Why do we bother with ability grouping?
Policy makers have repeatedly supported the practice and many parents back it, yet research regularly tells us that ability grouping has no academic benefits and there is a severe negative impact for students in the lowest groups.
Professor Rob Coe and colleagues at Durham University published ‘What makes great teaching?’
The research warns that many common practices can be harmful to learning and have no grounding in research including grouping students by ability. They note: “Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes” (Higgins et al, 2014).
Saiying Steenbergen-Hu et al (2017) have recently scrutinised thousands of studies and the results of almost 100 years of research on the effects of ability grouping and acceleration. They found evidence of academic benefits of within-class grouping, cross-year grouping by subject, and grouping for the gifted, but didn’t find any benefit of between-class grouping and the results were consistent regardless of whether pupils were high-, medium-, or low-achievers.
The whole-class approach of maths mastery programmes has now started to a shift in thinking about ability groups. As Pete Boyd and Andy Ash (2017) have found, setting is in tension with the beliefs of a mastery approach and teachers are beginning to move away from ability groups as it is the old-way of doing things.