Shunned in the ’80s, schools return to ability grouping

It used to be common in the classroom for teachers to group students by ability for reading or math lessons. But in the 1980s and 1990s it went out of practice as critics said it trapped the poor and minorities in the low-level groups. So classrooms started lumping everyone together teaching to the middle – leaving the higher-achieving students bored, and I think still not helping the struggling students enough.

But now studies tell us that ability grouping has re-emerged across the country with teachers and principals saying it is indispensable in coping with the wide variation of skill levels in the classroom.

From The New York Times (the article is really long but here are a few key points):

“A new analysis of data collected by the government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. The analysis, by Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that in math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996. …”

“Some studies indicate that grouping can damage students’ self-esteem by consigning them to lower-tier groups; others suggest that it produces the opposite effect by ensuring that more advanced students do not make their less advanced peers feel inadequate. Some studies conclude that grouping improves test scores in students of all levels, others that it helps high-achieving students while harming low-achieving ones, and still others say that it has little effect……”

“Proponents of grouping argue that without it, teachers are forced to teach to the middle, leaving out both struggling children and gifted learners. They also say there is a “peer effect,” in which high-achieving children do better if paired with other high-achieving students. Done judiciously and flexibly, they say, grouping can help all students. The reasons for the resurgence are unclear. Some experts attribute it to No Child Left Behind, the 2001 law that strengthened accountability standards for schools. By forcing teachers to focus on students who fell just below the proficiency cutoff, the law may have encouraged teachers to group struggling students together to prepare them for standardized tests.”

The article says the key to making ability groups work is make sure the groups are mobile – students can move up or down as needed. Also the “ranking” of the group should be invisible to the students. The kids shouldn’t know if they are in the top group or bottom group so there is no stigma attached. (I think moving kids in and out like a seating group kind of helps that so the lines aren’t clear.)

Walsh’s second grade teacher did an excellent job of grouping and adjusting lesson plans up and down depending on needs. She was given a lot of gifted students and then also a bunch that were really far behind. She would pretest Walsh on stuff and if he knew it, she would move him on. She would also give extra attention to those kids on the low end. I was coming in weekly working on phonics and reading with a group of four, and it really did help. Sadly this teacher has left the profession. She was SUCH a good teacher.

Lilina’s kindergarten teacher absolutely divided the class by ability this year. I felt terrible for the teacher because she had such a range in the class. Some kids couldn’t identify all their letters and other kids walked in reading. She grouped the kids by ability for their centers and then had parents work with the different groups while she worked the main reading center.  You couldn’t do that any other way. I still feel like Lilina didn’t progress as much as she could have because the teacher had so many kids that were behind.

I can remember when I was in second grade wanting very badly to be in the top reading group. I knew who was in it, and I wanted to improve to be with them. You could tell by how thick the books were. I think I did join them. (Maybe that teacher wasn’t very good at the invisible part.)

What’s funny is once they hit middle and high school they are totally grouped by ability. The kids know who is taking the grade level math or the math one grade-level up or two grade levels up. Why is that not OK in elementary school?

What do you think of ability grouping? Were you grouped by ability when you were in school? Did you know it? Are your kids’ teachers grouping by ability? Do they know it? What are effective ways to manage a varying degree of abilities in a large class?

39 comments Add your comment


June 25th, 2013
6:48 am

Group, absolutely!

101st Airborne (and proud of it!)

June 25th, 2013
7:15 am

Grouping is a useful tool in the classroom. As an educator myself (high school), we refer to this as “differentiation.” I too have seen what results from teaching straight down the middle, the struggling students still don’t receive any benefit because the instruction still doesn’t address their needs, and the high performers (”gifted”) are bored out of their minds–often leading them to behavioral/classroom management issues.
The struggling students are more incensed by being left out/neglected than by any perceived loss of self-esteem (as perceived by adults)–”the teacher doesn’t care about me,” etc. That I think, was what was behind the whole movement to shift away from grouping because little Johnny may have gotten his feelings hurt.
The difficulty arises in developing innovative ways to differentiate the content that is being taught–sometimes it’s a matter of resources, at other times it comes down to available “time” itself (within the pacing guide).
I was ability-grouped when I was a child and it did not bother me in the least bit (I was in the lower groups in mathematics because I was terrible at it).
Years later in the army, I served as a “Master Fitness Trainer” for an infantry battalion and ability-grouping (for certain physical activities like running) was essential–you can’t expect the majority of your older or heavier troops to run at a 5:00 minute-per-mile pace like a 19-year old can, ergo the “ability-group runs” we conducted often.
The thing is, ability-grouping, whether in education or in physical training, is not an all-or-nothing application of technique–there has to be smart, informed decision-making going on to know just where and when it is applicable and proper to achieve the best possible effect.

