Academic Readiness and Ability Grouping

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1. Intro: Academic Readiness

When I first came to my current district I was introduced to the term, “academic readiness.” At first it seemed like a great philosophy and a major part of the district approach to personalized learning. The idea is to assign students to teachers and classes (K-8) based on their current academic readiness. The question is then, what determines academic readiness? Academic readiness in the Johnson Creek School District is determined by triangulating three different student data points. By using multiple sources of data, the homogeneity of groups can be reduced .

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The first piece of data that is analyzed is the student’s MAP scores. The MAP Test is an adaptive test that students take on a computer. Questions are randomly given to students based on the success or failure of the previous question. This helps then identify more accurately where each individual student is currently performing in specific subjects/ standards. As students continue to move through our district this is also looked at as progression over time vs. their latest score. Students in the Johnson Creek School District take the MAPS Test three times per year (Fall, Winter, & Spring). The second piece of data is the student’s latest Forward (Wisconsin’s Standard Exam) exam score.

 The Forward Exam is given to students in grades 3-8 (10th grade takes the social studies portion) between the middle of March and early May. The final piece of data is collected from the teachers’ assessments and the student’s proficiency profile (SPP). The SPP is a graphical and text reporting tool on the level of proficiency students have shown in the course and grade standards. The SPP also functions as the student “report card” and used to communicate with parents. The director of teaching and learning along with the teachers then begin the process of placing students into sections based on this information regardless of age . The use of standardized assessments and subjective teacher input is consistent with other research on the topic of how schools determine to group students into particular ability levels .

As a result, a student in the elementary could be placed into a fourth-grade math block but would have been in second grade if they were placed according to age. The same could be said for a thirteen-year-old eighth grade student that is placed in a Historical Literacy block that is working on sixth grade standards. This in theory sounds legit. Meet students at their current level to avoid confusion, frustration, and poor behavior. In an attempt to help all students does academic readiness grouping lead to the exact opposite and harm our students?

At first, I thought that this was a forward-thinking idea, but after a few years in the district have started to believe that this is ability grouping masked under a different title. Over the years it has somehow connected itself to be a function of “personalized learning” and even necessary for this style of teaching and learning to occur. One cavoite of academic readiness grouping is that students can move freely between sections as they improve or develop gaps. The problem is that I have not seen this happening on a regular basis and most students do not change their current levels at an increased pace. In my study I will be following a cohort of students on their path through our district to determine exactly how often this transition occurs. Students that are grouped in primary grades typically graduate from high school in general or vocational programs, demonstrating that the movement between levels is stagnant .

2. Effects of Ability Grouping

Critics of ability grouping point to the inequities that are created intentionally or by accident when determining groups . Too often when schools decide to group students based on ability the lower level student groups are over represented by minority and low SES students . This also brings into question the lawfulness of using ability to place students in specific groups. The problem is the lower groups have not shown evidence of closing the achievement gap. In fact, some studies have determined that the curriculum, expectations, and teacher quality are not equal between high- and low-level groups.

 Brown v. Board of Education determined that “separate-but-equal” was not equal. Could schools that are using academic ability to group students be at risk of a law suit? To date the only successful challenges in court have been in cases where racial inequities have been determined based on the grouping (Oakes, 1983). This may be due to research describing situations where the higher-level group has also dropped in their achievement scores. To add even more uncertainty on the issue of achievement in ability groups other studies have challenged that the group students are assigned to has little to do with the level of success students obtain. They have found that the controlling factor in these cases is the teacher’s perception of the ability of their classes (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). Research also suggests that achievement gaps could be closed within ability group models if instructional content and instructional discourse were improved in the middle and lower tracked courses .

3. Students’ Experiences

How many times in education do we consider how the student feels about educational policies that shape their entire academic experience? It is typically the adults that make all the decisions with no input from the students that are living through it. In my case students do not have a voice in what group they are in and to some extent neither do their parents. As a district it has been sold to the parents that their child’s group has been determined through objective data and it is in the best interest of the student to meet them at their academic readiness. To date no parents of challenged the system. Studies that have examined the student perspectives in terms of ability grouping have mainly done so to create a pro or anti view of school from the student perspective . Little attention has been paid to the effects on subject understanding as a result of the student’s feelings (Boaler, Wiliam, & Brown, 2000). Boaler (1997) discovered that nearly one-third of the highest ability grouped students suffered from their placement because the expectations were too high, and the pace was to fast. Students in the low tracked classes felt the exact opposite as they believed the teacher set very low expectations for them. Brining back into question if the way students are grouped determines their success or the perceived ability of the students by the teacher and his/ her level of expectations as a result of those presumptions. Self-esteem is also lowest among students in the lower-track (Oakes, 1983). The low expectations and low self-esteem have supported findings that students in lower tracks have had frustrating effects on their college plans, more so than the intellect and grades (Oakes, 1983).

