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What Ability Grouping Really Means

Ability grouping is the practice of separating students according to tested, observed or self-ascribed ability. This has many nuances that range from pigeonholing students from a young age based on standardized tests to flexible systems that allow students to enter more challenging levels based on their ambitions. The following is a comprehensive overview of ability grouping including common variants, alternatives, pros and cons.
Overview: Ability Grouping
K-12 Education
Education Structure
Classroom Management
The practice of separating students into different programs or lessons according to tested, observed or self-ascribed ability.
Also Known As
Mixed ability grouping whereby students are separated by age as opposed to ability.
Mastery learning whereby each student progresses at their own pace such that they master each lesson before moving on to more advanced lessons.
Grouping Method
Standardized testing
Observed ability (teacher evaluation)
Student choice such as a high school that allows students to take subjects at the advanced, intermediate or basic level.
Within-class Grouping
Different lessons or activities within the same classroom based on ability or progress.
Between-class Grouping
Separating students into different classes, programs or tracks.
A static system of pigeonholing students such that they have little chance of switching once they have been labeled.
Catch up
Lower groups have the goal to catch up to the more advanced group with tailored lessons and attention.
Ability grouping may be used to sideline students who are disruptive or behind such that they are given busy work that keeps them out of the way of students who are perceived as talented and cooperative.
A system of choice whereby students can freely attempt more advanced levels with support to bring them up to speed.
Advanced, Intermediate, Basic
Grouping students into two or three levels of difficulty. Levels are often given abstracted names such as blue and red.
Language immersion programs whereby the advanced level is taught completely in the second language with the use of native language prohibited in the classroom.
Vocational & Collegiate
At the high school level, programs and classes may be geared towards either preparation for college or entry into the workforce.
The advantages of ability grouping depend on the nuances of how it is implemented but potentially include:
Allowing unusually talented or dedicated students to pursue advanced lessons without waiting for everyone to catch up.
Allowing students to focus on advanced work in the subjects that interest them most.
Tailoring lessons to student's level so that they don't feel overwhelmed.
The disadvantages of ability grouping depend on the nuances of how it is implemented but potentially include:
Applying negative labels to students that discourage them or result in negative social stigma.
Pigeonholing students from a young age based on early performance without regard the the potential of the individual.
Creating an overly competitive environment. For example, a system that has 6 year olds cramming for standardized tests to avoid being forever labeled.
Encouraging bullying by effectively labeling students as smart and not as smart.
Sidelining or giving up on students that may have disadvantages in life.


This is the complete list of articles we have written about education.
Ability Grouping
Academic Disciplines
Academic Interests
Academic Person
Assessment Plan
Creative Tension
Critical Thinking
Curiosity Drive
Digital Divide
Education Goals
Education Technology
Educational Philosophy
Epic Meaning
ERG Theory
Five Whys
Flynn Effect
Formative Assessment
Heliotropic Effect
Honor System
Media Literacy
Peak-End Rule
Plain Language
School Culture
School Engagement
Spaced Practice
Student Activities
Student Attributes
Student Data
Student Goals
Study Skills
Thesis Statement
Trained Incapacity
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