AIt's about...

June 25th, 2013
7:16 am

…dang time!

Thanks for your service...

June 25th, 2013
7:17 am

…101st Airborne, on both fronts – and, welcome home…


June 25th, 2013
7:24 am

There are advantages and disadvantages, but it will not be invisible. Kids are smart; they figure it out. Our elementary school said there was no “top section” but it was pretty obvious.


June 25th, 2013
7:37 am

I hope this trend continues. My 2 year old knows all his letters and their sounds and is starting to read short words. He can count to 50 and we’re going to start teaching him to add a little soon. I cannot imagine what Kindergarten will be like for him if he shows up and the start teaching things like addition and reading that he will have know for years at that point. The problem with gifted kids is that they are WAY too good at finding trouble when they are bored. Meanwhile if I had a child that was not learning at an advanced level I would hope their was a way for him/her to get some focused “catch up” time that is hard to come by in today’s public schools.


June 25th, 2013
7:43 am

Grouping is essential in education. The one-size-fits-all approach does not work and has caused educational achievement to stagnate. The truly gifted students should have classes that emphasize their skills and thirst for more knowledge. But at the same time we need enthusiastic and well-qualified teachers for those students who are behind. Too often those disadvantaged students are put with teachers who do not have the skills and enthusiasm to teach these students and help instill an interest in learning and achieving more.
And get real, all students know if they are grouped based on ability. The only way around that is to make sure that teachers for all levels are able to reach the students at all levels.

Native Atlantan

June 25th, 2013
7:57 am

Grouping makes so much sense it is hard to understand its demise in the 80s. During High School in Dekalb County back in the 70s, the majority of classes were split into 3 levels — low to high. In some classes I was high (math and science) and in others I was a medium (English, History, Lit). We all understood what it meant but didn’t feel slighted in the least. I was well aware of my limitations and weaknesses but was encouraged to improve and drive towards the high level classes.

non committal mind reader

June 25th, 2013
8:02 am

It’s about time this “let the smart students help the weak students” experiment came to an end. It doesn’t work, and tests scores haven’t budged for 20 years. Everyone learns more in classes of students with similar abilities.

Miss Priss!

June 25th, 2013
8:03 am

My, God … I was happy to be put into a remedial math class in high school. To be in a classroom surrounded by like-minded people was wonderful! Plus, we nearly ran the nerd ball teacher out of his profession! Two plus two equals … who cares!

(the other) Rodney

June 25th, 2013
8:11 am

I was in elementary and junior high school in the late 70s/early 80s in south Georgia. Not only were we ability grouped within the class, we were ability grouped within the school. For example, in 7th grade the classes were numbered 7-1A, 7-1B, 7-1C, 7-2A, 7-2B, etc .. with the 1A class being the highest performing students.

I’m torn between whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, I know my school experience was improved by being in a class with other students that performed at the same level as I did (my Mom was a teacher so we had LOTS of head-start with her). But, everyone knew what the class levels meant and there was no shortage of “the dumb kids” comments for the lower class levels.

And yes, if I truly am being honest about it, there were economic differences between the class levels. For the most part, students from middle-income families were higher (with a few exceptions) levels than those from less affluent families. There’s been lots of arguments over the years as to why this is – I don’t know why, really. But it was that way.


June 25th, 2013
8:13 am

I’d like to substitute the word “ability” with “skill”. I can make guesses on a child’s ability based on the skills I see, but they may be working far,below their actual ability.

