THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 1
The Effects of a Mixed-Ability Classroom on STAR Mathematics Scores
Felisha N. Cleland
University of West Alabama
ED5049621FA1: Tech of Educational Research
Mrs. Annah Rogers, B.A., M.S.
October 4, 2021
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 2
Many schools, including Sand Rock High School, track students by ability even before
high school when natural tracking occurs. When this happens, lower-ability students lose the
confidence they need to make progress, and all abilities lose the opportunity to collaborate with
diverse peers. An alternative to this homogenous-ability tracking is to create mixed-ability
classrooms. The purpose of this study is to determine the effect of mixed-ability classes on
students of all ability levels. This proposal intends to investigate whether a transition from
homogenous-ability classrooms to mixed-ability classrooms will improve proficiency on the
STAR test in mathematics for 7th-grade students at Sand Rock High School. This project predicts
that this transition from homogenous-ability classrooms to mixed-ability classrooms will
improve student confidence and allow unique learning opportunities such as students being able
to collaborate with diverse peers, which in turn, will increase proficiency levels on STAR
mathematics scores for these students in 7th grade at Sand Rock High School. Data will be
collected at the beginning of the experiment and then every 9 weeks for an entire school year
with the teachers changing mid-year.
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 3
The Effects of a Multi-Ability Classroom on Mathematics Scores
Chapter 1: Research Problem
At many schools in the United States, students are tracked or grouped by ability even
before high school. Tracking is the process of grouping students together by ability. According to
data from a 2017-18 National Teacher and Principal Survey, nearly half of middle schools across
the country group students based on ability (Standing et al., 2021). Some schools allow the
teachers do this within a classroom for differentiation purposes, while other schools group entire
classrooms by ability. Entire classes being grouped by ability means that students are labeled by
their perceived ability level as either above average, average, or below average and divided up
into different classes based on these assignments.
At Sand Rock High School, the above-average classes are generally the smallest in
number, whereas the other classes that contain the students that need the most one-on-one from a
teacher have the larger class sizes. This is only one negative from grouping this way. Far too
often, special education students, except for gifted students, get placed in the average or below
average groups. Also, English Language Learner (ELL) students, other minority students, and
low socioeconomic status students, and are too often disproportionately placed in the average or
below average groups (Childhood Education, 2014). This type of grouping is hazardous for all
levels of ability in that each group of students, once tracked, tend to stay with that same group
until graduation, with very limited movement between groups (Harklau, 1994). This deprives all
students of the ability to collaborate with diverse peers. It also puts the lower ability students in a
classroom where the curriculum typically gets watered down due to decreased expectations by
the teacher for that class (Losen, 1999).
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 4
It has also been shown that grouping by ability early on negatively impacts students
psychologically. In a case study of 100 low-ability students in three schools, the students were
asked about their perceptions of their ability to learn. Those students overwhelmingly responded
with emotional words like “shame”, “upset”, and “inferiority” (McGillicuddy & Devine, 2020).
Additionally, many high achieving countries use minimal ability grouping as compared to the
Statement of the Research Problem
Despite the expansive research that shows the harmful effect on students in lower tracks
and shows no significant advantages for higher-tracked students, homogenous-ability classrooms
continue to be a widely used practice in American schools (Childhood Education, 2014). One
reason for the continued use is the fact that many teachers find that not grouping by ability is
difficult to do (Ambreen & Conteh, 2021). It has also been shown that politically vocal parents
of the would-be higher-tracked students, who are disproportionately likely to be white and well-
educated, stand in opposition to moving away from the status quo of homogeneous ability
grouped classrooms (Childhood Education, 2014). Sand Rock High School is no different in
terms of parents wanting to keep the status quo and keep their students in the higher ability
grouped, nor in the fact that many teachers are fearful of the required work needed to maintain a
successful classroom that is not grouped by ability.
Regardless of the above-mentioned roadblocks to change, data from STAR scores at
Sand Rock High School show that change needs to be made. Proficiency scores on the STAR
test show that the methods used currently at Sand Rock High School are ineffective. Also, as a
teacher at Sand Rock High School, I have seen the negative effects on students who are tracked
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 5
before high school. Lower-ability students lose the confidence they need to make progress, and
all abilities lose the opportunity to collaborate with diverse peers.
Teachers across the country have been making changes to their ability grouping practices
to be able to meet the needs of all learners without grouping them by ability (Spear, 1994). The
purpose of this study is to determine the effect of mixed-ability classes on all students and to
determine if there is a link between mixed-ability classrooms and increased student achievement.
It is hypothesized that students placed in mixed-ability classrooms will outperform students who
are separated by ability.
