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Ability Grouping in the Early Grades: Long-Term Consequences for Educational Equity in the United States

by Anthony Buttaro, Jr. & Sophia Catsambis - 2019

Background: Ability grouping has resurged in U.S. schools despite long-standing debates over its consequences for educational equity. Proponents argue that it is the best response to variation in academic skills because it allows teachers to customize the content and pace of instruction to students’ diverse needs. Critics answer that this practice places students in divergent educational paths that reproduce educational and social inequalities. Despite the contested nature of ability grouping, research has yet to produce reliable longitudinal evidence to evaluate critics’ claims.

Objective: We examine the degree to which exposure to within-class grouping for reading instruction from kindergarten to third grade is predictive of students’ reading test scores and English coursework in the middle grades.

Research Design: We use multilevel achievement growth models predicting average reading achievement from kindergarten to eighth grade as a function of years of exposure in low, average, or high ability groups in kindergarten through third grade and control variables relevant to each grade. We evaluate the achievement differences between students who are grouped in these ability groups for one or more years and those who were never ability grouped. We use multinomial logistic regression models to estimate the degree to which number of years in each ability group in K–3 grades predicts placements in eighth-grade English classes (below grade or honors, as opposed to regular English classes).

Data: We use data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS–K), a national panel study of the 1998 U.S. kindergarten cohort sponsored by National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. Our sample consists of 7,800 students with data for fall of kindergarten, and spring of kindergarten and first, third, fifth, and eighth grades.

Findings: Compared with similar students who were ungrouped in the early grades, those in high-ability reading groups have higher test scores, whereas those in low-ability groups have lower test scores in every grade from kindergarten to the eighth grade. In addition, compared with their ungrouped counterparts, students in low-ability groups in the early grades are more likely to enroll in eighth grade English classes that are below grade level, whereas those in high-ability groups in these grades are more likely to enroll in honors eighth-grade English classes. Achievement gaps between previously grouped and ungrouped students increase with every additional year of exposure to ability grouping.

Conclusions: Students’ ability group placements in the early grades evolve into divergent educational paths that grow further apart with multiple years of grouping. These findings provide the first longitudinal evidence linking ability grouping to the reproduction of educational inequalities.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 2, 2019, p. 1-50
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22574, Date Accessed: 7/29/2021 9:45:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Anthony Buttaro, Jr.
    Graduate Center, City University of New York
    ANTHONY BUTTARO, JR., received his PhD from the City University of New York (CUNY) and serves as adjunct assistant professor in the Sociology department of Queens College, CUNY. His research focuses on comparative analysis, education, and urban studies with the application of advanced statistical modeling. He has been Visiting Academic at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education (IoE), University College London (UCL) in London, United Kingdom. He is coauthor, with Brenden Beck and Mary Clare Lennon, of “Home Moves and Child Wellbeing in the First Five Years of Life in the United States,” Longitudinal and Life Course Studies: International Journal, 7(3), 2016.
  • Sophia Catsambis
    Queens College and Graduate Center, City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    SOPHIA CATSAMBIS received her PhD from New York University and is professor of sociology at Queens College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). She is currently director of the MA program in Data Analytics and Applied Social Research at Queens College, CUNY. Her work addresses national equity concerns in education through the use of major longitudinal survey data. She has studied issues such as gender and race differences in mathematics and science, parental involvement in children’s education, interrelationships between family, neighborhood, and school, and ability grouping in elementary and middle grades. Her NIH-funded work on ability grouping in the early elementary grades has produced a number of papers, including, with Anthony Buttaro, Jr., 2012, “Revisiting ‘Kindergarten as Academic Boot Camp’: A Nationwide Study of Ability Grouping and Psycho-Social Development,” Social Psychology of Education, 15(4), 483–515; and, with Anthony Buttaro Jr., Lynn M. Mulkey, Lala Carr Steelman, and Pamela R. Koch, 2012, “Examining Gender Differences in Ability Group Placement at the Onset of Schooling: The Role of Skills, Behaviors and Teacher Evaluations,” Journal of Educational Research, 105(1), 8–20.
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