I have no problem with skill grouping. Even within the group you will have a great deal of variation. I was always a “red bird” in school, the top group, but I remember distinctly that in the group no one was the kind of reader I was. I would sit there, listening to the others read, and in my mind’s eye I saw my hands aging and my hair turn grey as I waited for them!

At my school we skill group for 2 classes. But we are given latitude in moving kids around based on our observations. I am almost always assigned to push into the low groups. These are groups of kids who have NEVER passed the CRCT. They are a year or more behind. I am always on the watch for kids who can be moved up a skill group, and I can persuasively argue for reassignment. This past year, I am happy to say,about half the kids I worked with passed for the first time!


June 25th, 2013
8:19 am

101st Airborne, thank you for serving also. I have what may be a dumb question–what is the difference between your group and the 82nd Airborne? Is there any difference in what you do?


June 25th, 2013
8:21 am

I don’t think there’s any way to make groupings totally invisible but I’m glad they’re back. I think most elementary teachers still do groupings to some extent in their classes but it seems to fall apart at middle school. Maybe there are just too many students for the teachers to figure it out one class period at a time. There’s just no way that the middle 90% of students (when you figure 5% gifted and 5% special needs) are really in the middle. High school gets the added bonus of “Advanced” classes/track and the “Average” classes/track. Not having any grouping by skill level benefits no student’s education.


June 25th, 2013
8:24 am

I may have recounted here that at our very small school, we used a sequential program as part of reading. The skills were,very basic. We tested the K-3 kids until we found a skill they had not,mastered. This resulted in some of the third graders being in,with kindergarteners for a 2 week cycle. If they passed at the end of 2 weeks, they went on to the next skill they had not mastered. We had some parents get QUITE INVOLVED when they found out their third graders were in a 30 minute class,with 5 year olds, I can tell you’


June 25th, 2013
8:29 am

Not having skill grouping is one reason why,gifted,programs get so much attention from middle class parents.

K's Mom

June 25th, 2013
8:56 am

I think this is a good idea with one exception. If kids are in a lower level and truly want to learn, but are in with a group of students who really only need babysitting something needs to be done. My brother is quite bright, but has a learning disability and school was hard for him. In high school especially he was the favorite of many of his on level and remedial level teachers because he behaved and truly wanted to learn where as his peers were trouble makers a lot of times. We were upper middle class, but my parents refused to set him up to fail by insisting that he be in honors classes and it was definitely a double edged sword for him. He went to a community college following HS and flourished and graduated from a 4 year school with a bachelor’s degree. So I think this can be very beneficial, but I also believe that some students in the lower levels have no interest in learning and make it hard for those who do want to learn.


June 25th, 2013
9:22 am

As long as there is an honest and accurate assessment done there should be no problem with this. I was moved around a lot in elementary during the day to go to different classes for different subjects. For example, I went to 2nd grade for reading when I was in the first grade. I went up a grade or two for math. We had reading “groups” and sometimes the students “taught” each other in the groups. We did that only for math and reading though.

My concern would be that the students would not be appropriately assessed. My cousin was just telling me that a counselor recommended his son be put in remedial classes. My cousin was horrified seeing as his son was doing very well in school so he went to the school. Long story short, the son’s teacher said that the son was very intelligent, doing very well in class, was excelling, etc. but the counselor said it was just a “feeling” she had that made her recommend him being remediated. She said he was so quiet that she thought he needed additional help. She never looked at his grades. What does his being quiet have to do with him needing remediation? Had my cousin not intervened (his son’s mother didn’t want to create any waves since she worked at that school) his son would have been in classes that did not meet his needs, just because someone didn’t like how quiet his son was.


June 25th, 2013
9:45 am

About time!!!


June 25th, 2013
10:00 am

We grouped in the late 80’s in Dekalb County. I am so thankful that I was in the lower math classes. There were a few advanced kids from lower grades in my class. It never occurred to me to be bothered by it. I would have failed a more advanced math, even with a tudor. Don’t worry, I didn’t go the STEM route, but I make a great living and graduated from college and contribute to society.
I was able to take AP English and History and really enjoyed those classes.
We make too much of the labels instead of helping kids find their true path.

