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An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

James A. Kulik

Researchers have struggled for decades to find answers to questions about ability grouping. Does anyone benefit from it? Who benefits most? Does grouping harm anyone? How? How much? Why? Research reviewers have never reached agreement about the findings. For every research reviewer who has concluded that grouping is helpful, another has concluded that it is harmful.

Today, however, reviewers are using statistical methods to organize and interpret the research literature on grouping, and they are more hopeful than ever before of coming to a consensus on what the research says. They have painstakingly catalogued the features and results of hundreds of studies, and with the help of new statistical methods, they are now drawing a composite picture of the studies and findings on grouping. In his 1976 presidential address to the American Educational Research Association, Glass coined the term meta-analysis to describe this statistical approach to reviewing research literature.

Meta-analytic reviews have already shown that the effects of grouping programs depend on their features. Some grouping programs have little or no effect on students; other programs have moderate effects; and still other programs have large effects. The key distinction is among (a) programs in which all ability groups follow the same curriculum; (b) programs in which all groups follow curricula adjusted to their ability; and (c) programs that make curricular and other adjustments for the special needs of highly talented learners.

Programs that entail only minor adjustment of course content for ability groups usually have little or no effect on student achievement. In some grouping programs, for example, school administrators assign students by test scores and school records to high, middle, and low classes, and they expect all groups to follow the same basic curriculum. The traditional name for this approach is XYZ grouping. Pupils in middle and lower classes in XYZ programs learn the same amount as equivalent pupils do in mixed classes. Students in the top classes in XYZ programs outperform equivalent pupils from mixed classes by about one month on a grade-equivalent scale. Self-esteem of lower aptitude students rises slightly and self-esteem of higher aptitude students drops slightly in XYZ classes.

Grouping programs that entail more substantial adjustment of curriculum to ability have clear positive effects on children. Cross-grade and within-class programs, for example, provide both grouping and curricular adjustment in reading and arithmetic for elementary school pupils. Pupils in such grouping programs outperform equivalent control students from mixed-ability classes by two to three months on a grade-equivalent scale.

Programs of enrichment and acceleration, which usually involve the greatest amount of curricular adjustment, have the largest effects on student learning. In typical evaluation studies, talented students from accelerated classes outperform non-accelerates of the same age and IQ by almost one full year on achievement tests. Talented students from enriched classes outperform initially equivalent students from conventional classes by 4 to 5 months on grade equivalent scales.

Reference:
Kulik, J. A. (1992). An analysis of the research on ability grouping: Historical and contemporary perspectives (RBDM 9204). Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut.


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An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
James A. Kulik

Guidelines

  1. Although some school programs that group children by ability have only small effects, other grouping programs help children a great deal. Schools should therefore resist calls for the wholesale elimination of ability grouping.
  2. Highly talented youngsters profit greatly from work in accelerated classes. Schools should therefore try to maintain programs of accelerated work.
  3. Highly talented youngsters also profit greatly from an enriched curriculum designed to broaden and deepen their learning. Schools should therefore try to maintain programs of enrichment.
  4. Bright, average, and slow youngsters profit from grouping programs that adjust the curriculum to the aptitude levels of the groups. Schools should try to use ability grouping in this way.
  5. Benefits are slight from programs that group children by ability but prescribe common curricular experiences for all ability groups. Schools should not expect student achievement to change dramatically with either establishment or elimination of such programs.