Ability grouping and acceleration have long been hot-button issues in the education world, with advocates on both sides of the issue making strong points for their view.

However, a new study from Northwestern University indicates that schools should use both ability grouping and acceleration to help gifted students.

The researchers examined more than a century of data on the subject and came to the conclusion that putting students of similar skills and abilities together in the same class is a highly effective, low-cost method to increase educational achievement.

Furthermore, the researchers said, acceleration—skipping grades or getting early admission to college, for example—gives students the opportunity to progress more rapidly toward their educational goals.

“Although acceleration is widely supported by research as an effective strategy for meeting the needs of advanced learners, it’s still rarely used, and most schools do not systematically look for students who need it,” said study co-author Paula Olszewski-Kubilius.

Critics of ability grouping and acceleration say that taking talented students out of classes can mean that other students don’t have leaders or role models. They also argue that it creates greater achievement gaps and lower self-esteem for students who are struggling to perform at grade level.

However, proponents argue that these techniques greatly benefit students who are insufficiently challenged in their grade-level classroom. When classes have more students of the same ability level, it’s easier for teachers to teach at a level that matches a student’s needs. Students also benefit from being able to work with others at the same academic level.

The research did show that accelerated students performed much better than non-accelerated students of the same age and comparable to non-accelerated older students. Within-class grouping, cross-grade subject grouping, and gifted and talented programs seemed to work the best for helping these academically talented students.

Ultimately, the researchers wrote, the conversation needs to evolve beyond whether ability grouping and acceleration can ever work, because most evidence shows that it does. “Academic acceleration and most forms of ability grouping like cross-grade subject grouping and special grouping for gifted students can greatly improve K-12 students’ academic achievement,” they said.

What do you think? Do you agree with the researchers? Do ability grouping and acceleration lead to increased performance? What problems have you seen with these techniques? Would you use them in your classroom? Please share your thoughts in the comments.