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Ability Grouping and Tracking in Schools: Advantages and Disadvantages

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  1. 0:05 Sorting Students
  2. 1:05 Ability Grouping
  3. 2:23 Tracking
  4. 4:04 Advantages of Tracking
  5. 5:33 Disadvantages of Tracking
  6. 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Valerie Houghton, Ph.D.

Valerie holds a Ph.D. in Health Psychology.

In this lesson we will discuss within class grouping and between class grouping. In addition, we will review the pros and cons of between class grouping, also known as tracking.

Sorting Students

The use of ability grouping in schools is a highly-debated, controversial issue because it is unclear whether ability grouping helps or harms student achievement. Although the name 'ability grouping' is applied to both within class grouping and between class grouping (also known as tracking), the two types of groups are not synonymous. For the sake of clarity, within class grouping will be referred to simply as ability grouping, and between class grouping will be referred to as tracking.

The most significant difference between ability groups and tracking is that an assignment to an ability group can be changed and is usually not recorded into the student's transcripts. However, tracking enrolls a student into a sequence of curriculum, which is not easily changed and is recorded into their transcripts. In this lesson, we will discuss ability groups and tracking. In addition, we will review the pros and cons of tracking students.

Ability Grouping

Ability grouping is where students are placed into small groups within a single classroom based upon their performance level.

Ability grouping is based upon the subject matter, and the groups can be changed from one year to the next. For example, in second grade, a student was in the average math ability group and the advanced reading group. The following year, in third grade, this same student was in above-average math ability group and an average reading group.

Although ability grouping can be used for all subjects, reading and math seem to be the subjects for which teachers typically use ability grouping the most. For example, during reading time, students of advanced reading ability are grouped together and are given a challenging reading assignment, students of average reading ability are grouped together and are given a less challenging reading assignment, and students of below-average reading ability are grouped together and are given an even less challenging reading assignment.

During the math lesson, for example, a teacher places students who need to review the basic concepts before proceeding into one group, places students who understand the concept into another group, and finally, places students who need a more challenging assignment into a third group.

A possible track for an above average student
Sample Above Average Track

Tracking

Tracking is segregating students into different classrooms based upon their academic ability.

Tracking began around the turn of the 20th century in the United States as a way to prepare students to be part of the work force. Students with above-average academic aptitude were given a rigorous education with the goal of training these students to be the white collar labor of the workforce. A white collar laborer does not do manual labor and is typically in a managerial position, such as a supervisor of a factory.

On the other hand, the students with lower academic abilities were given a vocational education with the goal of training these students to be the blue collar labor of the workforce. A blue collar labor person typically does manual labor, such as a factory worker. Tracking is still used in schools today; however, its primary goal is to give all students the opportunity to excel academically.

Tracking usually starts in elementary school as students are classified as above average, average, or below average. Typically, once a student is on a particular track, they stay on that track, and they take the course sequences that are prescribed for that track. For example, during elementary school, a child excels academically and is placed on the above-average track, which means that they take more challenging classes than students on the average or below-average track. In middle school, they continue to take advanced classes, which are also the prerequisites for the advanced classes in high school. Once in high school, they take advanced, honors, and advanced placement classes.

Advantages of Tracking

There are many parents and teachers alike who believe that students benefit from being grouped together based upon ability. Proponents of tracking claim that there are three main advantages.

The first advantage of tracking is that students of advanced ability are not held back from learning as much and as quickly as possible.

If advanced students are not grouped together and are in a heterogeneous classroom, they will have to wait for their classmates to understand a concept before they are able to move on. Proponents of tracking claim that this slower pace may stunt the academic growth of the advanced student.

The second advantage of tracking is that the teacher is able to give instruction at a pace that is applicable for that particular class. For example, when learning a new concept, an average learner needs to hear that concept 16 to 18 times before they comprehend it. On the other hand, when learning a new concept, the advanced learner typically only needs to hear the concept 6 to 8 times before they comprehend it.

The third advantage of tracking is that students can boost their self-confidence. In a typical heterogeneous classroom, average students can have self-confidence issues in the presence of more advanced students when they are not able to answer the questions as quickly as the advanced student can. However, in a homogeneous group or classroom, students are all at the same level; thus they are able to answer the questions at about the same pace, giving them confidence.

Disadvantages of Tracking

On the other hand, there are many parents and teachers alike who believe that students do not benefit from being placed in separate classrooms based upon ability. Individuals against tracking claim that there are three main disadvantages.

The first disadvantage is that tracking can create social imbalance by segregating students based upon academic ability. This class division can lead students to develop lifelong feelings of inferiority or superiority.

The second disadvantage is that the method used to separate students into classes may not be equitable. Typically, grades and standardized tests are the two methods used to divide students into groups. However, many teachers and parents alike believe that grades and tests do not accurately reflect a student's academic potential, and thus some students could be placed onto the wrong track.

The third disadvantage is that once a student is placed on a track, they typically stay on that track. For example, a student on the above-average track takes the required prerequisites for advanced high school classes while in middle school. Thus, when they are in high school, they are eligible to take all of the advanced classes. However, an average student may have a cognitive growth spurt while in middle school and be ready to take advanced classes in high school, but since they had not had the required prerequisites, they will be ineligible for those advanced classes in high school.

Lesson Summary

Students are often sorted based upon academic ability. They can be sorted into a temporary learning situation - known as an ability group - or they can be placed into a permanent learning path - known as tracking. Ability groups are different than tracking in that if a student is assigned into an ability group, it is usually just for a short period of time and is usually not recorded onto the student's transcripts. However, tracking enrolls a student into a sequence of curriculum, which is not easily changed and is recorded into their transcripts.

There are clear advantages and disadvantages to tracking. For example, some say that tracking allows for the advanced student to excel, while others say that students shouldn't be segregated based upon grades and academic ability.

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