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Research Findings on Ability Grouping and Acceleration

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “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” by Saiying Steenbergen-Hu, Matthew Makel, and Paula Olszewski-Kubilius in Review of Educational Research, December 2016 (Vol. 86, #4, p.849-899),; Saiying Steenbergen-Hu can be reached at
“Ability grouping has been one of the most controversial educational practices for more than a century,” say Saiying Steenbergen-Hu and Paula Olszewski-Kubilius (Northwestern University) and Matthew Makel (Duke University) in this Review of Educational Research article.
“The practical implications of ability grouping are profound. Ability grouping policies and practices affect students’ experiences in school, including the courses they take, the curricula they receive, the peers with whom they learn, and the teachers who provide instruction.”
In this article, the authors summarize 100 years of research on the effect of acceleration and four kinds of ability grouping on student achievement. Their conclusions:
• Within-class grouping (teachers differentiating instruction among several small groups) had moderately positive effects.
• Cross-grade grouping (students from different grade levels brought together to learn a particular subject or unit—e.g., the Joplin Plan for reading) had small-to-moderate benefits.
• These two forms of grouping benefited students with high, medium, and low achievement.
• Special grouping for gifted students (pullout or honors programs) was very helpful for those students.
• Between-class grouping showed only small benefits for students, but the authors believe previous studies underestimated its positive potential. (They note the vigorous critique of this kind of grouping, focused on negative effects for students in the lower achievement groups.)
• Acceleration (students skipping a grade or taking courses at a younger age than their peers) was the most beneficial of all.
“If such a long history of research shows the effectiveness of most types of ability grouping and acceleration,” conclude Steenbergen-Hu, Makel, and Olszewski-Kubilius, “the question of why it is not more universally implemented looms large for educators, parents, and policy makers. Such questions are apt, especially given how eager we are as a society to find educational interventions that are effective and can be implemented on a large scale for relatively low costs.”

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