April 24, 2009

Ability grouping yields net learning loss

A U.S. sociologist says grouping students by ability hampers the literacy of minority students.

Christy Lleras of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign calls the practice of grouping according to perceived academic ability a net-loss for minority students.

The assumption behind ability grouping was a rising tide lifts all boats but Lleras and colleagues found higher-grouped African-American students did not look that much different than non-grouped students in terms of their reading gains while the lower-grouped African-American students lost a great deal over time.

Ability grouping turns out to be a double-whammy, Lleras said in a statement. The costs are larger than the benefits because not only do the lower-grouped students not learn as much, there were no significant differences between the higher-grouped students and the non-grouped students.

Lleras also questions the premise students learn better with instructional material adjusted to their reading level. In non-grouped classrooms where all students study the same materials, results were more equitable.

Although the pace at which they work may vary, there isn't a two-tier system of materials or expectations, Lleras said. If you set a high bar for students and you back it up with instructional quality, students learn. If the materials and expectations are lower, then that's what you'll get.