4. Perceptions and Attitudes of Parents

Parents can control a lot of what goes on in a district. Often a few parents will serve as board members on the community’s school board. This allows for direct influence over the administration and policy setting within a district. As a result, their influence can shape many aspects of what a school district decides to do in terms of curriculum, policy, programs, etc. As a parent you want what is best for your kid in every situation. In school if that means placing them into a high achieving math class where their intellect will be pushed, and they will be surrounded by other students just like them, most would not argue the placement. In these types of circumstances, parents of students grouped in the high-level track support the use of ability grouping because they believe it is in the best interest of their child (Ansalone & Biafora, 2010). 

Ansalone and Biafora (2010) asked parents if the practice of ability grouping should be stopped and an overwhelming majority (81.6%) of the responses disagreed or strongly disagreed with this idea. Even though parents who were in lower tracked groups themselves reported this experience had a lasting negative consequence to their life (Ansalone & Biafora, 2010). Proponents of ability grouping assert that this allows for efficient student learning (Ellison & Hallinan, 2004). In fact, parents in Ansalone and Biafora’s (2010) study believe that ability grouping is beneficial to their student no matter what group they were placed in.

The two guiding questions explored here were:

1) Do you believe your child has been helped or hindered by ability grouping;

2) Do you as a parent prefer classroom environments where your child is are placed with peers of equal ability or mixed ability? 

The data demonstrate, unequivocally, that parents in this study view ability grouping for their child in a positive light regardless of track level placement. When asked whether tracking has helped or hindered, 81% of the parents with children placed in special education classes report tracking has been “helpful.” An even higher percentage (90.3%) of parents with children in remedial coursework stated such a placement has been helpful. And, nearly all (98.6%) of the parents whose children were placed in gifted/ honors/ talented programs responded “helpful” .

5. Why Schools Group by Ability

Schools from across the country and world have gone back and forth over the decades regarding ability grouping in their schools. In 1950 almost, every school in the UK was ability grouped, stemming from the idea that students had fixed levels of ability . Public schools in the United States have been ability grouping for much of the twentieth century. But why would schools still consider ability grouping today? Most of everything I have read suggests that ability grouping only supports the development of the high-level groups and is detrimental to the low-level groups . Strong willed parents have significant influence on what policies are created and supported within a school district. Those with economic/ political power within a district can sometimes force the direction schools take on the issue of ability grouping . As a result, the powerful elite whose students are likely to benefit from this policy have no issue with a program that may not support all students.

This then suggests that school administrators must choose between what is right for all students or playing politics within their position. Ansalone and Biafora (2010) argue that even with the knowledge of negative research findings principals chose to use the practice of tracking to deal with declining enrollments and the disparity of learners in their schools. In some states open enrollment has led some administrators and schools to offer ability grouped courses or classes just to stop the flow of high-level students to neighboring districts that may be deemed more academically rigorous or have received a better rating on the school report card .

In the early 2000’s I actually went through a graduate program centered around differentiating instruction for at-risk learners. This was a time period that loved the word “differentiate”. Professional development in districts and schools seemed to center around this word and concept. How else could we make sure all kids learned if they were all at so many different levels within one classroom? Now, the hot word/ phrase in education is, “personalized learning”. What is personalized learning? The answer to that very question is at the heart of so many current debates because many schools have developed their own version of what that means and sell it to their stakeholders as personalized learning. 

Everyone wants to personalize the learning for today’s students. In Johnson Creek we have decided to ability group to accomplish the task of personalizing the learning for all students. Why would you just differentiate? It is a lot easier for teachers if we can group them by ability before they even come into the classroom. For this reason, teachers have also been found to support ability grouping in schools . The challenge of managing a large classroom full of diverse learners is simplified when you group for ability. A teacher can now go back to the “teach to the class” method and not leave students behind and bore others in the process. Although, teachers do not believe the ability groups they are teaching benefit their students academically they find comfort in not having to manage the intensity of a large group of diverse learners (Ansalone & Biafora, 2010).


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Academic Readiness and Ability Grouping. (2021, Oct 13). Retrieved December 7, 2022 , from

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