Research Reviews

This collection of reviews is an ongoing time-consuming piece of work. I have tried to be as eclectic as possible. These reviews are however only brief summaries and cannot substitute for the entire articles.

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Ansalone (2003)

Ansalone, George (2003). Poverty, tracking, and the social construction of failure: International perspectives on tracking, Journal of Children and Poverty, 9:1, 3-20.

Several policy considerations emerge from our cross-cultural analysis (p. 17) as follows.

Tracking, streaming, and setting are pervasive in the educational structures of Great Britain and the United States. While some teachers view tracking as an efficient means of organizing instruction, cross-cultural research fails to support the belief that it improves academic achievement. Although it is well intentioned, tracking may widen the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, especially in homes that lack strong parental support for education.

Tracking and streaming often segregate students according to class and race. This separation limits learning and future career trajectories and may serve to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Educators attempting to de-track schools confront not only the initial problems of rearranging instructional grouping but also the deeply held attitudes of parents about intelligence and learning that are often employed to rationalize tracking. Attempts to de-track must be accompanied by creative learning environments that successfully engage students of all ability levels.

The higher achievement of some students may be associated with the degree of opportunity to learn (OTL), which is often related to position in the track structure.

Tracking can create restricted learning trajectories for disadvantaged students, especially those who lack strong parental support for education. Accordingly, tracking may become an important variable in the social construction of success or failure.

Argys, Rees, and Brewer (1996)

Argys, L., Rees, D., & Brewer, D. (1996). De-tracking America’s schools. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 15(4), 623-645.

Abstract Schools across the country are ending the practice of grouping students based on ability, in part, because of research indicating that tracking hurts low-ability students without helping students of other ability levels. Using a nationally representative survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, (NCES) we re-examine the impact of tracking on high school student achievement through the estimation of a standard education production function. This approach allows us to control for the possibility that track is correlated with factors such as class size and teacher education. In addition, we address the possibility that there are unobserved student or school characteristics that affect both achievement and track placement. Our results indicate that abolishing tracking in America’s schools would have a large positive impact on achievement for students currently in the lower tracks, but that this increase in achievement would come at the expense of students in upper- track classes.

Argys, Rees, & Brewer, 1996, p. 623.
Cahan, Linchevski, Ygra & Danziger 1996

Cahan, S., Linchevski, L., Ygra, N., & Danziger, l. (1996). The cumulative effect of ability grouping on mathematical achievement: a longitudinal perspective. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 22(1), 29-40.

The results of the present study, although based on a different methodology, are consistent with the most frequent finding in the literature (Alexander et al., 1978; Gamoran & Barns, 1987; Gamoran & Mare, 1989; Oakes, 1982; Sorenson & Hallinan, 1986), namely, that placement in ability groups increases the gap between students at different group levels. In other words, if students with the same pre-test scores, close to the cut-off point, were randomly placed in groups at different levels, the scholastic achievements of the students in the higher group would be greater, on the average, than those of the students placed in the next lower group. The direction of the effect was consistent across all nine schools in the sample. Moreover, ability grouping was found to have a real cumulative effect on achievement. In each of the schools investigated, the effect was greater after three years of grouping (end of ninth grade) than after one year (end of seventh grade), with a median increase of 0.5 SD. The consistency of results across the nine junior high schools studied – which constitute independent replications – supports this conclusion.

Hornby and Witt 2014

Hornby, Gary and Witt, Chrystal (2014) Ability grouping in New Zealand high schools: Are practices evidence-based?, Preventing School Failure, 58(2), 90-95.

This is a small scale review of extant policy on ability grouping in New Zealand. It comprises an interview study of 9 (of 11) of the Principals of all high schools in Christchurch. One useful feature of this article is a clear and thorough review of the literature on ability grouping.

“Earlier reviews in the United States (Slavin, 1987, 1990) and recent reviews in the United Kingdom (Duckworth et al., 2009; Kutnick et al., 2005) have concluded that the effect of between-class ability grouping on overall student attainment is extremely limited. This conclusion is supported by the results of a meta-analysis carried out by Lipsey and Wilson (1993), who investigated the effects of between-class ability grouping on children’s achievement. Their results found a small overall average effect size of .10. A similar result was recently reported by a New Zealand researcher, Hattie (2009), whose synthesis of the findings of 800 meta-analyses of interventions in the field of education yielded an effect size of .12 for the effect of ability grouping on children’s achievement, compared with an average effect size of .4 for all interventions in the field of education. This suggests that the use of between-class ability grouping has considerably less effect on overall levels of academic achievement than most educational interventions”.

