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Tracking (ability grouping) in elementary school mathematics — July 2017


What does the research say about tracking (ability grouping) in elementary school mathematics?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on tracking (ability grouping) in elementary school mathematics. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (for details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo).

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your information. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Fuchs, L., Fuchs, D., Craddock, C., Hollenback, K., Hamlett, C., & Schatschneider, C. (2008). Effects of small-group tutoring with and without validated classroom instruction on at-risk students’ math problem solving: Are two tiers of prevention better than one? Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(3), 491–509. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of small-group tutoring with and without validated classroom instruction on at-risk (AR) students’ math problem solving. Stratifying within schools, 119 3(rd)-grade classes were randomly assigned to conventional or validated problem-solving instruction (Hot Math [schema-broadening instruction]). Students identified as AR (n = 243) were randomly assigned, within classroom conditions, to receive Hot Math tutoring or not. Students were tested on problem-solving and math applications measures before and after 16 weeks of intervention. Analyses of variance, which accounted for the nested structure of the data, revealed the tutored students who received validated classroom instruction achieved better than tutored students who received conventional classroom instruction (ES = 1.34). However, the advantage for tutoring over no tutoring was similar whether or not students received validated or conventional classroom instruction (ESs = 1.18 and 1.13). Tutoring, not validated classroom instruction reduced the prevalence of math difficulty. Implications for responsiveness-to-intervention prevention models and for enhancing math problem-solving instruction are discussed.”

Other Resources

Bolick, K. N., & Rogowsky, B. A. (2015). Ability grouping is on the rise, but should it be? Journal of Education and Human Development, 5(2), 40–51. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Ability grouping is on the rise in American schools. Teachers engage in this classroom organizational strategy with the purpose of meeting individual learners’ needs, improving student learning, and increasing test scores. However, there is opposition to ability grouping. Teachers who do not practice ability grouping often question its significance, believe it has a negative outcome on student achievement and self-concept, or prefer teaching whole-group instruction. This review of the research literature sought to determine the effectiveness of ability grouping on kindergarten through sixth grade students. Specifically, this review examined what ability grouping encompasses and the varying methods for implementing ability grouping at the elementary level. In addition, we investigated the effect of ability grouping on the academic achievement of advanced, on level, and below level elementary students. Finally, we explored how ability grouping influences the psychological and social welfare of young students.”

Butler, R. (2008). Ego-involving and frame of reference effects of tracking on elementary school students’ motivational orientations and help seeking in math class. Social Psychology of Education, 11(1), 5–23. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The author extrapolated from both achievement goal and reference group theories to predict that relative to untracked settings, tracking (a) highlights the importance of ability relative to others and will thus increase students’ ego orientations and reluctance to ask the teacher for help and (b) creates different contexts for social comparison and will thus undermine help seeking among high achievers but may enhance help seeking among low achievers. A quasi-experimental study compared students at ages 10–12 in elementary schools that either tracked students only in math (N = 337) or did not track students in any subject (N = 594). Students completed self-report measures of achievement goals and help seeking in math class. Results confirmed that, over all levels of ability, tracking increased ego and work avoidance goals and did not affect task goals. Tracking undermined help seeking among high achievers, but did not enhance help seeking among low achievers. In addition to revealing some hitherto unstudied costs of tracking, the results highlight the importance of considering grouping practices in research on student motivation and strategies and of applying theory and research on student motivation to understanding the influences of tracking.”

Dimitriadis, C. (2016). Nurturing mathematical promise in a regular elementary classroom: Exploring the role of the teacher and classroom environment. Roeper Review, 38(2), 107–122. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article presents findings from a case study of an in-classroom program based on ability grouping for Year 2 (ages 6–7) primary (elementary) children identified as high ability in mathematics. The study examined the role of classroom setting, classroom environment, and teacher’s approach in realizing and developing mathematical promise. The teacher’s approach was found to be fundamental to revealing and developing mathematical promise. However, a large regular classroom with a range of ability, along with some common beliefs that link mathematical prowess with competence in numerical calculations and that dominate the classroom environment, pose some major challenges for the teacher as well as obstacles and threats to the development of mathematical promise. The article illuminates these issues and suggests possible solutions.”

REL West note: This is an international study. Considering its subject is relevant to the request, we included it here for your information.

Garrett, R., & Hong, G. (2016). Impacts of grouping and time on the math learning of language minority kindergartners. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 38(2), 222–244. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Previous research has indicated benefits and potential pitfalls of within-class homogeneous and heterogeneous ability grouping for elementary math learning. However, there has been scant evidence with regard to the impacts of grouping for language minority kindergartners who may experience the small group setting differentially due to their particular needs for math and English language skill development. Analyzing the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten cohort data, we find that heterogeneous grouping or a combination of heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping under relatively adequate time allocation is optimal for enhancing teacher ratings of language minority kindergartners’ math performance, while using homogeneous grouping only is detrimental. As hypothesized, suboptimal instructional organization seems to place language minority kindergartners in a vulnerable situation.”

