Ability Grouping in Education: Pros, Cons & Quiz

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Peggy Olsen

Placing students into learning groups by with students of similar ability is the practice known as ability grouping or tracking. Learn more about the pros and cons of ability grouping, and test your knowledge with quiz questions.

We also recommend watching The Freedmen's Bureau's Impact on Education and Jane Addams' Impact on Education

Ability Grouping

According to The Washington Post more elementary school teachers are ability grouping based on a study of 4th grade teachers that showed an increase from 40 percent in 2006 to 61 percent in 2011, but does it help students?

Ability grouping is the practice of putting students with similar abilities together and continues to be controversial. At the elementary school this might be placing students in reading groups with other readers at the same level. This is known as 'within class grouping'. Classrooms might also be ability grouped. If a district has a 2nd grade and 3rd grade combined class and a 1st and 2nd grade combined class, the higher-ability 2nd graders may be placed in with the 3rd graders while the lower-ability 2nd graders would then be placed with the 1st graders. This is known as 'between-class grouping'.

ability grouping

Middle and high schools also use 'between-class groupings' when they place students in classes based on whether they are preparing for college or vocational careers.

high school


'Ability grouping' is common in elementary schools because it allows teachers to target instructional needs and use the best strategies for the specific group they are teaching. It is easier than teaching a wide range of abilities in one lesson. For example, repetition is an excellent technique for lower achieving students, but is not a good technique with gifted and talented students. Ability grouping allows teachers to use the best strategies for the each group's specific educational needs.

Ability grouping for reading and mathematics increases achievement at the elementary level, especially when grouping is with many grade levels. For example, an elementary school with 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders would combine all those students into ability groups. This would allow a high-achieving 3th grader to attend reading class with low-achieving 5th graders. The benefits of the most common reading and math groups within an individual classroom is unknown because it is difficult to find classrooms not using this method to use as control groups.


Some proponents of ability grouping believe it increases the motivation of students. Although groups are not labeled by achievement, students quickly determine the approximate level of each group based on which students are assigned to them. Some students might use this as motivation to move up to another group. Because students are with similar ability groups they may be motivated to do better to keep up with the others in the group. For example, a higher-achieving student doesn't feel they are way above the others, and a lower-achieving student doesn't feel discouraged.


'Between class groups' which assign students to classrooms based on ability show no academic benefits at the elementary level.

Minority students and students of lower social economic status are over-represented in lower-achieving groups and receive lower-quality instruction partially because teachers of these groups may have lower expectations for these students.


The National Education Association and other opponents to ability grouping believe there is no academic benefit, and in fact, ability grouping increases the achievement gap.

Students in lower groups miss out on enrichment activities provided to higher-ability groups which help students develop critical thinking skills.


Students tend to stay in the same group and not make gains into other groups. Remaining in the low group long term may discourage low-ability students leading to reduced motivation, low self-esteem, and behavior problems.

Although ability grouping is one of the most researched topics in education, more research is needed.

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