Hornby and Witt 2014, p. 90

“In summarizing the results of two meta-analyses, of mainly U.S. research, that examined the effect of between-class ability grouping and mixed-ability grouping on student learning at the elementary and high school levels, Slavin (1996) made the following recommendations: (a) use mixed-ability groups for most content areas; (b) encourage learners’ identification with mixed-ability groups in order to promote acceptance of diversity; and (c) use ability grouping only when it will increase the efficacy of instruction or provide more time for instruction on specific skills (such as in learning to read or spell).”

Hornby and Witt 2014, p. 91

Results of the survey presented five main claims for ability grouping given by teachers: (a) it enabled more able students to be challenged or extended; (b) because parents wanted or liked it; (c) it enabled teachers’ strengths or interests to be optimized; (d) teachers believed that ability grouping created homogeneous groups; (e) it enabled schools to better target their use of resources. These however were not substantiated by research, and were rarely accompanied by substantiation.

Hornby and Witt ocnclude:

“It appears that grouping practices in most schools were not based on research evidence but instead on the views of those responsible for school management and governance, who are probably unaware of the extensive research literature on the topic. Thus, in contrast with the widespread practice of between-class ability grouping in these high schools, the bulk of research evidence suggests that is not an effective strategy for facilitating the optimum overall academic achievement of students”.

Hornby and Witt 2014, p. 94

There is therefore a conflict between what the research evidence provides and what many teachers believe. This is the issue that needs to be addressed.

“There is a need for teachers to be aware of the heterogeneity of students in their classes and to develop their skills in teaching classes with wide ranges of ability. That is, they need to learn the skills necessary for teaching mixed-ability groups Teacher education needs to emphasize the importance of teachers being able to select and use teaching strategies and interventions that are based on sound evidence of effectiveness and avoid those that are not evidence-based.”

Hornby and Witt 2014, p. 94
McGillicuddy and Devine 2020

*McGillicuddy, Deidre and Devine, Dympna (2020). ‘You feel ashamed that you are not in the higher group’—Children’s psychosocial response to ability grouping in primary school. British Educational Research Journal, 46(3), 553-573.

The article explores how ability grouping impacts on children’s “psychosocial response” to school, particularly in relation to how ability grouping defines what pupils do and how they feeling when learning in the classroom. It is a quantitative study undertaken in primary schools in the Republic of Ireland. it comprises a survey of 686 teachers and an in-depth case study analysis of practice in three primary schools serving the most marginalised communities in an urban area on the east coast of Ireland. In two of the three schools it was found girls and minority ethnic children were more likely to have been assigned to lower and middle ability groups. African and Traveller children were placed into the low-ability groups. This was a mixed-methods study incorporating surveys, sociometric analysis, focus group discussions, and teacher interviews (p. 557).

The article contributes to the growing literature on how the way in which we organise children in the primary school, both in terms of physical space and interactional groupings, shape children’s learning experiences. It argues that
the experience of being grouped by ability becomes embodied within children as a deeply affective response, defining both how they see themselves and others as devalued learners within the classroom. The study looks into three key areas: school grouping practices, pupil stereotyping and the effects on children’s emotional self-image and feelings of shame.

One thing that ability grouping did in the schools was to accentuate “ability-related awareness” amongst pupils particularly for the pupils placed in lower groups. Teachers tended to dismiss this as something that “didn’t really matter” (p 561). This is something which contrasted with pupil perspectives which were “you feel ashamed you are not in a higher group“. Teachers “indicated lower expectations for the students assigned to the lower-ability groups” (p. 566).

70% of Teachers in a national survey on ability grouping in Primary Schools claimed movement between ability groups was facilitated Yes this was not the pupils’ experience, and “teachers in the case study schools could not provide evidence of such movement occurring” (p. 562).

The study uncovered “contrasting emotions and psychosocial responses range from ‘upset’ and ‘shame’ when associated with the low-ability group to ‘pride’ and ‘happiness’ attributed to being considered high ability” (p. 568).

In conclusion, the authors write “Assigning children to ability groups demarcates the boundaries of academic and social space, evoking a strong psychosocial response to such value/worth-laden positioning, and mapping a geography of affect within the primary school classroom” (p. 570)


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