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K-12 Education on the Wrong Track
K-12 Education on the Wrong Track:
Gifted Education and Ability Grouping in America's Public Schools
    by Doug Mann   Spring 1994     Revised 12/20/97
     Gifted education usually consists of grouping the top-ranked 5% of all children in measures of overall academic ability, and providing them with an enriched learning environment and an accelerated pace of instruction.

       Children who are not identified as gifted are sorted out and grouped by ability within the classroom, and into separate classrooms.  College-bound students in the "advanced" classrooms cover academic material at a faster pace than the less advanced groups.  It is not unusual for this method of tracking to begin as early as the first few weeks of the first grade.  

        Since the late 1950's ability-grouping has been adopted as the preferred educational model by departments of education in all 50 states and the federal government.  School districts throughout the U.S. have also been encouraged or mandated to offer gifted education (8).  

        Here I will consider three reasons why gifted education as we know it and the ability-grouping model ought to be scrapped.  Reason one: ability-grouping creates obstacles to academic achievement for most students.  Reason two: the case for assigning the status of "special needs" children to most "gifted" children is pretty weak.  Reason three: there is abundant evidence of a strong class and racial bias in the selection process for gifted programs, and college preparatory curriculum programs for the non-gifted.

Ability Grouping as an Obstacle to Learning for Most Children

        A selling point for gifted education and the ability grouping model since it was introduced in the early 1900's is that ability grouping is more cost-effective than the traditional mixed-ability classroom in supplying brain-power to colleges.  It is cheaper to prepare a minority of students for educational opportunities beyond high school than to do the same for everyone, and to make those opportunities as accessible to a larger pool of high school graduates.

        After the Second World War the public schools faced a rising demand for college-ready high school graduates.  Some schools upgraded the curriculum for all students.  But most schools, especially those in large urban areas opted for ability-grouping.  By the early 1970's ability  grouped  classrooms were the rule and mix-ability classrooms the exception.  According to Haney:
       "Three different national surveys in the 1960's and 1970's...indicated that 30 to 40% of students were enrolled in academic or college preparatory high school tracks, some 35 to 50% were enrolled in general high school programs, and  14 to 16% were enrolled in vocational or business high school programs (2, P. 53)."

          School tracking at an early age has been facilitated by the widespread use of standardized intelligence and achievement tests, and acceptance of the idea that intelligence or learning ability is mostly an innate, immutable quality that can be measured by these tests.  Ability-grouping advocates have made the claim that these tests are fairly reliable at predicting which children can achieve the most in college preparatory high school programs, make it into college, and earn a college degree.   

        However, the term "ability-grouping" has been dropped because the idea that intelligence tests measure one's learning capacity has been discredited.  It doesn't make a lot of sense to ability-group if there's no reliable way to estimate the learning capacity of most children.

      At most, a very weak correlation has been found between individual performance on standardized achievement and intelligence tests in early elementary grades, and academic achievement in high school and beyond.  For example, about 90% of all children are able to rapidly progress at learning how to read somewhere between their fifth and seventh birthdays due to age-related physiological and cognitive development.  The early bloomers in this area have the higher reading test scores in early elementary grades, but many of the late bloomers catch up with and over-take many of the early bloomers during elementary and middle school grades.

          But the practice of ability grouping continues as "skill-grouping," the difference being that intelligence tests have been replaced by achievement tests to determine program placement.   As before, teachers continue to sort children into groups for slow-, medium-, and fast learners on the basis on an assessment of what each child has learned, often an informal eye-ball assessment.

         For a great majority of children, grouping by ability is an obstacle to learning because children who need the most one-on-one help are separated from children who can help them.  This reduces the possibility that children who need a lot of one-on-one help at one time or another can get it.  As a result, the pace of instruction in the regular classroom is slowed-down and the remedial classroom is greatly enlarged.

        On the other hand, classrooms for "advanced" students are usually quite small, much smaller than regular classes, sometimes even smaller than remedial classes.  Gifted classrooms are smaller still.  Keeping class size down for advanced and gifted students gives the teacher more time to work with each student.

