Ability insight to high school principals who have

Ability level grouping of
students for instructional purposes is one of the most explored areas of
research in the field of education.  Nevertheless,
because of the unsettled findings in the literature, there is no certain
solution as to whether or not the practice of ability level grouping provides
the best educational benefit for students. 
High school principals have an extremely significant role in the
discussion about the implementation of the practice of ability grouping in
their particular schools due to the establishment of academic tracking of
students beginning in elementary and middle schools and maintained at the high
school level.  A thorough investigation
of the concepts that affect the decision making process of high school
principals about whether or not to implement ability grouping is significant in
providing insight to high school principals who have to tackle the
responsibility of implementation of high school programming. 

The purpose of this
literature review is to explore the perceptions of principals concerning
ability grouping and examine the factors that influence the decision-making
process of principals when determining how to place students in the classroom,
highlighting the role of the principal as school leader who is in charge of
establishing the appropriate teaching and instructional practices within the
school.  The research question that will
guide the study is: How do high school principals shape policy and make
decisions concerning ability-grouped classes in their schools? 

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Principal leadership is a
major means of improving schools.  There
is no exaggeration on the importance of their guidance when dealing with
student achievement as well as attracting and maintaining staff that will help
to meet the goals (Sebastian & Allensworth, 2012; Abrevaya & White,
2009; Connelly, 2010).  Conceptually,
“the principal is the captain with full authority and responsibility for the
ship. But if reasonably wise and prepared for the post, he or she will make
decisions for the welfare of those on the ship in the company and with the
counsel of others” (Goodlad, 1984, p. 7).

of the Problem

Even though there is much research concerning the
practice of ability grouping for instruction, researchers have not come to a
concrete decision as to whether or not this practice is in the best educational
interests of the students.  Loveless
(2013) states that ability grouping is a school level procedure, and the
decision of that practice should reside with individual schools and their
administrators.  Principals are given the
most critical task of being held responsible for the instruction, learning, and
success of the students within their schools. 
Nevertheless, there is minimal research centered on the decision making
process utilized by principals when determining whether or not the practice of
ability grouping will be implemented in their schools, and if so, to what

History of Ability

Ability Grouping

of the main methods that schools employ to affect student achievement is the
arranging students for learning (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004).  The way which students are organized in
classes or other groupings establishes the courses to which students are
exposed as well as the instructional methods of the teacher who passes on the
information to the students.  There is a
significant amount of misunderstanding concerning the word “ability grouping.”  The term ability grouping encompasses many
ideas for many different people during many different times (Oakes, 1985).  Other words such as tracking, streaming,
setting, sorting, class assignments, and class organization have been used to
describe the practice of ability grouping; however, the term tracking and
ability grouping have been used interchangeably the most by researchers in the
past (Steenbergen et al., 2016).  Even
though both practices of ability grouping and tracking have been used
interchangeably, and both involve assigning students according to their
achievement level and ability in the classroom (Loveless, 2013), researchers
have noted differences in the two in that the practice of ability grouping is
often practiced in elementary schools, while tracking is mostly identified in
middle and high schools (Steenbergen et al, 2016). Tieso (2003) maintains that
ability grouping is a more flexible practice than tracking.

et al. (2016) conducted two second-order meta-analyses which synthesized
approximately 100 years of research on the effects of ability grouping and
acceleration on K–12 students’ academic achievement. In their study the term
ability grouping is defined as an educational practice that is comprised of
three main features:

“(a) it involves
placing students into different classrooms or small groups based on their
initial achievement skill levels, readiness, or abilities. (b) the main purpose
of such placement is to create a more homogeneous learning environment so that
teachers can provide instruction better matched to students’ needs and so that
students can benefit from interactions with their comparable academic peers;
and (c) such placements are not permanent school administrative arrangements
that lead to restrictions on students’ graduation, destination, or career paths”
(pg. 851).


In addition to ability
grouping meaning something different to various people, it is also demonstrated
in various forms. Ability grouping can be organized into four main categories
(Steenbergen et al., 2016). The first category of ability grouping is
between-class ability grouping, which includes arranging students who are in
the same grade level into classes labeled as “high,” “average,” or “low” based
on their academic achievement or ability level during their prior years. The
second category of ability grouping is known as within-class ability grouping
or small group instruction. This practice includes the teacher placing students
who are in the same class into small groups for instruction. The students
within in each group are parallel in academic achievement and ability levels.
This type of ability grouping is mostly practiced in elementary schools
(Steenbergen et al., 2016). The third category of ability grouping is
cross-grade subject grouping. This particular practice includes placing
students across various grade levels into a particular subject class based on
prior academic achievement and ability level. The final category of ability
grouping is called special grouping for the gifted. This practice includes
various educational and instructional programs geared towards students
identified as “gifted and talented” (Steenbergen et al., 2016).

