Can Ability Grouping in School Help Your Child?

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Ability grouping is the practice of placing students of similar academic ability level within the same group for instruction as opposed to placement on age and grade level. Ability grouping can be implemented in regular and special education classrooms. Groups are typically small, consisting of ten or fewer students.

Ability groups may be formed in regular classrooms or in special education resource rooms.

How Are Students Assigned to Ability Groups?

Students are usually assigned to groups based on a review of a variety of performance data such as their grades in a subject, results on standardized testing, and performance in class. Once placed, students can move into higher level groups if their skill levels increase. Students may also move into lower skill level groups should the need for more intensive remedial instruction arise.

What Type of Instruction Happens in an Ability Group?

Instruction and concepts taught in groups will vary depending on the curriculum being taught at the students' grade level. Teachers will usually begin groups at a level that students are comfortable with. The level of difficulty increases as students, as a group, demonstrate increasing proficiency in the subject matter being taught. Some individual instruction may also occur.

While teachers strive to ensure that students in remedial groups receive the same content as their peers, ability group instruction may be delivered at a slower pace. There may be fewer assignments to allow the group to focus on specific areas of need. In lower level groups, teachers will typically analyze individual student errors and develop specific strategies to correct those errors.

Positive Aspects of Ability Grouping

Typically, students in smaller groups will receive more individual attention than they would in a large classroom setting. With each student working on similar skill levels, individual students may feel less intimidated about participating in the discussion and sharing their work with others in the group. Teachers can target instruction to the needs of the smaller group rather than attempting to meet the much broader range of needs of a full-sized classroom at once.

Potential Negative Aspects of Ability Grouping

Ability grouping can be controversial because:

  • Some educators believe ability grouping places students on a track they can never change;
  • Time spent in groups is time spent away from the regular classroom instruction, which can cause kids to fall further behind and reduce the possibility they will be able to return to mainstream instruction.
  • With all children in the group performing at a lower level, there are no opportunities for students to learn from others with higher skill levels.

Ability Grouping for Students With Learning Disabilities?

When considering ability grouping for your child:

  • Ensure that your child's IEP team has current assessment data from more than one measure showing exactly where your child is performing on specific skills the group would work on.
  • If possible, consider standardized testing, classroom work samples, observations, and progress data.
  • Ask how progress will be measured in the small group.
  • Discuss with the team what benchmarks your child must meet before moving back into a regular classroom or into a higher group.
  • Ask the teacher leading the group to share regular progress notes with you on how your child is progressing.
  • Keep communication going with your child's teacher. If you have concerns about his progress or how the group work is going, talk with his teacher. If at any point you feel the group is not meeting his needs, request an IEP team meeting to discuss how you can support your child at home or what could be done differently at school to provide more assistance.
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