Teaching Tuesday: Ability Grouping in the School System

mixed-ability level students working together in classroom

By the end of the 1980s, ability grouping, which had been a common practice across the country for over 20 years, was abruptly abandoned in school districts across the country. The reasoning was that it damaged the self-esteem of students in the lower groups. Even though research, told us that it is popular amongst teachers, students, parents and administrators.1

Does Grouping Students Really Hurt Self-Esteem?

Many educators argued that students placed in lower ability groups felt inferior to those in higher ones. While this argument is a valid one, it might not be completely true. It really depends on how each student perceives the situation and how it is presented to them.

Impacts of Differentiating Instruction

  • Student A is in the lowest ability group but performs extremely well.
  • The same student is in the highest ability group but struggles terribly.

As teachers, we understand that we have to start at the bottom and build our way up. If we were to go to the gym after not exercising for two years and joined the advanced aerobics class, many of us would get frustrated and quit. On the other hand, if we went to the gym and joined the beginner aerobics class and had fun and felt like we were progressing, it is not likely our self-esteem would be hurt.

Another example might be someone trying to read at a level they are not capable of reading. It will almost certainly lead to frustration and possibly steer them away from reading. On the other hand, if we read something at our own level about a topic we have an interest in, it would very likely motivate us to read more!

Revamping the Practice of Grouping

In its initial inception, students generally started in one group based on standardized tests from the previous school year and stayed in that group until the following year when they were reassessed.

What if students took a pre-assessment prior to each new unit or each marking period, and were placed in the appropriate group for that unit or marking period only? With new programs and apps, students could be sorted out and placed in pre-existing groups. Scheduling would not be an issue because the groups would already exist.

Mixed-Ability Classroom Environments

In mixed ability classrooms, it is inevitable that some students will complete assignments before other students because they have a better grasp of the lesson objectives. Most teachers find ways to be creative in addressing this by supplementing materials for early finishers or coaching these students to assist other classmates in need of additional support.

While these strategies can provide more review and can require students to demonstrate a higher level of learning on Bloom’s Taxonomy, it is certainly slowing them down. If students are ready to move on and they become bored, that can lead to a loss of motivation or even behavior issues. This prompts us, as teachers, to rethink how we plan for intervention and enrichment. We question, do mixed-ability classroom environments hinder the advancement of some students?


Maybe it is time for ability grouping to return with modifications that will improve the initial format. It is easier to implement now because of the advanced technology and new programs that could place students based on the pre-assessment (with teacher intervention if they sensed the results were not a true indication of the ability level of a specific student). Maybe it could be piloted in some schools and the future could be decided based on its success or failure. It may be worth a try.

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1 Maresca, John (2004) Measuring Parent, Student and Teacher Attitudes Towards Ability Grouping on the Elementary School Level.

Slavin, Robert E. ABILITY GROUPING AND STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS: A BEST-EVIDENCE SYNTHESIS. Baltimore, MD: Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools, 1986.

UKEssays. (November 2018). Advantages and Disadvantages of Ability grouping

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.