Assessment, Promising Practices, School Community

Should We Be Streaming Students?

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‘Grouping’ by ability, or ‘tracking’, or ‘streaming’ means that students are placed into groups defined by their ability levels. Students may be grouped by ability either for a subject (for example for mathematics or reading) or for all or almost all their instruction. Students’ assignment to an ability group may be temporary, changing during the year, or relatively permanent.

Advocates of grouping by ability claim that it can raise achievement standards since teachers can target their instruction and use resources more effectively. However, researchers have shown that grouping by ability can have adverse effects on students’ attitudes towards schooling and their self-esteem. Studies on ability grouping show inequitable outcomes and social consequences:

  • It is very difficult to distinguish ‘ability’ from ‘prior achievement’.
  • Use of grouping by ability is associated with worse overall student performance.
  • Students placed in higher ability groups may perform better but students placed in lower ability groups typically perform worse than in mixed ability groups.
  • There is a tendency for lower teacher expectation and lower quality of instruction in lower ability groups.
  • For students assigned to low-ability groups, there are negative effects on their self-esteem, motivation and attitudes towards schooling.

Research suggests that students in non-grouped settings, especially for those with lower achievement, have more healthy and positive attitudes towards school than students in grouped settings.

Researchers advocate using mixed grouping and reducing ability grouping in schools, but more important is to focus on improving instruction and curriculum for students of all achievement levels.

CEA and the Ontario Institute in Studies in Education (OISE) have teamed up to provide you with relevant and timely information based on current empirical educational research. The primary goal of this project is to get relevant and needed research into the hands of parents and other interested people. Five blurbs will be posted to our website throughout the 2009-2010 academic year. They will be written in plain language on topics of interest to parents, such as homework and class size.

 Additional Resources

  • Ministry of Education, Government of British Columbia:  The Government of British Columbia provides tips for teachers and parents on career advice and planning for students taking Applied courses in high school.  [Website]
  • The Disadvantage of Tracking and Ability Grouping – A Look at Cooperative Learning as an Alternative:  This article provides an alternative approach to ability grouping.  [Available for Download]
  • Duke University, Talent Identification Program:  The Expert’s Forum on the discussion of ability grouping provides answers to the following questions:  What is Ability Grouping?  How does ability grouping compare to tracking?  Why has ability grouping been so controversial over the years?  [Website]
  • Settlement.Org:  This website provides Ontario parents with advice and information on high school courses and choices for their children.  The information gives an insight to parents on whether their children should take Academic or Applied courses, and where it leads them in career choices.  [Website]

Research References Informing this Issue

Boaler, J., William, D., and Brown, M. (2000).  Students’ Experiences of Ability Grouping:  Disaffection, Polarisation and the Construction of Failure.  British Educational Research Journal, 26(5):  631-648.

Eder, D. (1981).  Ability Grouping as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy:  A Micro-Analysis of Teacher-Student Interaction.  Sociology of Education, 54(3):  151-162.

  • In general, the results of this study indicate that the common practice of ability grouping should be questioned. (pg. 160)
  • The results of this student clearly indicate that homogeneous grouping compounds initial learning problems by placing those children who have learning problems in the same groups. (pg. 160)

Gamoran, A. (1993).  Alternative Uses of Ability Grouping in Secondary Schools:  Can We Bring High-Quality Instruction to Low-Ability Classes?  American Journal of Education, 102(1):  1-22.

Gamoran, A. (1992).  Synthesis of Research:  Is Ability Grouping Equitable?  Educational Leadership, 50(2):  11-17.

  • Given poor instruction, neither heterogeneous nor homogeneous grouping can be effective; with excellent instruction, either may succeed. (pg. 11)
  • Little evidence supports the claim that tracking or grouping by ability produces higher overal achievement than heterogeneous grouping. (pg. 12)

Hoffer, T.B. (1992).  Middle School Ability Grouping and Student Achievement in Science and Mathematics.  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 14(3):  205-227.

  • This analysis has shown grouping has no significant overall benefits in either science or mathematics. (pg. 221)
  • In both subjects, students in the high groups learn somewhat more and students in the low groups learn less than comparable students in non-grouped schools.

Ireson, J. and Hallam, S. (1999).  Raising Standards:  Is Ability Grouping the Answer?  Oxford Review of Education, 25(3):  343-358.

  • Streaming, it is argued, can play a major role in polarizing students’ attitudes into pro- and anti-school camps. (pg. 348)
  • At the primary level, the research suggests that children in unstreamed classes have healthier and more positive attitudes towards school than children in streamed classes and that this is particularly true for those in lower ability. (pg. 348)
  • There is clear evidence that low ability groups tend to include disproportionate numbers of pupils in low-socio-economic status, ethnic minorities, boys, and those born in the summer. (pg. 349)
  • School effectiveness studies have no identified pupil grouping as a key characteristic of effective schools. (pg. 349)

Meet the Expert(s)

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education