Ability grouping—defined as the practice of dividing classes, schools, or even districts into smaller groups according to students’ needs and readiness—is a contentious concept in education. When used poorly, ability grouping has the potential to harm traditionally marginalized or underrepresented groups, and it can stoke feelings of resentment or lead to accusations of elitism. However, proponents of gifted education universally agree that some level of differentiated instruction is necessary if gifted students are to reach their potential, and ability grouping is one way to ensure appropriate differentiation.
Most gifted students spend most of their school time in general education classrooms, where opportunities for acceleration or enrichment activities are few and far between. Given the priorities of regular education teachers, combined with a lack of training and resources to adequately address the needs of the gifted, it would be appropriate for schools to consider adding ability grouping to their services for gifted students.
Differences between ability grouping and tracking
Ability grouping and tracking are two slightly different, albeit related, terms that are often conflated. Ability grouping can be achieved either on a very small scale, such as when reading groups in a single classroom are created based on student readiness, or on a much larger scale, as is the case with magnet schools or special schools for the gifted. Ability grouping is often based on students’ performance in a single subject (such as math or reading) and the composition of the groups can change regularly based on careful assessments of students’ growth.
Tracking, on the other hand, became prevalent at the turn of the 20th century as a method of separating future white-collar workers from future manual laborers. Students who displayed above average aptitude were placed in more rigorous academic tracks, while students with lower performances were given a vocational education. Once a student was on a given track, there was little chance of movement. Additionally, track designations were often based on teachers’ perceptions or biases rather than thoughtful assessments, meaning that students who were minorities, English Language Learners, or had learning disabilities or behavioral problems were typically assigned to the lower tracks. This kind of restrictive tracking is still used in some American schools and districts, contributing to the dearth of underrepresented groups in gifted education programs.
While both ability grouping and tracking create smaller groups of students, the differences between the two practices—along with the common connotations for each term—are important. Ability grouping, with its flexibility and use of careful assessments, is often seen as a positive option for gifted students while tracking, with its rigidity and class-based implications, is viewed more negatively by society at large.
Benefits of ability grouping
The benefits of ability grouping for gifted students are well-documented. Studies have found that when gifted students are ability grouped with similarly motivated and intelligent peers, they advance as much as a whole year compared to students of a similar age and intelligence. This type of intellectual growth likely occurs because grouping allows gifted students to move at a pace that is appropriate for their abilities.
Ability grouping also creates space for enrichment opportunities and other activities that encourage gifted students to pursue their passions. Additionally, studies focusing on the social-emotional needs of the gifted have found that gifted students perceive homogeneous ability grouping more positively than mixed-ability grouping with respect to academic outcomes, and most report having more positive feelings about school and about their giftedness in general when grouped with their intellectual peers. Despite accusations of elitism, the evidence is clear that ability grouping has positive academic and affective consequences on gifted students and should thus be pursued where possible.
Types of ability grouping
There are many different types of ability groups, and its important for families to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each type so as to make the best choice based on the needs of their gifted children. Below are a handful of the most commonly used types of ability groups, starting with those utilized in heterogeneous classes and moving toward full-time homogeneous grouping.
- Cluster groups: Cluster groups are a small-scale form of ability grouping that are used in mixed-ability classrooms. “Clustering” involves placing 5 to 10 gifted or high-achieving students in each regular education classroom, and then allowing this group to work together on accelerated materials, problem-solving activities, or assignments that develop higher-order thinking skills. Clustering is ideal for schools that do not have dedicated gifted education classrooms, as the teachers can more effectively differentiate their curricula, and students still gain the benefits of working with their intellectual peers.
- Enrichment clusters: Similar to cluster groups, enrichment clusters bring together smaller groups of students to work on special activities. However, rather than being comprised solely of gifted students, enrichment clusters bring together students from several grades who share a common interest, such as astronomy, creative writing, physics, specific historical eras, or journalism. Schools schedule enrichment clusters for a designated time each week, with Friday afternoons being a popular choice. Enrichment clusters are a great option for students who want to share their passion with like-minded students.
- Pullout programs: Pullout programs are a popular and often successful method of bringing gifted students together, if only for a portion of the school week. Most common in elementary schools, pullout programs take students from their regular education classrooms once or twice per week for two-to-three-hour enrichment sessions. These sessions are often guided by a district coordinator or a teacher who has special training in gifted education. When done well, pullout programs offer gifted students challenging curricula and opportunities to explore their passions. However, pullout programs are often criticized as being part-time solutions to the full-time challenges of being gifted, and students who participate in pullout programs are sometimes required to make up the work they miss in their regular education classrooms.
- School within a school (SWAS): This form of ability grouping blends homogeneous classes with mixed-ability classes and requires careful organization at a schoolwide level. SWAS programs draw gifted students from around the district and places them in a school that also accommodates regular education students. Gifted students spend the majority of their day in accelerated classes that are appropriate for their abilities, but they mix with the rest of the school population for whole school activities and nonacademic subjects such as PE, music, and art. SWAS programs are used primarily in elementary and middle schools, and students within these programs reap the benefits of both homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping.
- Magnet schools: While magnet schools are not designed specifically for gifted students, they are an excellent option for motivated students who are passionate about a certain field. Magnet schools offer specialized training in a variety of fields, including the arts, mathematics, technology, and certain vocations. Magnet schools draw motivated students from across the district and will often offer career counseling and placement in internships. Students who are intellectually gifted may want to consider magnets that focus on academic subjects. However, even magnets that focus on vocations might offer acceleration options for gifted students.
- Special schools for the gifted: The most exclusive, and therefore most controversial, method of ability grouping is gathering gifted students together in special schools that are designed specifically to meet their academic and social-emotional needs. These schools offer accelerated or enriched education on a full-time basis, and they are staffed with educators who understand the specific needs of gifted students. Most schools for gifted students have strict entrance requirements, usually based on IQ scores or performance on other standardized achievement tests. The high barriers for entry often leave out traditionally underrepresented groups, although this can be remedied in larger cities where the entry requirements can be based on the performance of students within a single neighborhood or district. Students enrolled in these full-time schools for the gifted report more positive feelings about school and stronger social connections with their peers, making them an excellent choice for families who have access to them.
The Davidson Academy – A Public School for Gifted Students
In 2006, the Davidson Academy’s Reno campus opened as the first free public school of its kind for profoundly gifted middle and high school students. Unlike traditional school settings, the Academy’s classes group students by ability rather than age. In 2016, a fully accredited online campus was added to the Davidson Academy’s offerings for the 2017-2018 academic year. At the Davidson Academy, both options are centered on a rigorous academic environment where students thrive among their intellectual peers.
While ability grouping is not without its challenges, it can be an effective solution for gifted students who are not having their needs met in their regular education classrooms. Ability grouping improves academic achievement, increases student motivation, and helps students to establish social connections with their intellectual peers. Families who are interested in learning more about ability grouping should contract their district’s gifted coordinator to ensure that they understand the options that are available to them.
- Gifted Education and Support Options (Davidson Institute)
- An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT)
- Twelve Cost Effective Educational Options for Serving Gifted Students (Davidson Gifted Blog)
- Basic educational options for gifted students in schools (Davidson Gifted Blog)
- Can Ability Grouping in School Help Your Child? (Verywell Family)