Ability Grouping: Meaning, Advantages, and Disadvantages

Ability grouping refers to the grouping of students based on their academic abilities, aptitudes, and achievements. Students are sorted into groups and taught according to their varying academic abilities. sorting students into levels based on their ability or achievement in the classroom. Groups are most often categorized into high, average and low groups although this differs across educational institutions.

Ability Grouping Examples

Learning is tailored according to the similar learning style and abilities of each group and although this aid can help students who are falling behind to grasp a concept more easily and for stimulate the intellect of academically gifted students and encourage their talents; ability grouping comes with a wide variety of advantages and disadvantages.


  1. Allows for a custom pace: Educators can customize the pace of teaching students of similar academic abilities. This also omits the chances of some students having to wait or rush through a concept. Students need not wait for their peers to catch up and can move on to more complex concepts and more advanced levels and other students need not force themselves to rush through a concept when they might be falling behind, instead taking their time and making use of the extra guidance.
  2. Allows for custom instruction: Ability grouping gives educators the opportunity to tailor the method of instruction as well as the content of the curriculum for grouped students. This can help each group improve their academic achievement as this caters to the learning styles and level of each group.
  3. Teachers can offer help to those who need it: Grouping based on academic achievement can allow teachers to pay more attention to and offer guidance to students that are yet to grasp a particular concept and give them the aid they need to move forward.
  4. Smaller Class sizes: smaller groups are more interactive helping students focus and understand concepts better as opposed to larger more homogenous random groups wherein they might simply drift off when the class turns into a lecture as a consequence of its size. Students will also have the opportunity to ask doubts and have them cleared immediately, something that might not be possible in larger classes where everyone’s understanding of a concept lies at different levels.

Also Read: Educational Psychology

Disadvantages of ability grouping

  1. Discriminatory: Ability grouping is dangerous in the context of the space it creates for educators to discriminate against black, brown and economically disadvantaged students who may fall behind academically for a variety of socio-economic reasons. Established groups such as the NAACP and others have condemned ability grouping for disproportionately affecting minority students into ‘average’ or ‘low’ groups where they may be subject to inadequate instruction and other prejudices.
  2. Subjective criteria for grouping: The basis of grouping is often subjective criteria that needs to be constantly re-evaluated. Students are grouped based on grades, test scores and perceived academic ability which may cause several individuals to be placed in groups that they do not belong in. For example a student who is intelligent and can produced quality work may be grouped in a lower group if they have low test scores as a result of their minimal effort to memorize literature for an exam of for other reasons. Author Anne Wheelock’s research on ability grouping corroborates this statement for it reports that placement into ability groups is often based on a subjective view of intelligence (Sosnowski 2016).
  3. Labels: Grouping students together often prompts them to categorize themselves as belonging to a particular level of academic ability. This also extends to teachers who may associate their students with the group they belong to instead of their actual aptitudes and capabilities. Labels such as ‘slow’ or ‘quick’ learners tend to permanently exist in the minds of teachers and students and can negatively impact those belonging to the average or low ability groups. The aforementioned work of Anne Wheelock also reported that ability grouping led students to self-label their own ability and also increase or decrease a teacher’s expectations of students based on their respective groups. Students from higher groups may also adopt divisive and hurtful labels to those in other groups.
  4. Stagnation in spite of growth: Re-evaluating students regularly and regrouping them is a time-consuming task that educators often forego. Anne Wheelock’s research also found that once students enter an ability group, they are likely to remain in that ability group for the duration of their academic career. In spite of academic growth and improvements, students stagnate at this level and are taught with incompatible teaching methods and instruction.
  5. Self-esteem & other personal issues: Being grouped at a lower level may have significant negative impacts on the self-esteem and self-worth of students who may not show any improvements as a consequence of them thinking that an average score is all that they are capable of. Students may also compare themselves to friends at higher levels and suffer the mental consequences of this mentality.
  6. Additional Work for Teachers: The task of efficiently employing the tool of ability grouping is an added pressure on teachers who must evaluate, re-evaluate, group, re-group and customize instruction for all students. Teachers who do not have the time to teach several groups of kids let alone plan for the sessions, may end up foregoing the task of re-evaluating and re-grouping students according to improvements etc. This could cause long-lasting damage to students and the teachers who have to cater to their needs.


The practice of ability grouping in the United States rose in the late 1800s and rose slowly until the late 1980’s when powerful coalitions such as the NAACP and the National Governors Association condemned the use of ability grouping for its tendency to allow teachers to harbour race and class-based prejudices and discriminate against black, brown and poorer students. After dropping to an all-time low of 28% in 1998, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that the use of ability grouping in fourth-grade reading instruction rose to 71% in 2009. The resurgence of this practice and the risks that come along with it prompts several questions about how educators can ensure that the pros outweigh the cons and that potential risks are minimized as much as possible.


Loveless, Tom. “Ability Grouping, Tracking, and How Schools Work.” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016, www.brookings.edu/research/ability-grouping-tracking-and-how-schools-work/.

Sosnowski, Jana. “The Pros & Cons of Ability Grouping in Elementary Schools.” Education, 29 Sept. 2016, education.seattlepi.com/pros-cons-ability-grouping-elementary-schools-2950.html#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20National  

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Shivanka Gautam is a student at FLAME University, studying Psychology and Literary & Cultural studies. She has a passion for Critical theory, Cultural Affairs, Political Philosophy and Academia.