Marginalising Students by Ability Grouping: Elitist, Ableist, Unfair and Contra-Inclusive Education

By Catia Malaquias

Around Australia primary schools will now have undertaken student “streaming assessments” for the commencement of the school year.

“Ability streaming”, “ability tracking” or “ability setting” refers to the practice of dividing students, within and often across classrooms, into groups (i.e. to streams or sets) based on similar levels of achievement or, more accurately, perceived ability; the assumption is that, by breaking year groups of students into “streams” or “sets”, the narrower range of achievement in the group will allow teaching to be more efficient or “targeted”.

Streaming is not confined to the older year groups and commonly applies from Year 1. It is relatively cost neutral to schools – particularly if there are multiple classrooms (and accordingly multiple teachers and education assistants) across a year group – which is currently common given the higher than average birth and migration rates in the last 10-15 years.

However, although costing and resourcing of streaming may be subtle, there is nothing subtle in the allocation and subsequent teaching process.  Even Year 1 students recognise that they are being grouped according to “how smart they are”.

This is evident at the dining table.  Across Australia, some children will proudly exclaim:

I’m in the top maths group!” or “I’m in the highest reading group!

Other children, prompted by their parents or seeking to claw back some attention from their “smart” sibling, will frankly report:

I did well too.  But I am not in the top group.

While many other children will volunteer nothing, or their parents, sensitive to their child’s self-esteem, will elect not to ask.

What the dining table efficiently reveals – extensive research supports. Streaming and setting at best benefits high attaining students but is detrimental academically and socio-emotionally to mid-range and particularly lower attaining students:

“Low attaining learners who are set or streamed fall behind by 1 or 2 months per year, on average, when compared with the progress of similar students in classes with mixed ability groups.  It appears likely that routine regrouping or streaming arrangements undermine low attainers’ confidence and discourage the belief that achievement can be approved through effort.  Research also suggests that ability grouping can have a longer term negative effect on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining students.

An Australian study that examined the effect of streaming for primary students in New South Wales found a zero to negative effect on student outcomes.” (See “Evidence for Learning – Setting or Streaming”)

So why is ability streaming or setting ineffective at improving academic results across the year group?  The reasons are not surprising:

  • Streaming or grouping in itself sets the expectations of both students and teachers for the relevant group. Students default to equating their potential with the level of the group and teachers default to teaching to the level of the group.  Maintaining a “high expectations culture” for all students is the casualty – and particularly for students in lower ability groups.
  • Once students are “grouped” there is a greater risk of teachers teaching to the “middle” of their “homogenised” group rather than to the individuals in their group. This can result in further problems – in making teaching easier it allows “lazy” teaching to develop, which in turn can result in de-skilling over time.
  • Many schools assign their least-qualified and least-effective teachers or even just education assistants to lower ability groups – rather than their most experienced and effective teachers. Again, this is driven by a culture of low expectations for lower ability groups.
  • There is reduced potential to learn from peers with ability grouping – particularly in lower groups – the homogenity of student ability level undermines the opportunity for the valuable learning and social dynamic of inter-student learning or “peer tutoring” – brighter students reinforcing their own understanding of concepts by helping other students grasp those same concepts (i.e. you have to understand the concept yourself in order to help explain it to another student).
  • Classifying assessments of “ability” may be inaccurate, affected by short-term factors and impacted by the assessor’s implicit prejudice and bias.
  • Once a student is allocated to a particular ability group, they are likely to remain in that grouping notwithstanding their objective performance (i.e. groups are vertically stagnant). The reality is “demoting” a student is suggestive to parents of deficient teaching and accordingly places are unlikely to become available in a higher group for a student deserving of “promotion” – the result being that effort is not often rewarded by promotion.

