Ability level grouping ofstudents for instructional purposes is one of the most explored areas ofresearch in the field of education. Nevertheless,because of the unsettled findings in the literature, there is no certainsolution as to whether or not the practice of ability level grouping providesthe best educational benefit for students. High school principals have an extremely significant role in thediscussion about the implementation of the practice of ability grouping intheir particular schools due to the establishment of academic tracking ofstudents beginning in elementary and middle schools and maintained at the highschool level.
A thorough investigationof the concepts that affect the decision making process of high schoolprincipals about whether or not to implement ability grouping is significant inproviding insight to high school principals who have to tackle theresponsibility of implementation of high school programming. The purpose of thisliterature review is to explore the perceptions of principals concerningability grouping and examine the factors that influence the decision-makingprocess of principals when determining how to place students in the classroom,highlighting the role of the principal as school leader who is in charge ofestablishing the appropriate teaching and instructional practices within theschool. The research question that willguide the study is: How do high school principals shape policy and makedecisions concerning ability-grouped classes in their schools? Principal leadership is amajor means of improving schools.
Thereis no exaggeration on the importance of their guidance when dealing withstudent achievement as well as attracting and maintaining staff that will helpto meet the goals (Sebastian & Allensworth, 2012; Abrevaya & White,2009; Connelly, 2010). Conceptually,”the principal is the captain with full authority and responsibility for theship. But if reasonably wise and prepared for the post, he or she will makedecisions for the welfare of those on the ship in the company and with thecounsel of others” (Goodlad, 1984, p. 7).Statementof the ProblemEven though there is much research concerning thepractice of ability grouping for instruction, researchers have not come to aconcrete decision as to whether or not this practice is in the best educationalinterests of the students. Loveless(2013) states that ability grouping is a school level procedure, and thedecision of that practice should reside with individual schools and theiradministrators. Principals are given themost critical task of being held responsible for the instruction, learning, andsuccess of the students within their schools. Nevertheless, there is minimal research centered on the decision makingprocess utilized by principals when determining whether or not the practice ofability grouping will be implemented in their schools, and if so, to whatextent.
History of AbilityGroupingDefiningAbility Grouping Oneof the main methods that schools employ to affect student achievement is thearranging students for learning (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). The way which students are organized inclasses or other groupings establishes the courses to which students areexposed as well as the instructional methods of the teacher who passes on theinformation to the students. There is asignificant amount of misunderstanding concerning the word “ability grouping.
” The term ability grouping encompasses manyideas 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 todescribe the practice of ability grouping; however, the term tracking andability grouping have been used interchangeably the most by researchers in thepast (Steenbergen et al., 2016). Eventhough both practices of ability grouping and tracking have been usedinterchangeably, and both involve assigning students according to theirachievement level and ability in the classroom (Loveless, 2013), researchershave noted differences in the two in that the practice of ability grouping isoften practiced in elementary schools, while tracking is mostly identified inmiddle and high schools (Steenbergen et al, 2016). Tieso (2003) maintains thatability grouping is a more flexible practice than tracking. Steenbergenet al.
(2016) conducted two second-order meta-analyses which synthesizedapproximately 100 years of research on the effects of ability grouping andacceleration on K–12 students’ academic achievement. In their study the termability grouping is defined as an educational practice that is comprised ofthree main features: “(a) it involvesplacing students into different classrooms or small groups based on theirinitial achievement skill levels, readiness, or abilities. (b) the main purposeof such placement is to create a more homogeneous learning environment so thatteachers can provide instruction better matched to students’ needs and so thatstudents can benefit from interactions with their comparable academic peers;and (c) such placements are not permanent school administrative arrangementsthat lead to restrictions on students’ graduation, destination, or career paths”(pg. 851). In addition to abilitygrouping meaning something different to various people, it is also demonstratedin various forms. Ability grouping can be organized into four main categories(Steenbergen et al., 2016). The first category of ability grouping isbetween-class ability grouping, which includes arranging students who are inthe same grade level into classes labeled as “high,” “average,” or “low” basedon their academic achievement or ability level during their prior years.