Ability grouping became
popular in public high schools around the beginning of the 20th
century (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). This was sparked by changes in
immigration, the development of education, and the beginning of intelligent
tests (Lockwood & Cleveland, 1998). Standard IQ tests were used a s a means
to measure the observed intellectual capabilities to recognize those who had
the potential to become officers among the enlisted men in the military.  This intelligence testing movement had an
intense effect on the education system as it stressed the limitations of human
intellect (Ireson & Hallam, 2001). 
Soon after, American schools began to test and assemble students for
diverse tracks of instruction, established on the idea that the nation needed people
who were diverse in skills and knowledge. 
Testing the students also became a way to better organize students for
instructional purposes (Loveless, 1998; Mondale & Patton, 2001; Ellison
& Hallinan, 2004).  Having students
grouped by age and grade helped the educators to focus on specific goals and
determine whether or not students were succeeding at the appropriate
grade-level (Cooper, 1998; Ireson & Hallam, 2001).  

Ability grouping was also
used as a means of preparing students for a career (Ellison & Hallinan,
2004).  Students were categorized into
three areas: vocational, general, and academic. The vocational track prepared
students for professions like plumbing, mechanics, and carpentry.  The general track prepared students with the
basic knowledge needed to obtain low-skilled jobs that did not require college
degrees.  The academic track groomed
students for college (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004).  Placing students on to one of those tracks
influenced the career path they would follow in the future. Once students were
placed on one of the areas according to ability and skill level, there was no
opportunity to deviate from that path (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). The
courses in which students were placed was an assurance that the students would
end up in a particular career or academic path because they were restrained
from seeking alternative choices while in high school.

The way in which high
school courses were structured began to change around the 1950s.  Admission to high school was rapidly growing
during this time period., and, as a result, students were still required to
follow their assigned tracks, but, they were also provided with an opportunity
to choose elective courses (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004).  Having the opportunity to choose from a
variety of courses piloted the high school curriculum to be described as a
“shopping mall” (Powell et al., 1985). Students no longer were required to
stick to their assigned tracks; but were given an opportunity to choose classes
that related to their specific interests. This opportunity initiated the way in
which tracking was organized (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). 

History of Ability Grouping (1960s to Present)

grouping in education was a practice that was welcomed greatly in the United
States from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s (Steenbergen et al., 2016). The
acceptance of this practice began to slowly deteriorate from the middle of the 1980s
to the end of the 1990s, somewhat as an effect of challenges presented by those
who promoted equity and equality (Worthy, 2010). Two main opponents of ability
grouping were Jeannie Oakes (1985) and Robert Slavin (1987, 1990, 1993). Oakes
(1985) maintained that tracking proved to be unfair to students who were at a
disadvantage because it limited educational opportunities and made worse the
existing educational and social disparities. In addition, Slavin’s (1987, 1990,
1993) studies all concluded that ability grouping provided no significant
effects on the achievements of elementary, middle, or secondary school

During the middle of the
1990s, those schools that were in high poverty began to reduce, and in some
cases eliminate, the practice of ability grouping (Loveless, 2009). During the
late 1980s and into the 1990s, powerful groups criticized the practice of ability
grouping and tracking, among them, the National Governors Association, the
NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Children’s Defense Fund. As a result, the use
of the instructional practice dropped significantly in the 1990s. Tracking in
middle schools declined in all subjects but math (Loveless, 2013). Despite
the decrease in the practice, it began to resurface during the end of the 1990s
and has been considered a significant practice in the world of education. In
the Brown Center Report on American Education (2013), the National Assessment
of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed the following data:

“The percentage of
students placed into ability groups for reading instruction skyrocketed from
1998 to 2009, from 28% to 71%. And the percentage of students whose teachers
did not create ability groups fell from 39% in 1998 to 8% in 2009. Math ability
grouping dips from 1992 to 1996 (48% to 40%), stays about the same until 2003
(42%), and then accelerates from 2003 to 2011 (reaching 61% in 2011)”.


