Ability Grouping and Tracking in Schools: Advantages and Disadvantages

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  • 0:05 Sorting Students
  • 1:05 Ability Grouping
  • 2:23 Tracking
  • 4:04 Advantages of Tracking
  • 5:33 Disadvantages of Tracking
  • 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Valerie Houghton, Ph.D.

Valerie holds a Ph.D. in Health Psychology.

In this lesson we will discuss within class grouping and between class grouping. In addition, we will review the pros and cons of between class grouping, also known as tracking.

Sorting Students

The use of ability grouping in schools is a highly-debated, controversial issue because it is unclear whether ability grouping helps or harms student achievement. Although the name 'ability grouping' is applied to both within class grouping and between class grouping (also known as tracking), the two types of groups are not synonymous. For the sake of clarity, within class grouping will be referred to simply as ability grouping, and between class grouping will be referred to as tracking.

The most significant difference between ability groups and tracking is that an assignment to an ability group can be changed and is usually not recorded into the student's transcripts. However, tracking enrolls a student into a sequence of curriculum, which is not easily changed and is recorded into their transcripts. In this lesson, we will discuss ability groups and tracking. In addition, we will review the pros and cons of tracking students.

Ability Grouping

Ability grouping is where students are placed into small groups within a single classroom based upon their performance level.

Ability grouping is based upon the subject matter, and the groups can be changed from one year to the next. For example, in second grade, a student was in the average math ability group and the advanced reading group. The following year, in third grade, this same student was in above-average math ability group and an average reading group.

Although ability grouping can be used for all subjects, reading and math seem to be the subjects for which teachers typically use ability grouping the most. For example, during reading time, students of advanced reading ability are grouped together and are given a challenging reading assignment, students of average reading ability are grouped together and are given a less challenging reading assignment, and students of below-average reading ability are grouped together and are given an even less challenging reading assignment.

During the math lesson, for example, a teacher places students who need to review the basic concepts before proceeding into one group, places students who understand the concept into another group, and finally, places students who need a more challenging assignment into a third group.

A possible track for an above average student
Sample Above Average Track


Tracking is segregating students into different classrooms based upon their academic ability.

Tracking began around the turn of the 20th century in the United States as a way to prepare students to be part of the work force. Students with above-average academic aptitude were given a rigorous education with the goal of training these students to be the white collar labor of the workforce. A white collar laborer does not do manual labor and is typically in a managerial position, such as a supervisor of a factory.

On the other hand, the students with lower academic abilities were given a vocational education with the goal of training these students to be the blue collar labor of the workforce. A blue collar labor person typically does manual labor, such as a factory worker. Tracking is still used in schools today; however, its primary goal is to give all students the opportunity to excel academically.

Tracking usually starts in elementary school as students are classified as above average, average, or below average. Typically, once a student is on a particular track, they stay on that track, and they take the course sequences that are prescribed for that track. For example, during elementary school, a child excels academically and is placed on the above-average track, which means that they take more challenging classes than students on the average or below-average track. In middle school, they continue to take advanced classes, which are also the prerequisites for the advanced classes in high school. Once in high school, they take advanced, honors, and advanced placement classes.

Advantages of Tracking

There are many parents and teachers alike who believe that students benefit from being grouped together based upon ability. Proponents of tracking claim that there are three main advantages.

The first advantage of tracking is that students of advanced ability are not held back from learning as much and as quickly as possible.

If advanced students are not grouped together and are in a heterogeneous classroom, they will have to wait for their classmates to understand a concept before they are able to move on. Proponents of tracking claim that this slower pace may stunt the academic growth of the advanced student.

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