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November 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 3

Research Link / Grouping Students for Increased Achievement

Greater student diversity and shifts in school enrollment patterns have forced school leaders to look for creative ways to group students for instruction. What does the research tell us about which grouping schemes are effective for student achievement?

Multiage Classrooms: Expecting Differences

In a study of multiage classrooms, Linley Lloyd (1999) found that classes with a student age range of about three years showed consistently positive results. The overall effect (referred to as the median effect size) on achievement in multiage classrooms was +0.50, which represents a significant correlation between the use of this grouping and observed positive results. Moreover, 3rd graders who had I.Q.s of 125 or higher and had spent three years in a multiage program showed a significant increase (+0.91) in reading achievement. Among all students, Lloyd found smaller effect sizes for socialization (+0.02) and for psychological adjustment (+0.11). These results show a clear academic advantage and no negative social and emotional effects for multiage grouping.
Lloyd found that the diversity in a multiage class could benefit underachievers because a teacher committed to this grouping arrangement is more likely to know how to teach students at different developmental levels. Finally, Lloyd discovered that parents report being happier when their child is one of the younger members of the class, citing the increased opportunity for stimulation from older students.

Full-Time Ability Grouping

Placing students in classes according to intellectual ability is another common grouping practice. An investigation of homogeneous grouping (Sheppard & Kanevsky, 1999) looked at the impact of having classmates with the same or different intellectual abilities on the responses of gifted students during five sessions of metacognitive awareness training activities. Some of these gifted students were in a homogeneous gifted class, and an equal number were in a heterogeneous mixed-ability class. In each training session, the teacher asked students to develop and discuss a machine analogy for their minds while solving a problem. The students in the homogeneous gifted class proposed a greater number of functions for the mind-machines. The gifted students in the heterogeneous class were more hesitant and conforming.
The study, however, looked at only one activity conducted within ability groups. Lloyd (1999) found that research studies do not support full-time ability grouping; the overall achievement effect of homogeneous grouping was essentially zero at all grade levels from elementary through high school. Another study (Nyberg, McMillin, O'Neill-Rood, & Florence, 1997) ascertained that placing midrange students into a more challenging academic program with higher achievers did not threaten the likelihood of midrange students' completion of high school or lower their grade point average. This study's data support two conclusions: that average to below-average students, of all races, can achieve academic success and prosper in a more rigorous academic environment and that midrange minority students perform as well as, or better than, white students in a curriculum that retracks general students into a college-preparatory curriculum.

Groupings Within Classrooms

Yiping Lou, Philip Abrami, and John Spence (2000) investigated the effects of within-class grouping on student achievement, focusing on classes that emphasize the diversity of instruction and teach students in several small groups. The teacher may provide either a single, brief explanation to the class as a whole or give different instructions to each group, encouraging peer help to promote student learning. Lou, Abrami, and Spence found small but significantly positive effects of small-group instruction on student achievement. After controlling for variance related to such factors as teacher training, they saw indications that small-group instruction is rewarding for students of all ability levels, more beneficial for high-ability students than for lower-ability students, and more helpful for elementary students than for university or college students.

Administrators' Attitudes

Although the evidence indicates that some grouping schemes increase student achievement, a study of the attitudes of elementary school principals (Mason & Doepner, 1998) toward multiage classes, in which teachers instructed students from two or more grades for part of the school day, showed that principals generally viewed this grouping plan as a complex and challenging assignment for teachers and not necessarily helpful for developing progressive curriculums or instructional practices.
Supporting this research is a study by Carolyn Riehl (2000), who found that many school administrators do not support special grouping plans. Riehl concludes that because of their training and responsibilities, some administrators are not oriented to change. Further, she suggests that, in general, administrators do not willingly admit publicly to achievement problems related to race, class, or gender in their schools, even when they privately acknowledge their existence. She has found that when school principals engage in open explorations, honest exchanges, and non-manipulative discussions with school stakeholders, they become more supportive of these grouping schemes. In schools serving diverse student populations, the most important contribution that administrators can make is to build teachers' confidence in their goals for student achievement, their ability to meet these goals, and their certainty that they have met them. According to Riehl,The development of inclusive structures and practices must be accompanied by new understandings and values or they will not result in sustaining change. Principals are key agents in framing those new meanings. (2000, p. 60)
Many of these studies show that special grouping arrangements can bring about increased student learning. Perhaps the grouping causes teachers to teach in new ways, and those new strategies are just as important as any grouping scheme.

Lloyd, L. (1999). Multiage classes and high-ability students. Review of Educational Research, 69(2), 187–212.

Lou, Y., Abrami, P., & Spence, J. (2000). Effects of within-class grouping on student achievement: An exploratory model. The Journal of Educational Research, 94(2), 101–112.

Mason, D., & Doepner, R. (1998). Principals' views of combination classes. The Journal of Educational Research, 91(3), 160–172.

Nyberg, K., McMillin, J., O'Neill-Rood, N., & Florence, J. (1997). Ethnic difference in academic retracking: A four-year longitudinal study. The Journal of Educational Research, 91(1), 33–41.

Riehl, C. (2000). The principal's role in creating inclusive schools for diverse students: A review of normative, empirical, and critical literature of the practice of educational administration. Review of Educational Research, 70(1), 55–81.

Sheppard, S., & Kanevsky, L. (1999). Nurturing gifted students' metacognitive awareness: Effects of training in homogeneous and heterogeneous classes. Roeper Review, 21(4), 266–273.

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