Academic acceleration and most forms of ability grouping are associated with academic achievement gains.
We know that many students perform above grade level (estimated that between 20 and 40 percent of students perform above grade level in reading and between 11 and 30 percent perform above grade level in math). If we know that a great many students require atypical educational experiences, what can schools do to help match education environment with their educational need?
Research results suggest that we know of at least two robust strategies: academic acceleration and many forms of ability grouping. An abundance of research suggests that these interventions can help boost the academic achievement of academically talented students.
Ability grouping has three key features. First, students are placed into classes or groups based on an initial performance. Second, the goal of the grouping is to foster environments that more closely match student learning needs. Third, the grouping is not permanent, but can be flexible. Ability grouping can come in different forms, each associated with different levels of effectiveness.
- Between-class grouping: students in each grade are assigned to low, average, and high classes.
- Within-class grouping: often used in elementary schools, classes are broken into smalls groups (e.g., low, average high).
- Cross-grade grouping: students are grouped across different grade levels in particular subjects (e.g., 5th and 6th grade students can be in the same math group).
- Special grouping for the gifted: these types of programs are designed specifically for students identified as gifted and can consist of pull-out programs and/or honors programs.
Effectiveness of Ability Grouping
One type of ability grouping (between-class grouping) did not have support in a recent research synthesis; simply putting students into “high” or “low” groups was not associated with changes in academic achievement.
However, the three other types of ability grouping (within-class grouping, cross-grade grouping, and special grouping for the gifted) all had support for effectiveness in increasing academic achievement. Moreover, for within-class grouping, positive effects were found overall, but also specifically for high-, medium-, and low-ability students specifically.
Types of Acceleration
The new research also reviewed all previous work on academic acceleration and its effects on academic achievement. There are numerous types of acceleration. Grade skipping might be the most well-known, but there are also opportunities such as subject-specific acceleration (e.g., moving ahead in math), starting school early, graduating early, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and others. Although each type of acceleration is unique in its own way, the overarching research results show substantial benefits of participating in academic acceleration to academic achievement.
These results are not from a single study. Rather, they represent the cumulative knowledge of the last century of research results synthesized from several dozen studies.
Visit Duke TIP’s Just the Facts page for more information on what you can do when considering academic acceleration.
Steenbergen-Hu, S., Makel, M. C., Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2016). What one hundred years of research says about the effects of ability grouping and acceleration on K-12 students’ academic achievement: Findings from two second-order meta-analyses. Review of Educational Research. doi:10.3102/0034654316675417. Or, learn more about the study and download a summary here.