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

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.

Streaming good for high achievers, bad for everyone else

A new article published in the Oxford Review of Education uses data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) to explore the impact of streaming on Key Stage 1 (KS1) attainment at age seven. The authors found that children in the “top” stream achieved more and made significantly more academic progress than children attending schools that did not stream, while children in the “middle” or “bottom” streams achieved less and made significantly less academic progress. They conclude that streaming undermines the attempts of governments to raise attainment for all children whatever their socio-economic status.

The MCS is following the lives of around 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000/1. For this study, the authors focused on children in England as information on streaming (obtained from a teacher survey) could be linked to Foundations Stage Profile scores and KS1 results from the National Pupil Database. Complete data was available for 2,098 children. Of these, 446 were “streamed” children, from 307 different primary schools.

Although the relationship between streaming and KS1 reading was partly explained by other child characteristics, being in the “top” stream retained a significant positive association with all KS1 scores and being in the “middle” or “bottom” stream retained a significant negative association with KS1 reading and overall performance scores.
  
Source: The Impact of Streaming on Attainment at Age Seven: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study (2014), Oxford Review of Education.

Summer born children – it’s their age that counts

Some studies have shown that children who are born at the end of the academic year (summer born children) tend to have lower educational attainment than children born at the start of the academic year. The differences might be because of the precise age when they take a test, because they started school at an earlier age, because they have had less schooling, or because they are the youngest in the class. A new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that it is the age at which children take the test that is the most important factor.

The authors suggest that UK national test scores could be adjusted to allow for this variation. However, this would not help to resolve other problems that summer born children may face, for example, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, such as underage smoking. Reassuringly, the authors point out that, in adulthood, many of the differences disappear, and summer born individuals are just as healthy, happy, and earn as much as their older peers.

On the same subject, a recent Centre for Longitudinal Studies working paper uses data from the Millennium Cohort Study to examine whether summer born pupils are differently represented in ability groups in early primary school. Across all types of ability grouping (within-year, within-class), the author found a pronounced and consistent tendency for relatively older pupils in a school year to be placed in the highest stream, set, or group.

Sources: When You Are Born Matters: Evidence for England (2013), Institute for Fiscal Studies, and In-school Ability Grouping and the Month of Birth Effect: Preliminary Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study (2013), Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Staying on track – how ability grouping determines future earnings

When children start school in the US, they are often divided into ability groups, and by high school this trend is formalised further, as pupils are directed onto different “tracks”. In theory, pupils are placed on tracks in order to maximise their achievement by grouping them based on ability or college orientation. Researchers have previously found that these tracks offer uneven opportunities for further achievement and success in college.

A study in Urban Education has shown how this effect persists into adulthood. The study examined the link between tracking in high school and salary income for young adults and whether these effects vary by the individual’s gender and race. Using data from the US National Education Longitudinal Study, the researchers found that educational tracking is associated with future income, independent of the quantity of education that individuals receive. The researchers suggest that it is important to inform educators, as well as parents and young people, on the long-term implications of track placement to ensure that they understand the ramifications of tracking decisions.

Source: Tracking success: High school curricula and labor market outcomes by race and gender (2012), Urban Education47(6)

The impact of Sure Start Local Programmes

This research report from the Department for Education presents findings of a longitudinal study that measures the impact of Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) on seven-year-olds and their families. The study looks at over 5,000 families in 150 SSLP areas and makes comparisons with children and families in similarly disadvantaged areas that do not have an SSLP.

The results show positive effects on family functioning and maternal well-being associated with living in an SSLP area. However, no impact was found on any of the child outcomes measured. The report demonstrates that SSLPs are extremely popular and have proved to be successful in engaging and supporting the poorest families. However, greater emphasis is needed on services that will directly improve child outcomes, particularly language development and children’s daily experiences.

Source: The impact of Sure Start Local Programmes on seven year olds and their families (2012), Department for Education