Hallam, S., Ireson, J., Lister, V., Chaudhury, I. A., & Davies, J. (2003). Ability grouping practices in the primary school: A survey. Educational Studies, 29(1), 69–83. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In 1997, the DfEE suggested that schools should consider ‘setting’ pupils by ability as it was believed that this would contribute to raising standards. This survey of primary schools aimed to establish the extent to which primary schools, with same and mixed age classes, implement different grouping practices including setting, streaming, within class ability and mixed ability groupings for different curriculum subjects. Schools were asked to complete a questionnaire indicating their grouping practices for each subject in each year group. The findings showed that schools predominantly adopted within class ability groupings, either mixed or ability grouped, for most subjects. Ability grouping (within class and setting) was most common in mathematics, followed by English and science. Its implementation increased as pupils progressed through school. The type of setting adopted, same or cross age, tended to reflect the nature of the class structures within the school.”

REL West note: This is an international study. Considering its subject is relevant to the request, we included it here for your information.

LeTendre, G. K., Hofer, B. K., & Shimizu, H. (2003). What is tracking? Cultural expectations in the United States, Germany, and Japan. American Educational Research Journal, 40(1), 43–89. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Used data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to study tracking as curricular differentiation and student placement in elementary and secondary school in the United States, Germany, and Japan. Findings show clear national differences and conflicts based on dominant cultural beliefs.”

Loveless, T. (2013). The resurgence of ability grouping and persistence of tracking (Part II, 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education). Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study examines the use of ability grouping and tracking in America’s schools. Recent NAEP data reveal a resurgence of ability grouping in fourth grade and the persistent popularity of tracking in eighth-grade mathematics. These trends are surprising considering the vehement opposition of powerful organizations to both practices. Although the current study will not delve into the debate—it is interested in what schools are doing, not why or whether they should do it—discussion is offered at the end of the article on implications of the findings for the controversy surrounding the topic.”

Marks, R. (2014). Educational triage and ability-grouping in primary mathematics: A case-study of the impacts on low-attaining pupils. Research in Mathematics Education, 16(1), 38–53. Retrieved from,%20Educational%20Triage%20and%20Ability-Grouping%20in%20Primary%20Mathematics.pdf

From the abstract: “This case-study, drawing on an unanticipated theme arising from a wider study of ability-grouping in primary mathematics, documents some of the consequences of educational triage in the final year of one primary school. The paper discusses how a process of educational triage, as a response to accountability pressures, is justified by teachers on the basis of shared theories about ability and potential. Attainment gains show that some practices associated with the triaging process work for the school, pushing selected pupils to achieve the Government target for the end of primary school. However, other practices appear to coincide with reduced mathematical gains for the lowest attaining pupils and a widening of the attainment gap. This case-study examines the mechanisms behind this, focusing on resource allocation, and assumptions about learners and their potential. The paper suggests a need to create dissonance, challenging shared assumptions, such as fixed-ability, which currently support triage processes.”

REL West note: This is an international study. Considering its subject is relevant to the request, we included it here for your information.

Matthews, M. S., Ritchotte, J. A., & McBee, M. T. (2013). Effects of schoolwide cluster grouping and within-class ability grouping on elementary school students’ academic achievement growth. High Ability Studies, 24(2), 81–97. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “We evaluated the effects of one year of schoolwide cluster grouping on the the academic achievement growth of gifted and non-identified elementary students using a piecewise multilevel growth model. Scores from 186 non-identified and 68 gifted students’ Measures of Academic Progress Reading and Math scores were examined over three school years. In 2008–2009 within-class ability grouping was used. In 2009–2010 schoolwide cluster grouping was implemented. In 2010–2011 students once again were grouped only within classrooms by ability and students identified as gifted were spread across all classrooms at each grade level. Results suggest that schoolwide cluster grouping influenced student performance in the year following its implementation, but only for mathematics and not the area of reading.”

Thomas, E., & Feng, J. (2014). Effects of ability grouping on math achievement of third grade students (Conference paper). Savannah, GA: Georgia Educational Research Association. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping on the mathematical achievement of students in third grade. Participants were 16 third graders in a self-contained classroom, assigned to either small homogeneous or heterogeneous group for math instruction for 7 weeks. Pretest-posttest scores and growth of students in both groups were statistically analyzed to determine effect on student achievement. Results indicate that there was no statistically significant difference in effect on student math performance between the heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping types. Both grouping types resulted in comparable academic gains for students. There was not a significant difference between the two groups.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

[“Tracking” OR “ability grouping” OR “homogeneous grouping(s)” OR “heterogeneous grouping(s)] AND (“math” OR “mathematics”) AND (“elementary school” OR “primary school” OR “grade K-5”)

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of the Publication: References and resources published for the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.

Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.