Ability Grouping in Schools: Helpful or Harmful

Meghann Hyland

Advocates for Children
College Park Scholars
University of Maryland at College Park

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A much debated issue in the education community today is the issue of tracking, or ability grouping within schools. Ability grouping is the practice of sorting students, primarily in elementary and middle school, into classes or courses of study based on their perceived ability level. The debate which began the idea of tracking formally began in 1892 by the panel of the National Education Association. This panel was named the Committee of Ten and was headed by Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University. The Committee of Ten saw the need for the creation of intellectual programs in schools that would better prepare the students for colleges and skilled jobs (Wheelock 4). As America expanded and grew more diverse, educators realized the many differences that children had in terms of their learning ability. Therefore, many tracks in schools developed which no longer only focused on higher learning, but specialized on remedial and vocational learning as well. Sorting children, in the 20th century, became a widespread practice among schools. Currently, there are many opposing opinions regarding the issue of ability grouping such as the idea that tracking encourages segregation and classification of socioeconomic classes, group labels assigned to children become self fulfilling prophecies, grouping of gifted children is beneficial, and untracking expands more knowledge to every child. In this paper, I will evaluate and discuss the different positions of each debate.

Many advocates supporting the idea of detracking schools argue that grouping children by their ability contributes to segregation and classifies them into socioeconomic classes. Typically, African American, Latino, Native American, and low income students are twice as more likely to be in remedial math courses than white or upper income children, according to a study done by Jomills Braddock in 1988 (Wheelock 9). Similarly, a report compiled by the U.S. Department of Education in 1992 states that in Mississippi, African American children made up 52 percent of the total school enrollment, yet only 16 percent of those students were in the Gifted and Talented programs (Reed par.3). These statistics prove that tracking can be viewed as a step backwards in schools because it encourages children to be separated and also prevents diversity in classes. According to Angela Brown, "Tracking is not just an assignment to a perceived ability group in school, ultimately, it's an assignment to a particular social class for life" (Reed par.12). Dr. James Johnson, an educational researcher, reported that "the potential for problems generated by ability grouping far outweighs the scant benefits to be gained by rigid grouping" (Reed par.8). He then goes on to say, "low ability groups become dumping ground for learners with discipline problems, some the whom are not of low ability" (Reed par.8). The children placed in the lower tracks tend not to be exposed to the same opportunities that the other children are exposed to and therefore become bored more easily and often. "Bored with the repetitious and meaningless nature of such learning, students with the weakest basic skills who are placed in the low tracks are those most vulnerable to dropping out of school" ( "Untracking and Students' Futures" 223).

Not only does tracking serve as a means of segregation, it also prevents diversity in the classroom. Many advocate the idea of inclusion or establishing and maintaining warm, accepting classroom comunities that embrace diversity and honor differences. Untracking would serve as a way to reduce the isolation of student groups from one another. "By separating students into classes that are composed predominantly of one or another ethnic group, ability grouping limits the number of positive relationships that might develop across ethnic lines" (Page, Pool 12). Tolerance and understanding of other races is less likely to occur. For this reason inclusion would provide a positive way to expand race relations.

Ability grouping causes the children assigned to the lower tracks to internalize their label and causes a self fulfilling prophecy. Although the theory believed in the early nineteen hundreds was that a person's level of intelligence remained static for life, it is known now that knowledge can be acquired. Therefore, even though ability grouping seemed logical because of the theory of fixed intelligence, many consider the idea of tracking to be obsolete today. Previously the names assigned to the tracks had easily revealed what acedemic level the child belonged to, for example groups named group 1, 2,or 3 easily identify the students that are on the higher and lower levels. Recently the group names have become less obvious in revealing the members intelliigence level such as group names like red, green,or blue. Adrienne Mack concludes that no matter what the groups' names are , the children, teachers, and parents always know who the who the "dumb" kids are and who are the "bright" ones (Mack par3). Labels stick with children forever. Despite the fact that "remedial classes are supposed to prepare the students to enter regular grade-level programs... with few exceptions, students, once on, never leave the remedial track" (Mack par.4). Children feel inferior to those on higher levels and they then begin to perform at a lower level. Students on the low track are more likely to be delinquent than are other students and less likely to complete their education (Page,Pool 12). Not only do the students feel inferior, they become less motivated to make the effort to learn. Mia Roberts, director of the Efficacy Institute, feels that "smart is not something you are, its something you get when the process is right. If you find the right key, find the right strategy, every child can be gifted and talented" (Hubbard 2).