Thesecond category of ability grouping is known as within-class ability groupingor small group instruction. This practice includes the teacher placing studentswho are in the same class into small groups for instruction. The studentswithin 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 iscross-grade subject grouping. This particular practice includes placingstudents across various grade levels into a particular subject class based onprior academic achievement and ability level. The final category of abilitygrouping is called special grouping for the gifted. This practice includesvarious educational and instructional programs geared towards studentsidentified as “gifted and talented” (Steenbergen et al.
, 2016).Ability grouping becamepopular in public high schools around the beginning of the 20thcentury (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). This was sparked by changes inimmigration, the development of education, and the beginning of intelligenttests (Lockwood & Cleveland, 1998).
Standard IQ tests were used a s a meansto measure the observed intellectual capabilities to recognize those who hadthe potential to become officers among the enlisted men in the military. This intelligence testing movement had anintense effect on the education system as it stressed the limitations of humanintellect (Ireson & Hallam, 2001). Soon after, American schools began to test and assemble students fordiverse tracks of instruction, established on the idea that the nation needed peoplewho were diverse in skills and knowledge. Testing the students also became a way to better organize students forinstructional purposes (Loveless, 1998; Mondale & Patton, 2001; Ellison& Hallinan, 2004). Having studentsgrouped by age and grade helped the educators to focus on specific goals anddetermine whether or not students were succeeding at the appropriategrade-level (Cooper, 1998; Ireson & Hallam, 2001). Ability grouping was alsoused as a means of preparing students for a career (Ellison & Hallinan,2004). Students were categorized intothree areas: vocational, general, and academic. The vocational track preparedstudents for professions like plumbing, mechanics, and carpentry.
The general track prepared students with thebasic knowledge needed to obtain low-skilled jobs that did not require collegedegrees. The academic track groomedstudents for college (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). Placing students on to one of those tracksinfluenced the career path they would follow in the future. Once students wereplaced on one of the areas according to ability and skill level, there was noopportunity to deviate from that path (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). Thecourses in which students were placed was an assurance that the students wouldend up in a particular career or academic path because they were restrainedfrom seeking alternative choices while in high school.The way in which highschool courses were structured began to change around the 1950s. Admission to high school was rapidly growingduring this time period., and, as a result, students were still required tofollow their assigned tracks, but, they were also provided with an opportunityto choose elective courses (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004).
Having the opportunity to choose from avariety of courses piloted the high school curriculum to be described as a”shopping mall” (Powell et al., 1985). Students no longer were required tostick to their assigned tracks; but were given an opportunity to choose classesthat related to their specific interests. This opportunity initiated the way inwhich tracking was organized (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004).
TheHistory of Ability Grouping (1960s to Present) Abilitygrouping in education was a practice that was welcomed greatly in the UnitedStates from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s (Steenbergen et al., 2016). Theacceptance of this practice began to slowly deteriorate from the middle of the 1980sto the end of the 1990s, somewhat as an effect of challenges presented by thosewho promoted equity and equality (Worthy, 2010). Two main opponents of abilitygrouping were Jeannie Oakes (1985) and Robert Slavin (1987, 1990, 1993). Oakes(1985) maintained that tracking proved to be unfair to students who were at adisadvantage because it limited educational opportunities and made worse theexisting educational and social disparities. In addition, Slavin’s (1987, 1990,1993) studies all concluded that ability grouping provided no significanteffects on the achievements of elementary, middle, or secondary schoolstudents.
During the middle of the1990s, those schools that were in high poverty began to reduce, and in somecases eliminate, the practice of ability grouping (Loveless, 2009). During thelate 1980s and into the 1990s, powerful groups criticized the practice of abilitygrouping and tracking, among them, the National Governors Association, theNAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Children’s Defense Fund. As a result, the useof the instructional practice dropped significantly in the 1990s. Tracking inmiddle schools declined in all subjects but math (Loveless, 2013). Despitethe decrease in the practice, it began to resurface during the end of the 1990sand has been considered a significant practice in the world of education.