           For a great majority of children, ability grouping is also an obstacle to learning because of the cookie cutter-approach employed.  The criteria used to group-by-ability and the choice of learning objectives tends to be somewhat arbitrary.  Students who are not selected for the more advanced groups tend to be seen as lacking ability, rather than possessing some, and are instructed accordingly.

            A claim often made by advocates of ability-grouping is that it's easier to teach children by reducing the range of abilities in a classroom.  But this is true only if the curriculum  is dumbed-down for the "less able" learners.

           On the other hand, mixed-ability classrooms are the rule and peer tutoring is often utilized in private college-preparatory schools.  Students who need some one-on-one help can get it from another student.  This doesn't necessarily hold back the more advanced students.  The student who teaches not only over-learns the skills being taught, but also develops communication and problem solving skills that would not be enhanced by being assigned to do more reading, writing or math problems.

Class Size, Peer Tutoring Make a Difference

          The idea that class size and the use of peer tutoring makes a difference in academic achievement is supported by a $12 million study on the effects of class size funded by the Tennessee legislature.  Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio), followed students from kindergarten in 1985-86 through third grade in 1988-89.  It compared small classes (13-17 students per teacher), regular classes (22-25 students per teacher), and regular-size classes with a teacher and full-time teacher's aide.  All Project STAR classes were given a set of standard achievement tests.  Of the top-scoring 10% of all Project STAR classes, small classes represented 55% in kindergarten, and 78% by the third grade (5).

          A follow-up study on the achievement of students who had been in small classes during Project STAR showed lasting benefits.  These children, after one year in regular-sized classes, significantly outperformed other fourth-grade students on standardized achievement tests in every locale (5).

          Project STAR researchers also found peer tutoring to be a highly effective learning strategy with students in grades K through 3.  There was a strong correlation between the use of peer tutoring and average test scores. The extensive use of peer tutoring was a common feature  of the top-scoring 10% of project STAR classrooms (5).

          On the basis of findings made by Project STAR researchers, several states including Minnesota have mandated small classrooms in grades K-3, but have not reconsidered the use  of ability grouping, which greatly reduces opportunities to utilize peer tutoring as a learning strategy.

                                             Gifted Children as Special-Needs Children

          The gifted education model is unique in the field of special education in that it takes "special" children out of the mainstream.  According to Roberts, a goal of special education for children with handicaps of all kinds is to minimize separation, and isolation, from the general student population (6).

          The Gifted child is variously defined as being among the top 1% to 5% of all children in measures of intelligence and achievement by experts in the field who contributed essays to a pro-ability grouping anthology published in 1963 (1).  One of these essayists, Chaffee (1a) defines gifted pupils as those who score in the top 2% on intelligence tests, with a IQ greater than 130 on the Stanford-Binet, and estimates that the incidence of IQ ratings greater than 160 is about 1 in 10,000.

           According to Gallegher (1d), even the "extremely gifted child" [IQ over 160, e.g. a 10 year old with a mental age greater than 16] isn't much different than same-age peers of average intelligence in terms of interests, problems with social adjustment, and that IQ ratings give an inflated estimate of the extremely gifted child's overall intellectual development.

          Currently, children who rank within the top 5% on intelligence and achievement tests are generally identified as gifted.  But whatever it may be, the score or ranking that divides gifted from non-gifted is going to be fairly arbitrary.  There's some overlap between children who score within the top 5% on achievement tests and those who score near the 50th percentile in the development of specific academic and non-academic skills, and knowledge about particular subjects.

           When a child's overall intellectual development is similar to that of children at a higher grade level, and gifted education is not an option, educators often recommend skipping a grade or more as an option worth serious consideration.  It would be difficult for a child with such exceptional ability to fit into a classroom setting with same-age peers, even in a gifted classroom.  But that is not what gifted education advocates usually have in mind when speaking of acceleration or enrichment.

           A proper gifted education involves covering academic subjects at least a little better and faster than in an ordinary college preparatory program, and a great deal better and faster than in programs for children regarded as unlikely candidates for a college education.

        Gifted children acquired the status of "special-needs children" on the premise that, unless they are set apart from other children and provided with an enriched learning environment, gifted children get less than an equal opportunity to realize their greater potential to acquire academic skills.

