A century of research on ability grouping and acceleration

Researchers Saiying Steenbergen-Hu and colleagues recently analysed the results of almost 100 years of research on the effects of ability grouping (which places pupils of similar skills and abilities in the same classes) and acceleration (where pupils are given material and assignments that are usually reserved for older year groups) on pupils’ academic achievement. After screening thousands of studies, their secondary meta-analysis, recently published in Review of Educational Research, synthesised the results of thirteen earlier meta-analyses on ability grouping and six on acceleration that met inclusion criteria for the final review.

They divided ability grouping into four types: (1) between-class ability grouping, where pupils in the same year are divided into low-, medium-, or high-level classes; (2) within-class ability grouping, where pupils within a classroom are taught in groups based on their levels; (3) cross-year subject grouping, where pupils in different year groups are combined into the same class depending on their prior achievement; and (4) grouping for pupils considered gifted.

Results showed academic benefits of within-class grouping, cross-year grouping by subject, and grouping for the gifted, but no benefit of between-class grouping. Results were consistent regardless of whether pupils were high-, medium-, or low-achievers. Analyses of acceleration groups for pupils labelled as gifted showed that these pupils performed the same as older non-gifted pupils, and that being in accelerated classes had positive effects on these pupils’ grades.

Source: What one hundred years of research says about the effects of ability grouping and acceleration on K–12 students’ academic achievement: Findings of two second-order meta-analyses (December 2016), Review of Educational Research, Vol. 86, No. 4

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