Ignoring the evidence on ability grouping

A new article published in the Cambridge Journal of Education explores the divergence between research on ability grouping and the support for it. While policy makers have frequently advocated the practice and many parents support it, research has consistently failed to find significant benefits and has identified disadvantages for low-achieving pupil groups.

The authors analysed the extensive research that exists on ability grouping, and first identified seven different explanations for the poorer progress of pupils in low ability groups, even after controlling for their pretests. These are:

  • Misallocation to groups;
  • Lack of fluidity of groups;
  • Lower quality of teaching for low groups;
  • Low teacher expectations for low groups;
  • Pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment applied to different groups;
  • Pupil perception and experiences of “ability” grouping, and impact on their learner identities; and
  • These different factors working together to cause a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In terms of the reason for the lack of impact of the research evidence on practice, the authors argue that segregation by ability has somehow become a signifier for “academic high standards”.

The article suggests that the only way to counter such a widely held view is by developing a similarly powerful alternative, particularly “scientific truth”. They hope that their project Best Practice in Grouping Students, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), might help to shift opinions, given its experimental, large-scale design.

Source: Exploring the Relative Lack of Impact of Research on ‘Ability Grouping’ in England: A Discourse Analytic Account (2016), Cambridge Journal of Education.

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