         As mentioned earlier, the idea that achievement and intelligence tests measure learning capacity has been discredited.  In large measure, a child's capacity to learn is dependent on such elements of the classroom environment as the teachers' level of education and experience, class size and learning strategies employed.

         Recommendations for gifted classrooms by the Southern Regional Project for Education of the Gifted include: small class size, selection of the most effective teachers, and more preparation time for teachers of the gifted (1g).

         On the basis of responses to questionnaires sent to high school principals in Minnesota; Gamelin, Otterness, and Untereker found that class size is generally kept down in accelerated classes to allow students to receive more one-on-one help from their instructors (1e).

         Small class size was also identified as an important component in the design of enriched/accelerated programs according to Chaffee, Associate Superintendent, Los Angeles, CA public schools (1b); Elliot, Director of Research, Oakland, CA public schools (1c); Levenson, Superintendent of Schools, & the Division of Mathematics, Cleveland, Ohio (1f); and others.

Separate but Equal?

         Citing a report by the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted, Stone reports that "Nationally, state financing specifically tagged for gifted children added up to $297 million in 1987 (p. 74)."  In 1987, the biggest spenders on gifted education were Florida, $68 million; and Georgia, $23 million.  Programs for the gifted in these states have been mandatory since the early 1960's.  It may not be entirely coincidental that Southern states greatly expanded funding for gifted programs soon after the federal government outlawed racial segregation, and that gifted classrooms tend to be filled with White students (8).

        It also happens that a strong positive correlation exists between family income and the incidence of giftedness among children.  According to Stone, all efforts to remove the strong class bias from intelligence tests and other measures of academic ability have failed (7).

       The class bias of achievement and intelligence tests is a stubborn thing because class bias  isn't just a matter of testing bias, but a reflection of differences in what's being tested.  The difference in average IQ test scores between children at the high and low ends of the socio-economic ladder is related to environmental factors which are known to accelerate or retard intellectual development, such as nutritional status, emotional stress, and educational opportunities.

           The connection between poverty and low IQ scores was demonstrated by three educational researchers, Greg Duncan at Northwestern University and Jean Brooks-Gunn and Pamela Klebanov  at Columbia University, in a study of 483 low-birth-weight children from birth to age five. The data indicates that intellectual development can be delayed to a large degree by environmental factors associated with poverty.  The deeper and more persistent the poverty, the greater the IQ-lowering effect.  When comparing IQ test scores of Black and White children from families with similar economic situations, White children outscored Black children by an average of 3 points: not a significant difference (7).

         The conclusions reached by Duncan, Brooks-Gunn and Klebanov about the impact of a child's environment on their intellectual development runs counter to the notion promoted by authors of The Bell Curve.  The Bell Curve proposes that an IQ score gap of at least 15 points exists between Whites and Blacks because of a higher concentration of stupid genes being passed along by Black people, and that poverty is mainly a consequence of stupidity.  

         Differences in socio-economic status also account for nearly all of the difference in assessed  academic ability between White and Black students.  Black children are far more likely to live in households with incomes below the poverty line, and far less likely to live in a "middle- class" household [with an income greater than twice the official poverty threshold].  That's why 16.2% of all school children in the U.S. were classified as Black in 1990, but represented only 8% of the children identified as gifted (8).

         The difference between Blacks and Whites in assessed academic ability translates into racial differences in placement in high school programs.  Citing Oakes, Haney reports that a recent study of secondary school tracking in six racially mixed schools revealed that White students were over-represented, and minority students under- represented,  in  the  highest-level English and Math classes (2).  Haney also reports that,

         "Using data from national longitudinal surveys from the late 1960's for example, Grasso and Shea found that 46% of White youth in grades 11 and 12 were in college preparatory  curriculum programs as compared with only 28% of Black youth. (p. 53)"

        In Minnesota, contributions to gifted and talented programs included state financing in the amount of $4,280,600 for the 1985-86 school year, as well as other sources of funding such as Federal Block Grants, local funding, and private sources.  Programs for the gifted and talented in Minnesota were optional, with 221 of 434 school districts participating in 1986 (4).

