations for reading and writing, it is quite common in this country to accept that some children will not be able to learn mathematics. Teachers and schools must communicate in their every action that they believe in the ability of all students to learn mathematics. Tracking, for example, can have a serious negative effect on expectations and opportunity to learn. High expectations for all must be accompanied by adequate support for both high and low achieving students. Teachers must be given the training and the resources to provide the best mathematics for EVERY child.”

Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally (John A. Van de Walle, 2006).

Please consider reading Van de Walle’s books. Many of our D41 teachers went to NCTM’s training during this school year and his pedagogies are considered the gold standard in math education for all children.