Data Graphic and Discussion
The following table of data shows proficiency and non-proficiency, as a percentage, in
mathematics at each grade level, 1st grade through 8th grade at Sand Rock High School for the
2020-2021 school year. This data comes directly from STAR reports. The data shows that there
is a noted drop in proficiency percentages in grades who initiate the participation of the
technique of grouping students by ability, i.e., 4th and 7th grades. It is also interesting to note that
beginning in 4th grade, more students are non-proficient than are proficient. Prior to this, the
pattern is reversed. This shows that after tracking begins, proficiency rates drop.
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 6
STAR Data (End-Of-Year) FY21
GRADE Students Proficient on
Student NOT Proficient on
1st 78 22
2nd 69 31
3rd 63 37
4th 43 57
5th 48 52
6th 55 45
7th 32 68
8th 35 65
Impact on Student Achievement
According to research and personal experience, there are many reasons as to why a
mixed-ability classroom would be preferable to a homogeneous-ability classroom for all students
involved. The main topic of opposition to the previous statement pertains to the high-ability
students in mixed-ability classrooms. Many educators claim that their desire to not have mixed-
ability classrooms is that these high-ability students will not make as much progress as they
would in a classroom of just other high-ability students. Research shows, however, that even
though high-ability students initially perform slightly better in homogenous-ability classrooms,
the effects are temporary and are diminished in subsequent years (Abadzi, 1985).
Many researchers discourage homogeneous-ability grouping since it heavily limits
opportunities for students of all abilities to be able to “enjoy the cognitive and social benefits of
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 7
group work despite sitting in groups for most of the time during their lessons” (Ambreen &
Conteh, 2021). When students are not diversely grouped, they lose the opportunity to have
conversations with peers who likely come from differing backgrounds and may have different
opinions. In a Learner’s Perspective Study in which students from 14 countries were asked to
identify the main event in a lesson from which they learned the most. The most common
response from 13 out of the 14 countries was “something another student said” (Clarke, 2021).
This is an important statement coming from students themselves. This means that without this
interaction between abilities, lower ability students miss having the quality of explanations that
come from their peers. Also, as said in many mathematics classrooms, “If you don’t know it well
enough to explain it, then you don’t really understand it”. This is a skill that the high-ability
students miss as it is unnecessary to try to teach another person how to do a skill or how to
understand a concept if everyone around them is learning as fast as they are.
The experimental research plan involves creating three classes of 7th-grade students at
Sand Rock High School. One class will be selected by random sampling to create the mixed-
ability class. The sample chosen was because the 7th-grade year was shown to have a large
decrease in proficiency levels on the STAR test from the previous year. It was also chosen as the
sample since my position as the math department chair for Sand Rock High School will enable
me to monitor the validity of the experiment without directly affecting it as I do not teach 7th-
grade. The sampling technique is stratified random to ensure the correct proportions of different
ability ranges be included in the mixed-ability class. The mixed-ability class is pulled first from
each ability grouping randomly. Then remaining students will be divided equally down the
middle of performance level on the previous year’s STAR test to ensure two homogeneously
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 8
grouped classes by ability. Each student in 7th-grade will be taught by the same teacher for the
first semester and then transition to a different teacher the second semester. This will help to
ensure that any differences in proficiency from class to class will not be related to a difference in
teacher. The two homogenous classes will be taught as normal while the mixed-ability class will
have the ability to incorporate collaboration activities that are otherwise impossible in a
homogenous-ability classroom. Students in all three classes will be randomly assigned numbers
to protect their identities. Informed consent will be obtained from parents and guardians since the
experiment involves minors.
Summary (of Chapter 1)
The data reflects a problem with proficiency levels on the STAR mathematics test at
Sand Rock High School. This study will focus on the current 7th-grade class at this school. By
creating a mixed-ability instead of a homogenous-ability class, it is expected that students in the
mixed-ability classroom will outperform students in the homogenous-ability classroom. This will
be achieved by incorporating mixed-ability grouping best practices, which will, in turn, increase
the confidence level of lower-ability students. It will also provide valuable collaboration
activities among for ability levels.
Chapter 2: Literature Review
The majority consensus in educational literature suggests that ability grouping is harmful
to students. This is especially true for groups such as ELL students and minorities, that get
disproportionally placed into the low-ability classes. Unfortunately, socioeconomic status is also
a predictor of track assignment in public schools (Epple et al., 2002). In addition, the literature
suggests that regardless of how students are grouped by ability, achievement gaps are evident
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 9
between the tracks (Chmielewski, 2014). This indicates that no matter how homogeneous ability
grouping was attempted, results were the same. Even for high-ability students, it has been shown
to only contribute temporarily to the success of those students. Educational literature about
ability grouping agrees on the wide range of benefits of mixed-ability grouping to include both
psychological, social, and academic advantages.
