Ability grouping and acceleration can help teachers and school leaders

Saiying Steenbergen-Hu, Matthew Makel, and Paula Olszewski-Kubilius

Education is not an easy profession. According to the “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher,” teachers and school administrators view managing resources and addressing individual student needs as the biggest challenges in their jobs. For example, 43 percent teachers reported in the 2008 survey that they could not effectively teach because their students’ learning abilities had become so varied. In the 2009 survey, 86 percent of principals and 77 percent of teachers reported that addressing the individual needs of diverse learners could have a major impact on improving student achievement.

What can educators do?

The above problems do not exist because we do not know how to help students with different learning needs learn. Concerned teachers and school leaders can find guidance from a recent study we published in the Review of Educational Research, “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-Analysis.” Our review of published research results found that most forms of ability grouping and academic acceleration succeed in addressing the needs of advanced learners without harming (and even helping) learning in other students.

Effective ability grouping involves placing students into groups based on their demonstrated performance instead of their age and can be accomplished in several different ways. Schools can separate students into high-, average-, and low-achieving groups within their classes; place students into small groups across different grade levels; or place students into a gifted and talented program.

Academic acceleration allows access to educational opportunities earlier than typical (such as early entrance to kindergarten) or at a faster pace than normal (such as collapsing two years of math into one year). Some common forms of acceleration include grade skipping, early admission into kindergarten or college, curriculum compacting, dual enrollment, and early graduation. Results suggested that students who accelerated their learning outperformed their non-accelerated peers of the same age and performed just as well as older students (who had become their classmates) who were not accelerated.

A recent review of state accountability policies in the U.S. showed that only five states track high achieving students as a specific subgroup. Only four states use student growth for at least half the summative rating given to schools, whereas seven states and Washington, D.C., do not use growth at all. If gifted students are not offered learning opportunities that match their actual learning needs, billions of dollars might be wasted on teaching them what they already know, stagnating their intellectual growth. Some estimates suggest that 20–49 percent of elementary and middle school students perform at least one grade level above their current grade in reading, with 14–37 percent scoring at least one grade level above in math. However, if state accountability systems do not use assessments that measure growth for students already beyond grade proficiency, whether such students learn anything will not be recorded. Unnecessarily wasting opportunities to help gifted students learn new material at a pace matching their ability, will mean continuing frustration for their teachers and other educators.

Saiying Steenbergen-Hu is the Research Director of the Center for Talent Development and a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University; Matthew Makel is the Director of Research at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, where he is also the editor of the program’s Research Digest; and Paula Olszewski-Kubilius is the Director of the Center for Talent Development and a Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.