The Debate Surrounding
Ability Grouping

grouping has been one of the most debated practices for more than a century
(Steenbergen et al., 2016).  The concern
for ability grouping may be a result of the conclusion that more difference in
the achievement levels of the students can be seen more within schools than
between schools (Coleman et al., 1966; Gamoran, 1987).  This difference in the ways that students are
organized within schools suggest that ability grouping is a significant factor
of ability levels.  Many public middle
and secondary schools in the United States group students by achievement and
skill level for instruction Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). Many researchers
have studied the practice of ability grouping in attempt to determine whether
or not the practice is effective in public schools.  The studies are constant in concluding that
student achievement as a result of ability grouping is dependent on the manner
in which it is practiced in individual schools (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004).   Even
though countless features of the practice of ability grouping have been
explored through research, not much attention has been given concerning the question
of whether or not ability grouping affects student achievement across various
school districts (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). 

Opponents of Ability Grouping


Those who oppose the practice of ability grouping
argue that ability grouping aids in the achievement gap of students, limits
educational opportunities, and has a negative effect on the students’
socioemotional development (Belfi et al., 2012; Oakes, 2008).  Almost without exception, reviews from the
1920s to the present have come to the same general conclusion: that
between-class ability grouping has few if any benefits for student achievement
(Slavin, 1987).  Two major arguments
against ability grouping emerge consistently in multiple research studies:
lower achieving students are not provided with the same motivation as high
achievers, and the same low achievers are held to a lower standard when it
comes to student achievement (Schullery & Schullery, 2006).  In addition, lower achieving students do not
receive high quality instruction in comparison to high achieving students
(Oakes, 1985).

(1987) stated that ability grouping does little to enhance student achievement.
Slavin completed two meta-analysis using literature that already exists
concerning ability grouping.  Slavin’s
(1987) first meta-analysis focused on ability grouping at the elementary level.
In his study, Slavin tried to clear up the misconceptions surrounding the
various types of ability grouping by examining the results of four types of
practices that are used at the elementary school level:  self-contained classes, regrouping classes
for reading and math, cross-grade grouping, and within-class grouping.  At the conclusion of his study, Slavin (1987)
found that there was no significant improvement in the area of student
achievement when students are placed in homogeneously grouped classes when
compared to heterogeneously grouped classes for instruction. 

Although Slavin (1987) concluded there were no
significant achievement gains between elementary students placed in
homogeneously grouped classes versus heterogeneously grouped classes, he did
find that some regrouping strategies had positive outcomes on average
achievement.  The positive effects are
prominent when the grouping practices have close observations, flexibility, and
focuses on a maximum of two subjects.  In
addition, notable amongst these gains is the increased inequality between
students placed in the highest tracks and those placed in the lowest tracks.  Slavin conducted a second meta-analysis
(1990) concerning ability grouping in secondary schools. In his research,
secondary schools consisted of both middle and high schools in the United
States.  Slavin’s findings were similar
to that from his initial study (1987) which concluded that ability grouping has
no significant effect on student achievement. 
In addition to his conclusions, Slavin also presented an important limitation
to his study: “None of the studies reviewed were systematic observations of
teaching and learning” (Slavin, 1990, p. 493).

Oakes (1992) expresses a similar view to Slavin’s
(1987) conclusions that ability grouping provides no significant benefits.  Oakes further expresses, “while some limited
and flexible regrouping strategies yield positive effects on average
achievement (particularly multigrade plans that encourage student mobility
between “levels”), they also usually increase the inequality of
achievement” (p. 13).  Schools that house
a majority of minorities or students from low socioeconomic backgrounds provide
limited academic tracks and many programs centered around vocational or
remediation skills.  Higher ability level
students have more of an advantage concerning ability grouping.


Oakes (1985) also notes the ineffective practice of
ability grouping.  In her study of middle
and secondary schools, Oakes outlined the significant difference in the
content, class environment, and the quality instruction between the high and
low level ability grouped classes.  The
higher leveled classes promoted rigor and a variety of instructional skills
while the lower level classes emphasized basic skills, low expectations, and
excessive behavioral problems.

Wheelock (1992) presents her case against ability
grouping in schools by stating that ability grouping has less to do with measuring
students’ intelligence and more to do with measuring how privileged or deprived
they are. Wheelock (1992) further asserts that those students who are at a
disadvantage are tracked as slow learners and receive substandard instruction,
less resources, and lower expectations than their academic counterparts who are
tracked as fast learners.