Inthe Brown Center Report on American Education (2013), the National Assessmentof Educational Progress (NAEP) showed the following data:”The percentage ofstudents placed into ability groups for reading instruction skyrocketed from1998 to 2009, from 28% to 71%. And the percentage of students whose teachersdid not create ability groups fell from 39% in 1998 to 8% in 2009. Math abilitygrouping 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 SurroundingAbility Grouping Abilitygrouping has been one of the most debated practices for more than a century(Steenbergen et al., 2016).
The concernfor ability grouping may be a result of the conclusion that more difference inthe achievement levels of the students can be seen more within schools thanbetween schools (Coleman et al., 1966; Gamoran, 1987). This difference in the ways that students areorganized within schools suggest that ability grouping is a significant factorof ability levels.
Many public middleand secondary schools in the United States group students by achievement andskill level for instruction Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). Many researchershave studied the practice of ability grouping in attempt to determine whetheror not the practice is effective in public schools. The studies are constant in concluding thatstudent achievement as a result of ability grouping is dependent on the mannerin which it is practiced in individual schools (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). Eventhough countless features of the practice of ability grouping have beenexplored through research, not much attention has been given concerning the questionof whether or not ability grouping affects student achievement across variousschool districts (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). Opponents of Ability Grouping Those who oppose the practice of ability groupingargue that ability grouping aids in the achievement gap of students, limitseducational opportunities, and has a negative effect on the students’socioemotional development (Belfi et al., 2012; Oakes, 2008).
Almost without exception, reviews from the1920s to the present have come to the same general conclusion: thatbetween-class ability grouping has few if any benefits for student achievement(Slavin, 1987). Two major argumentsagainst ability grouping emerge consistently in multiple research studies:lower achieving students are not provided with the same motivation as highachievers, and the same low achievers are held to a lower standard when itcomes to student achievement (Schullery & Schullery, 2006). In addition, lower achieving students do notreceive high quality instruction in comparison to high achieving students(Oakes, 1985). Slavin(1987) stated that ability grouping does little to enhance student achievement.Slavin completed two meta-analysis using literature that already existsconcerning 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 thevarious types of ability grouping by examining the results of four types ofpractices that are used at the elementary school level: self-contained classes, regrouping classesfor 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 studentachievement when students are placed in homogeneously grouped classes whencompared to heterogeneously grouped classes for instruction. Although Slavin (1987) concluded there were nosignificant achievement gains between elementary students placed inhomogeneously grouped classes versus heterogeneously grouped classes, he didfind that some regrouping strategies had positive outcomes on averageachievement. The positive effects areprominent when the grouping practices have close observations, flexibility, andfocuses on a maximum of two subjects. Inaddition, notable amongst these gains is the increased inequality betweenstudents 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 UnitedStates. Slavin’s findings were similarto that from his initial study (1987) which concluded that ability grouping hasno significant effect on student achievement. In addition to his conclusions, Slavin also presented an important limitationto his study: “None of the studies reviewed were systematic observations ofteaching 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 limitedand flexible regrouping strategies yield positive effects on averageachievement (particularly multigrade plans that encourage student mobilitybetween “levels”), they also usually increase the inequality ofachievement” (p. 13).
Schools that housea majority of minorities or students from low socioeconomic backgrounds providelimited academic tracks and many programs centered around vocational orremediation skills. Higher ability levelstudents have more of an advantage concerning ability grouping. Oakes (1985) also notes the ineffective practice ofability grouping.
In her study of middleand secondary schools, Oakes outlined the significant difference in thecontent, class environment, and the quality instruction between the high andlow level ability grouped classes. Thehigher leveled classes promoted rigor and a variety of instructional skillswhile the lower level classes emphasized basic skills, low expectations, andexcessive behavioral problems.Wheelock (1992) presents her case against abilitygrouping in schools by stating that ability grouping has less to do with measuringstudents’ intelligence and more to do with measuring how privileged or deprivedthey are. Wheelock (1992) further asserts that those students who are at adisadvantage are tracked as slow learners and receive substandard instruction,less resources, and lower expectations than their academic counterparts who aretracked as fast learners.