Uh, catlady...

June 25th, 2013
10:06 am

“The 82nd Airborne Division is an active duty airborne infantry division of the United States Army, specializing in parachute assault operations into denied areas. Based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the 82nd Airborne Division is part of the XVIII Airborne Corps….Since its initial members came from all 48 states, the unit acquired the nickname All-American, which is the basis for its famed “AA” shoulder patch”…

“The 101st Airborne Division—the “Screaming Eagles”[1]—is a U.S. Army modular light infantry division trained for air assault operations. During World War II, it was renowned for its role in Operation Overlord—the D-Day landings starting 6 June 1944, in Normandy, France—… Division headquarters is at Fort Campbell, Kentucky…The division is one of the most highly decorated units in the U.S. Army and has been featured prominently in military fiction since its first deployment….”

Thanks again for your service “Screaming Eagle”…


June 25th, 2013
10:37 am

My daughter is in the 82nd now and very proud of it. Screaming Eagle, did you write a book by chance?


June 25th, 2013
10:50 am

Thank Goodness!


June 25th, 2013
10:52 am

It’s about time! Going into my 26th year, I’ve seen the pendulum swing both ways. I’m so glad to see it hopefully swinging back to some common sense. Yes, the kids know who is in the top group and who is in the low group and, quite frankly, they just don’t care. Those struggling students truly do appreciate being with other struggling students and being able to get more individual help. From what I’ve seen, they feel dumber in a mixed class where 3/4 of the class is “getting it” and moving on. They aren’t so low that they don’t know they don’t know. I’m so tired of the movement to boost self esteem by lumping them all together. We haven’t boosted anyone’s self esteem. We have created students who are bored out of their minds (top group) and scared to answer out in class (low group). Let’s just get back to what works!


June 25th, 2013
10:58 am

I must have been right there on the fringe when schools dumped the practice. I recall being grouped in reading, math, and P.E. classes as early as Kindergarten and as far in as 5th grade. Middle School is where the classroom wide separation started, with remedial, regular, advanced, honors, (AP and IB were added in High School).

I don’t remember if every student started off in the same group and based on skills shown were then placed into appropriate groups, or if we were ushered into the new school year based on notes from previous year teachers (I was 4, I didn’t notice such things). I do remember wanting to get to the next color of reading books. Each “level” was a different color and I wanted to progress from purple to green to orange, etc. As far as math went, our groups all fiddled around with each other and when we didn’t need help any more, we moved into another group. Sometimes I switched groups and did well. Sometimes it didn’t go so well and I went back to the other group. P.E. was the same way in that everyone participated somehow, from those with apparent limitations still having fun, we were just told to go a little easy on them.

Young children don’t carry the stigmas and prejudices based on race, gender, and skills that adults to. They do, however, learn them from us.


June 25th, 2013
11:52 am

Fluid grouping within a classroom works very well. When students move up or down on a consistent basis it is beneficial for them and the teacher. When students are grouped and left in the groups it isn’t beneficial. I assess on a weekly basis. Student groups can and do change on a weekly basis depending upon the skill being practiced/learned and remedial/advance work. All my students with disabilities passed the CRCT test even though none were expected to pass based upon their reading levels. They used the strategies that we practiced throughout the year and were successful.


June 25th, 2013
11:57 am

In my high school in the 80s, there was grouping but it was called tracks. There was a College Prep Track, a Business track, a General Education track, and a Vocational track. the main difference is that regardless of our past performance (ie grades), we were allowed to choose whichever we wanted. This allowed the “slacker” to step up their game and get serious and it allowed the overachiever to slack if they wanted (and their parents let them). It was up to us. I chose College Prep and although I really struggled with higher level math, I made it. I am thankful they didn’t force me into a lower level because it would have drastically changed the trajectory of my life.

