Ability grouping ineffective and detrimental

29 April 2013

University of Canterbury education research has found that intermediate and secondary schools ability grouping practices are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, detrimental.

Ability grouping ineffective and detrimental

Professor Garry Hornby

University of Canterbury education research has found that intermediate and secondary schools ability grouping practices are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, detrimental to the education of many pupils.

UC’s College of Education researchers Professor Garry Hornby and Chrystal Witte say there is extensive international research literature on the impact of ability grouping (often called tracking, streaming or banding) on academic and behavioural outcomes.

"Our research surveyed 15 secondary schools and 11 intermediate schools in Canterbury regarding their policies and practices on ability grouping,’’ Professor Hornby says.

"Interviews focused on the types of grouping used in academic subject areas, perceived benefits and disadvantages of this grouping, as well as perceived consequences for average students, gifted students, students with special needs, and Maori and Pacific Island students.

"Fourteen out of the 15 high schools and 10 out of the 11 intermediate schools surveyed used some form of ability grouping. Typically, this was in the form of three ability bands with classes for high ability or gifted and talented students, and for low ability students, with the remaining students in mixed-ability classes.

"Schools reported few substantial benefits of the ability grouping that they used but did identify a range of disadvantages. It is notable that most of the benefits that were reported by interviewees were benefits for teachers and schools, whereas most of the disadvantages concerned the negative impact of ability grouping on students, such as low self-esteem and increased behaviour problems.

"Some positive consequences or specific advantages of ability grouping were reported for gifted and talented students and for those with special educational needs, but none were identified for average students, Maori and Pacific Island students, or those with English as a second language.

"The principal of the one intermediate school which had all pupils in mixed ability classes, including gifted, special educational needs and ESOL children, was very positive about the change from the between-class ability grouping that had been in place when he first became principal.

"He considered that the mixed ability classes had created a more equitable and supportive environment for all the children, which resulted in fewer behaviour problems, to the extent that the school often successfully took in pupils who had been excluded from their previous schools due to disruptive behaviour.

"He also reported that the recent Education Review Office (ERO) report on the school had highlighted the wide range of teaching strategies to differentiate learning that teachers at the school used. In addition, the school was selected as one of seven schools nationally to be included in an ERO report on exemplary practice for gifted children.

"The findings of our research reinforce the need for schools to re-consider their practices for ability grouping and adopt strategies that will be more effective in bringing about improvements in children’s educational achievements,’’ Professor Hornby says.

For further information please contact:
Kip Brook
Media Consultant
Student Services and Communications
University of Canterbury
Ph: (03) 364 3325
Mobile: 027 5030 168
kip.brook@canterbury.ac.nz