Study questions use of ability groups in early grades

KindergartenUse of ability groups in the early elementary grades to teach reading may widen rather than narrow the achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and other students, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Education.

“Overall, our results call into question the notion that ability grouping constitutes a beneficial practice for all students and instead suggest that the practice may exacerbate inequalities among African American and Hispanic students in the earliest years of schooling,” conclude researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K), the researchers found that African-American and Hispanic students learned less over time compared to nongrouped Hispanic and African American students if they were in low ability reading groups in their classrooms. These findings were persistent even after controlling for differences in reading proficiency levels, the researchers write.

To estimate the effects of ability group placement on reading achievement, the researchers analyzed 1st and 3rd-grade data for a national sample of about 22,000 children who were in kindergarten during the 1998-99 school year. The sample included 750 African-American children and 886 Hispanic children.

In 1st grade, African-American and Hispanic students in higher ability groups learned more only if they were in classrooms where more than 20% of students were reading below grade level. In 3rd grade, the researchers found that Hispanic students in high-ability groups had significantly better reading achievement test scores compared to nongrouped students.

The negative effects of lower group placement were much greater if students were also in low ability classrooms. “These findings indicate that being lower grouped in low ability classrooms constitutes a unique double disadvantage, particularly for students in the third grade when the predicted reading achievement gaps between lower- and higher-grouped students are the greatest,” the researchers write.

It has been estimated that at least half of the racial gaps in student achievement at the end of high school would be eliminated if early gaps were reduced, the authors point out. Ability groupings in class seem to play an important role in early reading skills and proficiency among African American and Hispanic students and may play a role in setting them on their learning trajectories.

“Ability Grouping Practices in Elementary School and African American/Hispanic Achievement,” by Christy Lleras and Claudia Rangel, American Journal of Education, Volume 115, February 2009, pp. 279-304.



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