In Aotearoa, ability grouping is ubiquitous, pernicious and inequitable. We have the second highest ability grouping rate in the OECD and one of the highest disparities between our highest and lowest achievers.
This is no coincidence. Countries that do not use ability grouping have much narrower gaps between their high and low achievers. Streaming and ability grouping mean different things to different teachers. Both refer to sorting students into groups based on perceived ability. Within secondary schools, streaming refers to classes where those considered high ability are grouped together through to students achieving at the lowest levels who are in separate classes. Both banding and requiring prerequisites in secondary schools are simply streaming in another guise. All these forms of grouping affect students’ futures and life pathways.
“Daily, through ability grouping, students learn that they are not good enough.”
In primary schools, teachers create groups within classes, where students are sorted from top to bottom groups. Students arrive at school at five years bursting to learn and engage and are quickly assigned to an ability group. The ability group students are placed in at primary school predicts the stream they are placed into at secondary school. The stream students are in at secondary school contributes to determining students’ futures with higher-streamed students destined for university and professional occupations and lower-streamed students destined for low or unskilled jobs. I am not saying that every student should go to university. I am saying that every student should have the opportunity to go to university.
Māori and Pasifika students are disproportionately assigned to the lowest groups. Although teachers will say their grouping is flexible, in practice there is little movement from one group to another. These groups are fixed and enduring. This is because, once students are assigned to a particular group, their learning opportunities vary. The work students in the top group is assigned is very different to that allocated to the lowest group. Over time, one group is being constantly challenged and extended, whereas the other is focussed on low-level, mundane, repetitive activities, and therefore, the gaps increase. In Aotearoa, the grouping structure ensures the social strata are maintained. As a teacher once said to me, “As you go down the groups, the students get browner.” Is this how we see equity in Aotearoa?
Coupled with this is evidence that when students in the bottom group are incorporated into the top group, by the end of just one academic year, they are achieving at, and often outdoing their original top-group peers. This occurs for several reasons. Firstly, all students are now assigned exciting, high-level tasks and teachers provide the necessary support for all students to achieve. Secondly, former low achievers are treated as if they were high achievers. Thirdly, students are exposed to high-level peer modelling. They are aware of the success criteria for high achievers and are motivated to succeed. Fourthly, the evidence shows that approximately one- to two-thirds of students are misplaced. Given the opportunity, many students could be achieving at much higher levels than they are currently. Further, the students in one group are never all “at the same level” anyway; there is variation within groups, too.
“Ability grouping is entrenched in our schools and has been for decades.”
Can you imagine how it feels to come to school day after day in Years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 knowing that you are in the bottom group? Are you surprised that students like this lose self-belief, motivation and engagement and eventually drop out? Daily, through ability grouping, they learn that they are not good enough. When students are not motivated and engaged, they are not going to be successful – but is there any point when their futures have already been decided?
Why do teachers in Aotearoa ability group when the evidence is very clear that it does not work in terms of increasing achievement and has huge negative psychological implications for students – both those in the top group who feel constantly pressured and those in the bottom group who slowly give up hope? Ability grouping is entrenched in our schools and has been for decades. It is what we have always done and some teachers struggle to think of how to teach without ability grouping.
Working with mixed and flexible grouping takes a rethink about how to structure the classroom. In reading, for example, instead of assigning different tasks at each level for each group, we can have the same variety of activities available but instead of being levelled across activities, they are levelled within them. Students choose their activities within which the full range is available. They are never constrained by completing tasks (or reading) “at their level”. A teacher would only intervene if a student kept choosing easy tasks. Teachers can also “advertise” several novels or reading books. Students choose one of interest and work with fellow students who choose the same book. There could be associated levelled tasks, but again, students would choose what they completed. Teachers can also offer workshops for students focussed on specific skills but firstly, students opt into these (with the occasional teacher suggestion); secondly, they are focussed on student goals; and thirdly, these groups change daily. There is no stigma attached because the salience of ability disappears. In schools I have worked with that have implemented mixed grouping and other high expectation teaching principles, I have seen large academic growth in one year.
Currently, I am part of a large group assembled by the Ministry of Education and the Mātauranga Iwi Leaders group. We have been tasked with creating a design plan to end all forms of ability grouping and streaming in Aotearoa. Our plan will be presented to Parliament later this year. A strong recommendation will be that the Ministry of Education will need to put in resourcing so that teachers can effectively introduce a new form of working. This will involve several changes to current practice. But to achieve an equitable education system in which Māori and Pasifika students are flourishing alongside Pākehā and Asian, ability grouping in Aotearoa classrooms must be abandoned.
Professor Christine Rubie-Davies is based in the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education. Her 2014 book Becoming a High Expectation Teacher: Raising the Bar contains practical examples of how to work using mixed ability and flexible forms of grouping.
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