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Ability Grouping in Mathematics: Social Inequities and Not Beneficial for Attainment

This is part 1 of a two part blog post about ability grouping in mathematics.

Unfortunately, mathematics is seen as an elusive discipline to many people around the world and, as a consequence, an epidemic of math anxiety has plagued many classrooms (Wathall, 2016)). In many parts of the world, there has been a long-standing tradition to group students by ability and this has remained common practice for core subjects such as mathematics and science. Grouping students by ability not only exacerbates the problem of math anxiety but sends a message that there are those who are “gifted” and those that are not (Boaler, 2008). Ability grouping was widely practised in the 1950s and made a resurgence in the 1990s in the UK due to governmental pressures and policies (Boaler et al., 2000). It is now common to not only group secondary students by ability, but, sadly, the practice is growing in primary education (Hallam & Parsons, 2013). Dracup (2014) reported that nearly three-quarters of UK secondary students are taught in ability classes in mathematics. Strong debate exists in the education world about whether learners truly benefit from being grouped by academic ability.

There is much controversy in math education around whether to group students by ability or have heterogeneous groupings. Math educators around the world are polarized by this issue, and there is still much debate about the best way to cater for students with different backgrounds. Academic diversity is often addressed in mathematics classrooms by grouping students by ability. Terms used that are synonymous with ability grouping include tracking, as it is referred to in the US, streaming, banding or setting. The practice of ability grouping involves separating students according to academic ability and is common practice for most secondary schools in the UK and US, but has become now more prevalent in primary schools in the United Kingdom (Hallam & Parsons, 2013). There is much evidence (Ireson & Hallam, 2001; Kutnick et al.,2005; Slavin, 1990) that suggests ability grouping in mathematics is not beneficial for attainment and many studies have found no significant effects in mathematics achievement on ability grouping. In fact, ability grouping has been found to have a negative impact on lower ability students. Boaler and Wiliam (2001) reported:

… bringing together the different research studies on ability grouping the general conclusion is that streaming has no academic benefits whatsoever, while setting confers small academic benefits on some high-attaining students, at the expense of large disadvantages for lower attainers (p. 179)

Slavin (1990) reported that lower ability groups often were exposed to a slower pace and lower quality of instruction by teachers who were less experienced. Fereday and Muir-Cochrane (2006) outlined various reasons for the negative impact of ability grouping with lower attaining students and these include: misallocation to unsuitable ability groups, lack of fluidity and movement between the groups, the quality of teaching for different groups varied greatly for lower groups, teachers had lower expectations of their students which then worked together to cause a self-fulfilling prophecy, and student’s perceptions and experiences of ability grouping negatively affected confidence levels. Higgins et al. (2015) suggested students in lower ability groups fall behind on average one to two months a year compared with the progress of a mixed ability class, widening the achievement gap significantly by high school age.

The term ability grouping has a negative connotation in that it implies a belief of innate academic potential rather than a focus on educational achievement. Dweck (2006), who developed the growth mindset theory, reported that students who were taught to believe intelligence and abilities could be developed through effort performed better than students who believed intelligence was a fix innate quality. Rigid ability grouping in mathematics sends a message to students that their ability is fixed so the term “attainment grouping” is now the preferred term. Students in lower attainment groupings often reported they are unhappy with the class placement, felt polarized amongst their peers, and develop poor self-confidence (Boaler, Wiliam, & Brown, 2000).

Perhaps the most worrying finding by Archer, Francis, Miller, Taylor and Tereshchenko (2018) is the issue of social injustice and inequity in an ability grouping environment. Analyses from their study showed that white, middle class, more privileged students tended to make up the population in top ability groups while working class, black students were more likely to make up lower ability groups. Students in the lowest ability groups expressed negative views and questioned the legitimacy and fairness of the placements. Further research has reported that ability grouping decreased student acceptance of racial diversity and discouraged positive interactions between racial groups (Seller & Weis, 1997). Grouping by ability exacerbates social injustice and produces social inequality.

In summary, the findings of studies on the advantages of ability grouping are limited. The general findings are that only a small portion of the highest attaining students benefit, but this is at the expense of attainment for the mid-range to lowest attainers. The solution is a mixed attainment environment for all students to learn through a well thought out and carefully planned differentiated curriculum that focuses on conceptual understanding. This kind of curriculum takes an investment of time, energy and effort, however in the long run all students will receive an equitable and socially just experience of learning mathematics.

References and Further Reading

Archer, L., Francis, B., Miller, S., Taylor, B., Tereshchenko, A., Mazenod, A., … Travers, M.-C. (2018). The symbolic violence of setting: A Bourdieusian analysis of mixed methods data on secondary students’ views about setting. British Educational Research Journal, 44(1), 119–140.

Boaler, J. (1997). Experiencing School Mathematics: Teaching Styles, Sex, and Setting. Buckingham ; Philadelphia: Open University Pres.

Boaler, J. (n.d.). Fluency without Fear. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from YouCubed website:

Boaler, Jo. (2008). Promoting ‘relational equity’ and high mathematics achievement through an innovative mixed‐ability approach. British Educational Research Journal, 34(2), 167–194.

Boaler, Jo. (2013). Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education. FORUM, 55(1), 143.

Boaler, Jo, Wiliam, D., & Brown, M. (2000). Students’ Experiences of Ability Grouping - disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. British Educational Research

Dracup, T. (2014). The politics of setting. Retrieved from Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.

Effect Size. (2009, July 18). Retrieved February 13, 2019, from Research Rundowns website:

Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Taylor, B., & Travers, M.-C. (2017). Exploring the relative lack of impact of research on ‘ability grouping’ in England: a discourse analytic account. Cambridge Journal of Education, 47(1), 1–17.

Higgins, S., Katsipataki, M., Coleman, R., Henderson, P., Major, L., Coe, R. & Mason, D. (2015). The Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit. - Durham Research Online. Retrieved February 4, 2019, from

Linchevski, L., & Kutscher, B. (1998). Tell Me with Whom You’re Learning, and I’ll Tell You How Much You’ve Learned: Mixed-Ability versus Same-Ability Grouping in Mathematics. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29(5), 533–554.

Setting or streaming | Toolkit Strand. (n.d.). Retrieved February 2, 2019, from

Slavin, R. E. (1990). Achievement Effects of Ability Grouping in Secondary Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis. Retrieved February 4, 2019, from

Taylor, B., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Tereshchenko, A., & Travers, M.-C. (2017). Factors deterring schools from mixed attainment teaching practice. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 25(3), 327–345.

VanderHart, P. G. (2006). Why Do Some Schools Group by Ability? Some Evidence from the NAEP. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 65(2), 435–462. Retrieved from

Venkatakrishnan, H., & Wiliam, D. (2003). Tracking and Mixed-ability Grouping in Secondary School Mathematics Classrooms: A case study 1. British Educational Research Journal, 29(2), 189–204.

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