But the most significant criticism of ability streaming or setting is that it is socially inequitable it is inherently unfairin the words of Professor John Hattie:

“… tracking has close to zero effect size – in many ways that means it does not matter if you track or don’t track …

… but the biggest problem with tracking, by a million miles, is the equity issue … there is a high probability of … [students from certain ethnic and socio-economic minorities] being in lower tracked groups – how can you possibly defend that apartheid in our schools … “. (Watch youtube video)

Research in England recently released by the UCL Institute of Education finds that “setting” by ability is “incompatible with social justice” as it entrenches the dominance of the middle classes by acting as a “technology for assuring and justifying class privilege”.  The research calls for more weight to be given to those who are disadvantaged by the practice.

The dominance given to the vantage of higher ability grouped students is also common to Australia.  An Australian research summary prepared in 2016 by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education ends with following sentence:

“The vast majority of the literature on streaming within Australia focuses on mathematics and top-performing students, and often misses its negative effects on lower performing students and minority groups.”

Implications of streaming and setting for students with intellectual disability and learning difficulties and Inclusive Education

Inevitably, students with intellectual disability and learning difficulties enrolled in mainstream schools will find themselves in the lowest ability groups.

The optics and substance of “ability grouping” for these students may well, depending on the degree of streaming, be largely indistinguishable from segregated “special classes” – the provision of separate “special education” within a mainstream school building.  In essence, their enrolment in a mainstream setting does not, as a matter of substance, avoid the practical outcomes of overtly segregating “special” schools. Ability grouping undermines a number of important benefits of receiving a genuinely inclusive education – the right of all students, including students with disability, to learn together with and amongst their same age peers. In particular ability grouping, as applied to students with learning difficulties, presents numerous limitations, including:

  • It undermines a key structural benefit of inclusive education – the likelihood of the application of higher expectations “by association” to students with learning difficulties when taught in diverse ability classrooms.
  • The reduced range in ability levels within lower groups substantially reduces the potential for students with learning difficulties to experience “peer tutoring” and generally the capacity to learn from one’s classroom peers as well as from formal teaching instruction.
  • It significantly reduces the scope to learn with, and therefore to communicate and socialise with, the broader year group, the breadth of which is more reflective of their future community. In essence, relationships in the classroom are naturally more likely to extend into the playground, so reducing the range of exposure of students to diverse-ability peers in class, is likely to reduce the potential for and range of relationships in the playground.

At the heart of the ability grouping practice is a deliberate process of intra-year group subdivision – in essence, it is an exercise in segregation based on perceptions of ability – or in the words of Professor Hattie – it is apartheid in our schools.

By definition, ability grouping runs counter to inclusive education and the concepts of academic and social inclusion within the education system.  In its application to students with disability and learning difficulties, as well as other students liable to be allocated to the lower ability groups, it infringes their right to receive a genuinely inclusive education, whilst its application on the research evidence is both academically and socially harmful in the short-term, and socially and economically harmful in the long-term.

Ability grouping is not inclusive practice and it is a clear form of discrimination in itself – in its application it may be barely more inclusive than special schools, education support units or support classrooms for students with disability or learning difficulties.

Australia and a number of its States are currently reviewing the quality of their education systems and processes in light of Australia’s lack of improvement in key educational measures, notwithstanding significant increases in education investment.  The OECD has long recognised that “[t]he highest performing education systems are those that combine equity with quality”.  While it has now been firmly established that ability grouping as a practice undermines both equity and quality – it will be interesting to see how this very questionable practice is addressed and hopefully side-lined in the pending reviews.


You can watch more here:

Professor Hattie on ability grouping

You can read more here:

Setting or streaming – Evidence for Learning

Setting or Streaming – Australian Research Summary

Is time up for ability grouping?” Doug Clarke and Barbara Clarke, Curriculum & Leadership Journal

The symbolic violence of setting: A Bourdieusian analysis of mixed methods data on secondary students’ views about setting“, Archer, L., Francis, B., Miller, S., Taylor, B., Tereshchenko, A., Mazenod, A., Pepper, D. and Travers, M.-C. (2018). Br Educ Res J, 44: 119–140. doi:10.1002/berj.3321