        Some local school boards in Minnesota have opted for mixed ability classrooms either because ability grouping is regarded as impractical and/or because it presents public relations problems.  Where the student population in a school district is very small or highly dispersed, maintaining gifted programs and multiple academic tracks can be quite a bit more expensive than having mixed-ability classrooms and offering a college preparatory curriculum to the entire student body.  Many parents and teachers see ability-grouping as elitist (3).

         Most educational researchers would agree that, on achievement tests, children considered to be "high-ability learners" seem to do at least a little better if placed in ability-grouped classrooms than in mixed-ability classrooms, especially students identified as gifted who are placed in gifted programs, and that "low-ability" or "academically deficient" students do not benefit from ability grouping (3).

          It is not surprising that ability-grouping produces the unequal results that it does, because unequal resource allocation goes hand-in-hand with ability-grouping and gifted education,  including off-budget resource allocation.


         Stripped of its special education packaging, gifted education and the ability grouping model are revealed as a formula for a separate and inferior education for most children.  It effectively denies opportunities in education and employment to most working class youth, especially African-Americans and other non-white people, who are easily identified and targeted for unfair  practices in the hiring process and on-the-job.  This situation gives employers a means to bid down wages across-the-board.

         A better, more equal education for the great majority of K-12 students in the public schools is in the interests of everyone who has to work for a living.  But that's not what decides educational policy in this country.  The political establishment in this country follows the golden rule: those who have the gold make the rules.

         No confidence should be placed in capitalist politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, to reform the educational system in a way that benefits the poor and the working class as a  whole.  Class and racial privileges were knowingly made a part of the current educational system.  Politicians of the Democratic and Republican parties introduced these policies and have consistently defended them.  

         A serious fight to improve the quality of education for most children in the public schools will have to be undertaken independently of politicians who are tied to the Democratic and Republican parties.  Such a fight was carried out as part of the civil rights movement of the  1950's and 1960's, but its leadership was largely co-opted into the Democratic party, and mass  support for the cause was dampened by token concessions and channeled into electoral activity.   The demand to eliminate educational tracking should be part of the program of any movement  that emerges in the fight for a better, more equal education and the broader effort to advance the interests of the working class as a whole and its most oppressed sectors.

            Education is a right, not a privilege!


1)  L. Crow & A. Crow (eds.), Educating the academically able (1963). New York, NY: David McKay Co,Inc.
a)  Chaffee, E.  "General policies concerning education of  intellectually gifted pupils" (17-19).
b)  Chaffee, E.   "Planning for the intellectually gifted, Los Angeles" (394-98).
c)  Elliot, M.H.   "Programs for intellectually gifted pupils, Oakland." (398-401).
d)  Gallegher, J.J.  "What are gifted children like?"  (40-46).
e)  Gamelin, F.C., Otterness, J., & Untereker, A.   "Acceleration in the high school" (115-17).
f)  Levenson, W.B. & the Division of Mathematics. "Educating the gifted in mathematics, Cleveland" (371-5).
g) Southern Regional Project for Education of the Gifted.  "Program organization and implementation for the gifted" (378-93).      

2) Haney, W.  "Testing and minorities" (1993).  L. Weis &  M. Fine (eds.), Beyond Silenced Voices:  Class, Race, and Gender in United States Schools (pp. 45-73).  Albany,  New York: State University of New York Press.

3) Hertz, L. (1985, Fall).  "The role of ability grouping in the education of gifted and talented children."  The Minnesota Elementary School Principal, pp. 24-25.

4) Minnesota Department of Education [Division of Instructional Effectiveness] (1986).  Model Learner  Outcomes for the Gifted and Talented.  

5) Pate-Bain, H., Achilles, C.M., Boyd-Zaharias, J., &    Mckenna, B.  (1992).  "Class size does make a difference [Project STAR in Tennessee]."  Phi Beta Kappan, 74, 253-256.

6) Roberts, F. (1992, January).  "Dr. Roberts answers  questions about your child's education [Main-streaming special-needs children]."  Parents, pp. 45-46.

7)  Rowen, Carl T. (1996)  The Coming Race War In America    pp. 281, 292-3; Little, Brown & Company.

8) Stone, E. (1990, May 6).  "Gifted children's programs: a matter of class [New York City programs]."  The New York Times Magazine, pp. 48-49+.