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The Evolution of Ability Grouping and Learning Behaviors in the Early Primary Grades

Sat, April 14, 8:15 to 9:45am, New York Hilton Midtown, Floor: Second Floor, Sutton Center


Theoretical Background
Few educational practices are as controversial as grouping students by perceived ability for differentiated instruction, but despite nearly a century of controversy, the practice remains commonplace in American schools. Students can be sorted into groups as early as the first month of kindergarten. There is a concern that once students are assigned to low-ranking groups, they encounter lower teacher expectations, lower-achieving peers, and stigma for being labeled slow learners that make it difficult to ever move into higher groups. However, there is very little research on mobility between groups over time, especially across academic years. This paper addresses this concern and brings a new focus to students’ own inputs into the learning process as both a cause and effect of group assignments. It considers how students’ learning behaviors (e.g. how well they concentrate on their work, show an eagerness to learn new things, and complete assigned tasks) influence their group assignments and are then shaped by their experiences in grouped instruction.

Objectives – Research questions
1- How much mobility is there between ability group levels as students progress through school, and what student background, academic, and behavioral characteristics predict this mobility?
2- How do group assignments affect students’ academic outcomes and learning behaviors?
3- How have opportunities for mobility and the effects of group assignments changed over time?

Data come from the two Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies – Kindergarten Cohorts of 1998 and 2010. These large nationally-reprehensive datasets each include data on students’ group placements through third grade, measures of academic achievement and learning behaviors, and a rich set of covariates on students’ family backgrounds, classrooms, and schools.

Two of the research questions, how much mobility between group levels exists as students change and how have these opportunities changed over time, are descriptive. Infographics describe patterns of group placements as students move through grades. Questions regarding the effects of group placement, however, are much more difficult due to the strong selection bias involved. Propensity score stratification is used to compare similar students assigned to different groups, and approximates a randomized experiment (under certain assumptions) with the observational data.

There are considerably more opportunities for mobility than are generally understood. For example, students assigned to the lowest group in kindergarten have about a fifty percent change of moving up out of the lowest group in first grade. Downward mobility is possible too, but is slightly less common than upward. Mobility rates have been fairly constant over time. However, being assigned to the lowest groups depresses both academic achievement and the development of learning behaviors, making upward mobility more difficult.

Scholarly significance
Ability grouping, especially for reading instruction, occurs in 92% of first-grade classrooms. The finding that assignment to a low-ranking group discourages students from learning supports reforms to this practice – particularly, reforms that ensure that students assigned to low-ranking groups receive instruction that is appropriately challenging and engaging.