Much of the debate concerning ability grouping focuses on the negative aspects that it has on children, many believe that grouping "gifted" children together is beneficial. When ability grouping is used properly, it can benefit all children. "The simple fact is that there are enormous differences among students in innate abilities, interests, goals, prerequisite skill development and study habits" (Lima B6). Therefore, it seems that it would be appropriate to offer children specific educations that are specialized to his or her abilities and interests. It is incorrect to assume that anyone who is not in the honors or gifted program should be considered or labeled as a failure. In a letter to the editor Susan Ryono states,"We need good plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, and police officers. And it is no shame to choose to go into a trade or use you hands to do an honest day's work" (Lima 2).

Another debate involving ability grouping is that detracking schools can serve as a way to expand knowledge to all children. Untracked schools feel that the best way to ensure that everyone receives equal access to knowledge is to group students in heterogeneous classes with curriculum and instruction that involves higher thinking. Two teachers in a New York public school that has gifted programs decided to split up a troublesome gifted class and fill the empty spaces with mainstream children. The teachers placed great emphasis on cooperation and sharing in the classroom and at the end of the school year they noticed the positive effects that the program had on both the gifted and mainstream children(Savitch,Serling). They concluded that the "children had opportunities to be helpers in subjects in which they were strong, and to be helped in areas were they needed support. On no occasion were the helpers all gifted children and those being helped all mainstream" (Savitch, Serling 74). Another way of promoting learning is by allowing guidance counselors in untracked schools to have the opportunity to "tap into students' own aspirations, individualize support to help students realize their own goals and boost students' motivation to succeed in challenging courses" ("Untracking and Students' Futures" 3). This allows the children expand their knowledge and encourages them to focus on their future.

In conclusion, it is important to discuss the future of tracking in schools because it determines not only the construction of curriculum of the schools but it also effects the thoughts and attitudes of the children. The issue of grouping children by their ability , which is determined by their test scores or teacher evaluations, is very controversial in the school system today. Although some feel that it is beneficial when used correctly because it deals with the special interests of the student, many argue that it is damaging the children and the schools. Advocates of detracking schools discuss the negative aspects that ability grouping causes such as segregating students, not allowing knowledge to be spread to all children, and causing the students labeled as below average to perform on a below average level. All of these debates are important to discuss not only in the field of education, but also in everyday society. The education of students today effects the future of America tomorrow.


Hubbard, Crystal. "Students Need to Hear They Can Achieve, Say Education Group." Bay State Banner 11 May 1995. Electronic Library. Online. American Online. 6 Nov. 1996.

Lima, Christina. "Navarette on Ability Grouping." Los Angeles Times 2 Jan. 1996: B6 Electronic Library. Online. American Online. 6 Nov. 1996.

Mack, Adrienne. "Tracking Students Fails to Produce Results..." Los Angeles Times 16 April 1995. Electronic Library. Online. American Online. 6 Nov. 1996.

Page, Jane A. and Harbison Pool, eds. Beyond Tracking: Finding Success In Inclusive Schools Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappa Education Foundation, 1995.

Reed, William. "Segregation Still in Effect 41 Years Later." New York Beacon 18 Oct. 1995. Electronic Library. Online. American Online. 6 Nov. 1996.

Savitch, Julie and Leslie Serling. "Paving a Path Through Untracked Territory." Educational Leadership 52.4 (1994-95):72-74.

"Untracking and Students' Futures." Phi Delta Kappan 77.3 (1995):222-29. Ebsco Host. Online. 4 Nov. 1996.

Wheelock, Anne. Alternatives on Tracking and Ablity Grouping. Arlington: American Association of School Administrators, 1994.

This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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