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Ability Grouping and Acceleration in Gifted Education

Diverse opinions about gifted education and how to define giftedness.

Which of the following statements about gifted education are true? (1) The term gifted means various things to various people. (2) K12 teachers generally express negative attitudes toward gifted students. (3) Among the high school dropouts in your district, some are likely to be gifted. (4) Students with learning disabilities can also be gifted. (5) White and Asian students are overrepresented in gifted programs. (6) Some education stakeholders believe that gifted students are best served in special programs, some advocate including them in regular classrooms, and others argue for school wide enrichment programs. (7) Most of the research on ability grouping among gifted students was conducted more than a decade ago. (8) Definitions of giftedness vary from state to state, as do guidelines for providing gifted education; implementation is most often a district administrator's responsibility.

According to the available evidence, all of these statements are true. Diverse opinions about gifted education and how to define giftedness seem to be the norm. Each of the issues mentioned above certainly merits discussion. However, the following results from research groups focus on the effects of ability grouping and acceleration on the academic and social welfare of students identified as gifted.

Academically, gifted and talented students suffer when placed in classes covering grade-level material only, but these students gain academic benefits when placed in advanced and enriched classes, according to researcher James Kulik (2004). Kulik reached this conclusion after conducting two meta-analyses. The first involved 23 studies that compared the achievement of students of the same age and intelligence in accelerated versus nonaccelerated classes. In all 23 studies, the students in accelerated classes performed better than those in nonaccelerated classes on subject-matter tests, usually "by about one year on a grade-equivalent scale." The second meta-analysis involved 25 studies of enriched classes for talented students. In 22 of these studies, the students in enriched classes outperformed those in regular, mixed-ability classes. On average, those in enriched classes gained 1.4 years on a grade-equivalent scale, while those in regular classes gained one year. Kulik concluded that "overall, the positive effects of accelerated and enriched classes on student learning are probably due to curricular differentiation."

Experimental studies of grouping support Kulik's conclusion. These studies suggest that ability grouping alone has no significant effect on learning. But grouping accompanied by appropriate curricular changes can make a difference. The strongest effects on student achievement result from accelerated and enriched instruction that make considerable adjustments for students' learning rates. Moderate effects on student achievement result from moderate adjustments in the curriculum for both cross- grade and within class programs.

The effects of grouping on students' self-esteem has been studied and debated for years. In 1992, Kulik conducted a meta-analysis of 13 studies examining the effects of grouping on self-esteem. He found that on average, students of high ability tended to lose a bit of their self-esteem when placed in classes with others of equal ability. Slow learners, however, got a slight boost in self-esteem when they attended classes with others of equal ability. Some researchers (e.g., March and Parker 1984) have been concerned about the potential dip in self-esteem when gifted students participate in special programs. Kulik, however, asserts that most gifted students emerge "with a little more modesty about their abilities" but also "a healthy sense of their own self-worth."

In 2005, researchers Linda Brody and Carol Mills summarized findings from more than 30 years of "talent search" research conducted by the Center for Talented Youth and others. This research has "validated the use of above-level assessments to identify students ready for advanced coursework; demonstrated the positive effect of rigorous summer programs on academic achievement, social development and students' goals; and proven the effectiveness of a variety of acceleration strategies, as well as ability grouping, in serving gifted learners."

Carla Thomas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia, a nonprofit education research and development organization ( For references used in this article, go to