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Ability Grouping

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Ability grouping is a widely spread practice used among many educators today. Between-class grouping is by far one of the most commonly used types of ability grouping. "The goal of this grouping is for each class to be made up of students who are homogeneous in standardized intelligence or achievement test scores" (Snowman, Biehler). In this type of grouping, the schools separate their students into different classes or courses. "Between-class ability grouping is where students spend most of the day in ability groups and use the same or similar curriculum substantially adjusted to their ability levels" (Ability Grouping 3). "For example, in elementary schools, students from the same grade levels may be grouped by ability for reading and mathematics instructions" (Ability Grouping 1). The students are broken down into different achievement levels: high, middle, and low.

Although the ability-grouped students learn the same amount as those students who are in mixed ability classes, there are a number of positive and negative effects between-class ability grouping has on the students and their teachers. This type of grouping has a more positive effect on the high level students. "It is known that the top 10 to 15% of these students benefit from this grouping" (Considering Individual Differences). For those students in the middle and lower levels, there is no proven effective change in their achievement level. Because of this problem, the achievement gap between high and middle to lower level students is now wider than before.

In pertinence to certain subjects such as reading or mathematics, between-class ability grouping can produce greater achievement gains than mixed-ability groups. However, a common problem with between-class grouping is that the students in one group have little or no contact with others students outside their group. Yet another problem they are faced with is "teachers' expectations and the quality of instruction are often lower for the low-ability groups" (Considering Individual Difference). It is shown that teachers instructing one specific level educate differently from one another in the classroom. In addition, teachers who have low ability students are not as organized with their lesson plans and they often use different strategies to get their lesson across to their students. A final problem with this type of grouping is that students who are in the low ability groups begin to lower their own expectations of capability and achievement. This impacts their achievement level and in turn affects their self-esteem. Such consequences cause the students to lose interest in school, and in the long run, many of these students begin to drop out. Although there are certain benefits to between-class ability grouping, they are outweighed by the negative effects this type of grouping can produce. Ultimately, the focus should not be on how to label students, but rather, on the quality of the education the students can receive while working with peers in specific subject areas.

Regrouping is another type of ability grouping. Students of the same age, ability and grade, but from different classrooms, are brought together for a specific subject such as reading or math. According to their goals, activities, and individual needs, the students are grouped and then regrouped again. There are two common regrouping strategies: teacher-led groups and student-led groups.

Teacher-led groups are effective in introducing material, summing up the conclusion made by the groups, and meeting the common needs of the groups. These groups typically include whole class, small group, and individual instruction. Whole class instruction allows the teacher to introduce new material to the entire class. It also allows students to use their prior knowledge to form new acquisitions. "Small groups can provide opportunities for working with students who have common needs, such as reinforcement or enrichment" (Valentino, 2000, 1).

Individual instruction allows the students to enhance their own thoughts as they think about the thoughts of others. Student-led groups provide diverse thinking and encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. Students control the group dynamics and maintain a voice in setting the agenda for the group to follow. Students will usually work in groups such as collaborative groups, performance based groups, and student pairs.

Collaborative groups consist of a number of students. There is no specific number of students that are to be placed together under this type of grouping. This group will do activities such as circle sharing. What allows this type of grouping to be successful is the opportunity provided for group members to work together and share their ideas.

Performance based groups allow the students who need extra help in a specific area to work together on assignments. The students meet for a short time, during which they collaborate with each another and often instruct one another on how to perform certain academic skills. Student pairs are similar in that they allow students to work with one another, however, this type of student led grouping is much more intimate, consisting of 2 students to a group.

There are both advantages and disadvantages of regrouping. One advantage is that the groups formed under the regrouping plan are more flexible in assignments and narrower in scope than between class groups. Also, if a student is not exceeding or meeting expectations, the necessary adjustments can be easily made. Needs such as these are simpler to meet while using a regrouping strategy, than strategies such as between class ability grouping, and students often have an easier time adjusting to the change.

This being said, there are a number of disadvantages as well. One such example is the fact that the regrouping plan takes a considerable amount of time for planning. Teachers have to be very cooperative and must be in agreement with one another. Another disadvantage is that teachers and students meet with one another less frequently. "[...] Many teachers are uncomfortable working with children whom they see only once a day for an hour or so" (Snowman, 2003, p.186).

Although a derivative of the regrouping method, the Joplin Plan is perhaps the most unique of the four types of ability grouping due to its process of cross grade grouping. A variation of the regrouping method, the Joplin Plan is also known as the simplest form of ability groups. This grouping plan "assigns students to heterogeneous classes for most of the day, but regroups them across grade levels for reading instruction" (Hollifield 2000). This is in effort to group students for reading instruction on the basis of ability level, regardless of age or grade.

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