Best Practices for Increasing Proficiency
The use of best practices in a mixed-ability classroom is vital to maximize the learning
opportunities for all students. It is important for the teacher to transition from teacher-centered to
student-centered instruction (Spear, 1994). Within the student-centered classroom, there are tools
that the teacher can use to provide the proper support to struggling students while challenging the
students who are moving through the task at hand at a quicker pace.
In an article by Doug Clark (2021), he offers several ways to accomplish this. The first is
to have a quick class discussion throughout the task at hand to help provide encouragement and
clarification for students who might be struggling. He also suggests the use of enabling prompts
which are only intended to get students initially on track and are only used for students who
might need them. Additionally, Clark encourages the use of extending prompts for students who
have finished the initial task quickly and need a challenging continuation of the task.
In addition to the above-mentioned tools for differentiation, it will be helpful for teachers
to incorporate peer tutoring and peer explanation into the lessons. Many students learn better
from other students, so this is a very good benefit of having mixed-ability classes. Because of
this, it will also be helpful to provide as much opportunity as possible for students to work
together on a task so that they can talk through their problem-solving ideas with one another. The
diversity of students in a mixed-ability classroom allows for a more enriching group project
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 10
experience. In the end, the most important tools a teacher can incorporate to making a mixed-
ability classroom successful are patience, flexibility, and maintaining high expectations for all
Chapter 3: Methodology
With the population at Sand Rock High School trending towards more non-
proficient students on the STAR mathematics test than proficient, it will be important to examine
the link between how students are ability-grouped and these proficiency scores. The plan for this
study is to compare the STAR mathematics scores of 7th graders homogeneously grouped by ability
with those heterogeneously grouped by ability. Sand Rock has three groups of 7th graders who are
typically divided up into three groups of ability: above average, average, and below average. This
study will instead create a class of mixed-ability grouped 7th graders, with two other classes who
remain grouped by ability. All students will then be assessed at regular intervals to determine the
link, if any, between grouping practices and proficiency levels on the STAR mathematics test. It
is proposed that the students who are not grouped by ability will outperform the students who are
grouped by ability on the STAR mathematics test. It is also proposed that there will be positive
changes in the students’ social and emotional health. The impact of the results from this study
could affect grouping practices at Sand Rock High School, which will, in turn, benefits student
proficiency levels for all grades at the school.
Sand Rock School is a Pre-Kindergarten through 12th-grade school, however, only 7th
graders at Sand Rock will be participating in this study. This group was chosen as it is the first
grade considered high school at Sand Rock, therefore, they are already in a year of transition
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 11
from middle to high school. This transition year will be taken advantage of since doing the study
in other grades would risk interfering with the education of the students as they are already in a
set routine in the other buildings. This grade was also chosen because the two mathematics
teachers of students at Sand Rock High School are willing participants in the study.
All seventy-five 7th-grade students will be subdivided into groups of fifteen, separated by
their scores on the previous year’s STAR test. Five students will be randomly selected from each
of the five groups to form the mixed-ability class. The remaining students will be separated into
two equally homogeneous grouped ability classes.
The sampling technique is stratified random. It is stratified to ensure the correct
proportions of different ability ranges be included in the sample, mixed-ability class. The mixed
ability class is pulled first from each ability grouping randomly. The remaining students will be
divided equally down the middle of performance on the previous year’s STAR test to ensure two
homogeneously grouped classes by ability.
Role of Participants and Impact on Participants
Each student in 7th-grade will be taught by the same teacher for the first semester and
then transition to a different teacher the second semester. The two homogeneous classes will be
taught as normal while in the mixed-ability classes, the teacher will have the ability to
incorporate collaboration activities and best practices that are otherwise impossible in a
There is expected to be an immediate and positive impact on students who are in the
mixed-ability grouped class. Those students are expected to gain confidence in their math
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 12
abilities and be able to collaborate more effectively with diverse populations, which in turn will
show an increase in proficiency scores on the STAR mathematics test. Positive results from this
study will have the ability to impact practices at Sand Rock to be able to help all other grade
levels of students.
Plan for Protection of Human Subjects
Students in all three classes will be randomly assigned numbers to protect their identities.
