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The Effects of Between-Class Ability Grouping on Students' Math Self-Concept and Reliance on Comparison Processes

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Between-class ability grouping refers to the practice of assigning students to different homogeneous ability classes in a subject area. Such a practice has been assumed to influence the development and formation of students’ academic self-concept because ability grouping may determine whom students use as the reference groups to evaluate their own abilities (Marsh et al., 1995). So far, mixed evidence has emerged for the effects of math between-class ability grouping on students’ math self-concept (e.g., Belfi et al., 2012; Chmielewski et al., 2013). One possible reason for the conflicting findings might be that past studies mainly relied on correlational approaches, thus including a lot of confounds and not allowing casual inference. The current study aims to investigate the effects of math between-class ability grouping on students’ math self-concept by using causal inference methods including difference-in-differences design and propensity score matching. Another aim is to examine the effects of grouping on the comparison processes (e.g., social comparison) that students use to form their math self-concepts, a question that has rarely been studied.

We use data from a two-year, four-wave panel study, following students from school districts in the middle-income communities in southeastern Michigan at two time points prior to and two time points after the transition into junior high school (i.e., the fall and spring of Grade 6, the fall and spring of Grade 7). In the final sample for the analyses (1750 students from 10 school districts), at 6th grade, there was no between-class grouping practice in all the math classrooms. After students moving to 7th grade, there were different grouping policies (either no-grouping or between-class grouping) for math class in different school districts. In the grouping schools, students were assigned to different math classes (i.e., below average, average, or above average) on the basis of their math ability. The quasi-experimental design and the availability of data on various pre-treatment variables allows us to apply for causal inference methods.

We first use a difference-in-differences design that compares the time change in all the grouped students’ math self-concept with the time change in all the non-grouped students’ math self-concept over the same period (i.e., Grade 7). We find no treatment effect of ability grouping on students’ math self-concept and their reliance on social and dimensional comparisons. We then use propensity score matching techniques to estimate the impacts of low, middle, and high group placement on the changes of students’ math self-concept relative to non-grouped instruction. Findings suggest that low-grouped students have higher math self-concepts than comparable non-grouped students. While grouping has little effect on high-grouped students’ math self-concept, high-grouped students rely less on social comparisons in self-evaluation than comparable non-grouped students. These analyses, which significantly lessen the extent to which selection into groups may bias results, add evidence to the view that math between-classroom ability grouping in junior high school may benefit low-ability students by improving their self-confidence in math. The findings deepen our understanding of whether and under which conditions students’ academic self-concepts are influenced by educational environments.