Although there have been many attempts to limit theunfairness of education in the United States, there still remains significantachievement gaps between racial groups (Fryer & Levitt, 2006). Research studies show that the racial gaps inachievement began prior to students attending kindergarten, and continuedthrough their elementary and secondary school years (Lee & Burkam, 2002).Fryer and Levitt (2006) extended findings from prior research (Fryer, 2004) toexplain the achievement gap between black and white students who attended thesame school. According to the previous study, educational characteristics werethe cause of the significant achievement gap between black and white students.The gaps are seen during the first few years of school and are quitesignificant by the time the students reach the end of their third grade year(Fryer & Levitt, 2006). Theorganizational factors of the school were the key points in the achievementgap.
These factors included the quality of education that was presented acrossthe two races.Supporters of Ability Grouping Although there are researchers who have built strongcases to eradicate the use of the practice of ability grouping, there have beenothers who believe that ability grouping is an essential practice that promotesknowledge and opportunities for achievement of all students no matter where theyare placed. The explanation of placingstudents in groups by tailoring instruction to the academic needs of thestudents across all grade levels is constant (Stroud, 2002). Supporters of the practice maintain itssignificance in being able to respond to the needs of students who have diverseachievement, skills, and abilities that need to be met (Tieso, 2003).
Supporters also believe that classes that aregrouped by ability level makes instruction easier (Holloway, 2001; Biafora& Ansalone, 2008; Ansalone, 2010). Although many researchers have developedsolid cases to cease the practice of ability grouping, many others have deemedit a critical instructional practice that promotes much learning andopportunities 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) conducteda 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 thatstudents who were placed in groups based on ability level was able to make somesignificant improvements in reading.
Many years, the practice of ability grouping has beenoverly condemned (Stroud, 2002). Despitethe backlash received by some, flexible ability grouping does not forcestudents to stick to one path as tracking does. Ability grouping is very effective that, when used the way in which itwas intended, “doesnot affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students frommoving—either up or down—during their educational careers.
Rather, flexibleability grouping is a tool used to match a student’s readiness for learningwith the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the rightstudent at the right pace and at the right time” (Stroud, 2002, p. 23). Ability grouping should not be a stationary practicewhere students are stuck permanently in to one specific course/ level. This practice should be a consistent practicewhere students are given the opportunity to move to higher leveled coursesbased on their academic performance. Because of this, it is the duty of the teacher to watch students andmake note about improved skill and ability levels in their students (Olszewski-Kubilius,2013).
Where a student is placed must beestablished by their academic performance. This is so the decisions being madeare unbiased. The placement of studentsshould also be looked at differently in each subject level. It should never beassumed that remediation for one subject means remediation for all ((Olszewski-Kubilius,2013). Kulik (1998) is a major proponent of ability grouping,concluding in his studies that American education would be negatively affectedif the practice of ability grouping was eradicated. Kulik (1998) utilized his research findings todispute Oakes’ conclusions on ability grouping, specifically those issuesregarding low self-esteem and inequality being a result of ability grouping. Kulik regarded Oakes’ findings as being regulatedand insufficient support for her findings.Kulik & Kulik (1982) believe that teachers will nothave to struggle with the individual differences of students in an abilitygrouped classroom.
In his meta-analysisof prior research concerning ability grouping, Kulik (1991) maintains thatadapting student instruction to ability level produces a regular constanteffect on students who are high academic achievers. Programs that focus onacademic enrichment yields considerable gains, and accelerated programs yieldthe largest improvement of all. Studentswho are labeled as gifted outdo similar labeled students who are not inaccelerated classes (Kulik & Kulik, 1982). Glass (2002) shares similar views to Kulik & Kulik(1982) concerning ability grouping by stating that ability grouping should bepracticed because it allows teachers an opportunity to use their instructionaltime purposefully by teaching higher level students according to their abilitylevel instead of squandering time by providing basic level examples to lowerlevel students. It also prevents lowerleveled students from becoming confused by instruction that exceeds theirlevels of understanding.
“Hi Higher ability students make greater academicprogress when separated from their fellow students and given an acceleratedcourse of study” (Glass, 2002, p. 95). In addition, less able students who aresegregated from their more abled peers are at risk of being taught an inferiorcurriculum and assigned to low tracks for their entire academic career” (Glass,2002, p. 95).