The project director will be the only person who will have access to the list of students and these
assigned numbers. In addition, although no harm is expected to come from participation in this
study, informed consent will be obtained from parents and guardians as this study does involve
The dependent variable in this study is the proficiency percentages of the STAR math
scores of the 7th-grade students at Sand Rock High School participating in this study as this is
what is expected to be affected by the independent variable. The independent variable in this
study is the instruction techniques of mixed-ability grouping that are unavailable in
homogeneously grouped classrooms. More specifically, this would include collaboration
techniques that maximize the learning of all students.
Students will be selected for each class prior to the beginning of the school year based on
the previous year’s STAR mathematics scores. They will then be reassessed in the first two
weeks of school to ensure there are no outliers in the grouping of students. Students will not be
moved at that point; any outliers will just be noted in the data. Additionally, all students will be
given the STAR assessment two additional times per semester, at the first nine-week mark and
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 13
then at the end of the semester. The students will be assessed on the same day, except for absent
students. Those students will be assessed on the first day of their return, when possible. Potential
links between class ability grouping and STAR proficiency scores will be determined at the end
of the school year.
Constitutive and Operation Definitions
The STAR mathematics test is an online assessment program that assesses 49 sets of
math skills in 1st through 7th grade and 44 sets of skills in 9th through 12 grades to determine a
student’s overall math achievement. The three classes of students will be assigned the letters A,
B, and C. Class A will consist of the mixed-ability students. Class B will consist of the
homogeneously grouped high-ability students, and Class C will consist of the homogeneously
grouped lower ability students. The teachers will be assigned the numbers 1 and 2. Teacher 1
will be the first-semester teacher, and Teacher 2 will be the second-semester teacher.
Description of Data
The data will come from the STAR mathematics test given to all 7th-grade students. The
test will be given once at the beginning of the school year and then once at the end of each nine
weeks for a total of five assessments. Confirmation or rejection of the hypothesis that the class of
mixed-ability students will outperform either class of homogeneous ability grouped students will
occur only at the end of the year when all data has been obtained. The arrival of the confirmation
or rejection of the hypothesis will be obtained from analyzing the progress of students
individually and by class as a whole.
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 14
Reliability and Validity of Instrument
The STAR test is widely used in all fifty states in the United States to gauge the
proficiency levels of students in grades 1-12. It is also one of the main instruments in Response
to Intervention (RTI) placement at Sand Rock School. The STAR assessment will be given to
students on the same day, except for student absences, to limit different extraneous factors from
student to student. Even though the teacher will change at the semester mark, all 7th-grade
students will have the same teacher at the same time to ensure that any differences in proficiency
from class to class are not related to a difference in teacher.
Currently, there is a high rate of absenteeism especially due to COVID quarantines. This
could affect individual student achievement. In addition, any potential lack of ability of the
teacher to be able to incorporate sound techniques of mixed-ability classes could also affect
student achievement of the classes. The current teachers of 7th graders at Sand Rock High School
are willing participants, but if there were any changes to this scenario, it would be important to
ensure that any teacher participating in this study does not have potential biases about mixed
ability grouping that could affect the outcome of the study.
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 15
Abadzi, H. (1985). Ability grouping effects on academic achievement and self-esteem: Who
performs in the long run as expected? The Journal of Educational Research, 79(1), 36–
Ambreen, S., & Conteh, J. (2021). Children’s interactions in ability-based groups in a primary
classroom. The European Educational Researcher, 4(1), 85–107.
Bui, S., Imberman, S., & Craig, S. (2012). Poor results for high achievers. Education Next, 12(1),
Childhood Education. (2014). Reiterates harm from “ability grouping” in school. Childhood
Education, 90(2), 169.
Chmielewski, A. K. (2014). An international comparison of achievement inequality in within-
and between-school tracking systems. American Journal of Education, 120(3), 293–324.
Clarke, D. (2021). Calling a spade a spade: The impact of within class ability grouping on
opportunity to learn mathematics in the primary school. Australian Primary Mathematics
Classroom, 26(1), 3–8.
Epple, D., Newlon, E., & Romano, R. (2002). Ability tracking, school competition, and the
distribution of educational benefits. Journal of Public Economics, 83(1), 1–48.
Harklau, L. (1994). Tracking and linguistic minority students: Consequences of ability grouping
for second language learners. Linguistics and Education, 6(3), 217–244.
Holmes, C. T., & Ahr, T. J. (1994). Effects of ability grouping on academic achievement and
self-concept of African American and White students. The Clearing House: A Journal of
Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 67(5), 294–297.
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 16
Losen, D. (1999). Silent segregation in our nation’s schools. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties
Law Review, 34(2), 517–546.
McGillicuddy, D., & Devine, D. (2020). ‘You feel ashamed that you are not in the higher
group’— Children’s psychosocial response to ability grouping in primary school. British
Educational Research Journal, 46(3), 553–573.