In my daughter’s 1st grade class, they didn’t call it grouping, but as a regular weekly classroom volunteer, they were clearly grouped by ability… both in their normal seating and for small groups. Their desks were pushed together to make one large table that they sat around. My daughter was seated in the “advanced” group, but has some trouble with reading (she is dyslexic), so when they broke into smaller reading goups, she was grouped differently. Her teacher was amazing at grouping them for specific subjects like that so they could work at their own pace without feeling like they were always 10 steps behind the “top” group. It seemed to work really well, but I think you have to have a very organized teacher to keep it all running smoothly.

So in the younger grades, I can see where it works well, but I think as kids get older, they need to be in more control of their own destiny. A screw up in middle school doesn’t mean a screw in high school.


June 25th, 2013
12:07 pm

ugh… I wish I could edit. Not that it matters, but it will drive me crazy if I don’t clarify this…. In my daughter’s first grade classroom, the desks were pushed together in groups (not as a whole class) so they were grouped in seating and then separated into groups for reading etc.


June 25th, 2013
2:26 pm

Not sure if kids do know what group they are in. Year before last I had 2 students from the bottom-most reading group tell their parents they were in the top group. They were actually two years behind! Now, did the kids really believe it, or were they just yanking the chain on their very ignorant, uninvolved parents?


June 25th, 2013
2:47 pm

I’m so glad to hear that grouping is coming back. Too bad schools have been spinning their wheels for the last 25 years. What a waste over such a long period of time! Grouping was eliminated for my 7th and 8th grade years. I could have learned just as much with about 2 hours a day of home schooling, but my parents worked. Thankfully I resumed college prep/AP courses in high school which were fine for the most part. I never understood the self-esteem/hurt feelings argument. If we don’t teach kids to strive for high levels of achievement early on, their self-esteem will certainly take a hit upon graduation.


June 25th, 2013
3:11 pm

I did know a few kids whose esteem seemed to be hurt by grouping, but I think that was largely due to their parents. They were kids who were some of the best students in the second section, and probably could have kept up with the top one, but only so many kids can be in one class. Their parents, though, really pushed the school to move them to the top section and also had them tested for the gifted program multiple times. I think it left them feeling like they failed (especially when they “failed” the gifted test over and over) and that they simply weren’t smart. A relative of mine was one of those kids, and the year she failed the gifted test a few times, she suddenly started struggling where she hadn’t before. She was convinced she just wasn’t smart enough to do well. Her parents wanted her to have the same opportunities her gifted sister did, but by pushing, they made her feel like she failed to earn opportunities that were largely based on abilities, not achievement. Very sad.

Miss Priss!

June 25th, 2013
3:40 pm

Hey … they group on sports teams. First string, second string, etc. Deal with it … or get better at it!

Well said, Miss Priss...

June 25th, 2013
4:09 pm

…well said…


June 25th, 2013
4:59 pm

That’s true Miss Priss… I hadn’t really thought of that. I support grouping, especially in younger grades.

Miss Priss!

June 25th, 2013
5:20 pm

Thank you. Shrill … snarky … I am … but always right on the button.


June 26th, 2013
6:56 am

Grouping was discouraged by the same people that gave us busing and race norming, liberals !

Sk8ing Momma

June 26th, 2013
9:03 am

Grouping, when implemented effectively, fairly and fluidly (i.e. students are moved within groups as necessary), is great. I’m happy to see it making a comeback!

Sk8ing Momma

June 26th, 2013
9:13 am

Grouping existed when I was in elementary school in the 1970’s. Students knew which groups were which, and we all lived to tell about it. :)

And get this…We also checked each other’s class work. Remember the days of passing your work to your classmate in the desk behind yours??? (The last person in the row passed hers to the student in the front seat.) We all checked each other’s work with our red pencils and put the scores on top. It was in plain view for all the world to see your grade! It wasn’t a big deal…That’s what was done, and no one suffered with low self-esteem as a result of it. Long live the 1970’s! :) (Thinking about it now and looking back as an adult, I’m sure teachers LOVED this practice…It cut down on the amount of papers they had to grade. Genius!)


June 26th, 2013
4:53 pm

Sk8ing Momma – I remember having to “pass papers back”. I don’t think anybody was really traumatized by having someone knowing their grade. I think it was a real efficient way to go over the test and to get them graded. Do teachers still go over the test?