Although there have been many attempts to limit the
unfairness of education in the United States, there still remains significant
achievement gaps between racial groups (Fryer & Levitt, 2006).  Research studies show that the racial gaps in
achievement began prior to students attending kindergarten, and continued
through their elementary and secondary school years (Lee & Burkam, 2002).
Fryer and Levitt (2006) extended findings from prior research (Fryer, 2004) to
explain the achievement gap between black and white students who attended the
same school. According to the previous study, educational characteristics were
the cause of the significant achievement gap between black and white students.
The gaps are seen during the first few years of school and are quite
significant by the time the students reach the end of their third grade year
(Fryer & Levitt, 2006).  The
organizational factors of the school were the key points in the achievement
gap. These factors included the quality of education that was presented across
the two races.

Supporters of Ability Grouping

Although there are researchers who have built strong
cases to eradicate the use of the practice of ability grouping, there have been
others who believe that ability grouping is an essential practice that promotes
knowledge and opportunities for achievement of all students no matter where they
are placed.  The explanation of placing
students in groups by tailoring instruction to the academic needs of the
students across all grade levels is constant (Stroud, 2002).

  Supporters of the practice maintain its
significance in being able to respond to the needs of students who have diverse
achievement, skills, and abilities that need to be met (Tieso, 2003).  Supporters also believe that classes that are
grouped by ability level makes instruction easier (Holloway, 2001; Biafora
& Ansalone, 2008; Ansalone, 2010). Although many researchers have developed
solid cases to cease the practice of ability grouping, many others have deemed
it a critical instructional practice that promotes much learning and
opportunities for all to succeed no matter where they may be placed in groups
(Stroud, 2002).  Olszewski-Kubilius
(2013) maintains that flexible ability grouping, when used in the right manner,
works.  Puzio and Colby (2010) conducted
a meta-analysis on the effects of grouping on student achievement in reading.
The study reviewed 7 cases that was written over the course of 20 years.  The conclusion of this study revealed that
students who were placed in groups based on ability level was able to make some
significant improvements in reading. 

Many years, the practice of ability grouping has been
overly condemned (Stroud, 2002).  Despite
the backlash received by some, flexible ability grouping does not force
students to stick to one path as tracking does. 
Ability grouping is very effective that, when used the way in which it
was intended,

not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from
moving—either up or down—during their educational careers. Rather, flexible
ability grouping is a tool used to match a student’s readiness for learning
with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right
student at the right pace and at the right time” (Stroud, 2002, p. 23).


Ability grouping should not be a stationary practice
where students are stuck permanently in to one specific course/ level.  This practice should be a consistent practice
where students are given the opportunity to move to higher leveled courses
based on their academic performance. 
Because of this, it is the duty of the teacher to watch students and
make note about improved skill and ability levels in their students (Olszewski-Kubilius,
2013).  Where a student is placed must be
established by their academic performance. This is so the decisions being made
are unbiased.  The placement of students
should also be looked at differently in each subject level. It should never be
assumed that remediation for one subject means remediation for all ((Olszewski-Kubilius,

Kulik (1998) is a major proponent of ability grouping,
concluding in his studies that American education would be negatively affected
if the practice of ability grouping was eradicated.  Kulik (1998) utilized his research findings to
dispute Oakes’ conclusions on ability grouping, specifically those issues
regarding low self-esteem and inequality being a result of ability grouping.  Kulik regarded Oakes’ findings as being regulated
and insufficient support for her findings.

Kulik & Kulik (1982) believe that teachers will not
have to struggle with the individual differences of students in an ability
grouped classroom.  In his meta-analysis
of prior research concerning ability grouping, Kulik (1991) maintains that
adapting student instruction to ability level produces a regular constant
effect on students who are high academic achievers. Programs that focus on
academic enrichment yields considerable gains, and accelerated programs yield
the largest improvement of all.  Students
who are labeled as gifted outdo similar labeled students who are not in
accelerated classes (Kulik & Kulik, 1982).

Glass (2002) shares similar views to Kulik & Kulik
(1982) concerning ability grouping by stating that ability grouping should be
practiced because it allows teachers an opportunity to use their instructional
time purposefully by teaching higher level students according to their ability
level instead of squandering time by providing basic level examples to lower
level students.  It also prevents lower
leveled students from becoming confused by instruction that exceeds their
levels of understanding.  “Hi Higher ability students make greater academic
progress when separated from their fellow students and given an accelerated
course of study” (Glass, 2002, p. 95). In addition, less able students who are
segregated from their more abled peers are at risk of being taught an inferior
curriculum and assigned to low tracks for their entire academic career” (Glass,
2002, p. 95).