Can Ability Grouping in School Help Your Child?

Students in Chemistry Class Doing an Experiment

Cavan Images / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Ability grouping is the practice of placing students of similar academic ability in the same class group as opposed to placement based on age and grade level. It can be implemented in regular and special education classrooms. The groups are typically small, consisting of 10 or fewer students.

How Are Students Assigned to Ability Groups?

Students are usually assigned to groups based on a review of data such as their grades, results on standardized testing, and performance in class.

Once placed, students can be moved into higher level groups if their skill levels increase. Students can 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

Students and educators can benefit from ability grouping. Some of the potential positive effects of ability grouping include:

  • Students in smaller groups may receive more individual attention than they would in a large classroom setting.
  • When all students are 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 a smaller group rather than attempting to meet a broader range of needs for all students in a full-sized classroom.

Potential Negative Aspects of Ability Grouping

Ability grouping can be controversial. Some of the potential downsides of ability grouping include:

  • It may place students on a track they can never change.
  • The time spent in groups is time spent away from the regular classroom instruction, which may cause kids to fall behind, as well as reduce the possibility that they will be able to return to mainstream instruction.
  • If all children in the group performing at a lower level, there are no opportunities for students to learn from those at higher skill levels.

Ability Grouping for Students With Learning Disabilities

If you are considering an education for your child that uses ability grouping, here are a few things you'll want to keep in mind throughout the discussion.

  • 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 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 that demonstrate how your child is progressing.
  • Keep communication going with your child's teacher and IEP team. Reach out if you have concerns about their progress or how the group work is going.

If at any point you feel the group your child has been placed in is not meeting their 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 address the gaps.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Webb-Williams JL. Teachers' use of within-class ability groups in the primary classroom: A mixed methods study of social comparison. Front psychol. 2021. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.728104

  2. Scholastic. Hot topic: Does ability grouping help or hurt?.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.