Spear, R. C. (1994). Teacher perceptions of ability grouping practices in middle level schools.
Research in Middle Level Education, 18(1), 117–130.
Standing, K., Lewis, L., & National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Pre-COVID ability
grouping in U.S. public school classrooms. Data Point. National Center for Education
Sullivan, J. F. (1998). Meeting the individual needs of all learners in the inclusion classroom.
The Justice Professional, 11(1–2), 175–187.
Webel, C., & Dwiggins, A. (2019). Prospective elementary teachers’ experiences with and
perspectives on grouping by ability in mathematics. Mathematics Teacher Education and
Development, 21(2), 4–23.
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 17
The University of West Alabama
Research Proposal Title: The Effects of a Mixed-Ability Classroom on STAR Mathematics Scores
1. What is the purpose of the study? The purpose of this study is to determine the effect of mixed-ability classes on all
2. How was I chosen? You were chosen because you are a 7th grader at Sand Rock High School. The 7th grade class was chosen
to participate due to their being a noted drop in proficiency levels in this grade in the past.
3. What will be involved in participating? You will be placed in either a like or mixed ability class of students. Selection for
these groups is random, and you will not be informed as to which group you are in. You will also be given 5 STAR math
assessments throughout the year. These assessments are not due, but this is the data that will be used in this study.
4. Who will know what I say? You will be assigned a random number at the beginning of research. Only Felisha Cleland, the
research director, will be aware of your specific number. That way, anything you say will be associated with your number instead
of your name. Also, any of your STAR scores will only be associated with your number, not your name.
5. What risks and benefits are associated with participation? There will be very little risk to you as you as every effort will
be made to ensure that your education is not hindered by this study. However, it may be found that by your participation in this
study, changes will be made at Sand Rock School to ensure that learning is maximized for all students at Sand Rock.
6. What are my rights as a respondent? You may ask any questions regarding the research, and they will be answered
fully. Your participation in the study is voluntary; you may withdraw at any time.
7. What will be published? Following the completion of this research proposal, I plan to maintain my records for use in future
publications and scholarly presentations. I plan to publish my findings as articles in professional journals, with the ultimate goal
of publishing a book or a chapter in a book.
8. If I want more information, whom can I contact about the study? This study has been approved by the University of West
Alabama’s Internal Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects. This board can be contacted through the office of Mrs.
Patricia Pratt. In addition, my research advisor, Mrs. Annah Rogers, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Felisha Cleland, Project Director Respondent’s signature, Date
This consent form has all the required information from Federal law.
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 18
Authorization for a Minor to Serve as a Subject in Research
Authorization for a Minor to Serve as a Subject in Research
I authorize the service of _____________________ as a subject in the research investigation entitled: The Effects of
(name of minor)
a Mixed-Ability Classroom on STAR Mathematics Scores.
The nature and general purpose of the research procedure and the known risks have
been explained to me. I understand that _____________________ will be given a preservice
(name of minor)
explanation of the research and that he/she may decline to serve. Further, I understand that he/she may terminate
his/her service in this research at any time he/she so desires.
I understand the known risks are the possibility of reading scores not increasing or being given behavior
modification when it is not needed.
I understand also that it is not possible to identify all potential risks in an experimental procedure, and I
believe that reasonable safeguards have been taken to minimize both the known and the potential but unknown risks.
I agree further to indemnify and hold harmless the University of West Alabama and its agents and
employees from any and all liability, actions, or causes of actions that may accrue to the subject minor as a result of
his/her activities for which this consent is granted.
(parent or guardian)
To be retained by researcher
THE EFFECTS OF A MIXED-ABILITY CLASSROOM 19
Permission to Conduct Research
Permission to Conduct Research
Felisha Cleland, Teacher
40 Quail Drive
Centre, AL 35960
October 4, 2021
Mr. Ben East, Principal
Sand Rock High School
1950 Sand Rock Ave
Sand Rock, AL 35983
Dear Mr. East,
I would like to conduct a study using the 7th Grade classes of Sand Rock High School. The study
proposes to research the effects of a mixed-ability classroom on STAR mathematics scores. The results
of this study will improve the educational practices of teachers and the school. It will also impact the
mathematical proficiency of the students at Sand Rock School. The study will take place from August 1,
2022 to May 31, 2023. It will be conducted by me, Mrs. Felisha Cleland, a current mathematics teacher.
I feel that this research study is a very worthwhile endeavor for our students and school. Please
review the enclosed information in order to make a decision concerning our school’s ability to conduct
this research. A consent form has been included.
Mrs. Felisha Cleland
Sand Rock High School