What is it?
The terms ‘setting’ and ‘streaming’ are used to describe a variety of approaches by which students with similar levels of current achievement are consistently grouped together for lessons.
- ‘Setting’ usually involves grouping students in a given year group into classes for specific subjects, such as mathematics and English, but not across the whole curriculum.
- ‘Streaming’ (also known as ‘tracking’ in some countries) usually involves grouping students into classes for all or most of their lessons, so that a student is in the same group regardless of the subject being taught.
Students in different sets or streams sometimes follow a different curriculum, particularly when different national tests, different examination levels or different types of academic and vocational qualifications are available.
The aim of regrouping and streaming approaches is to enable more effective and efficient teaching by narrowing the range of student achievement in a class.
Although these practices are sometimes described as ‘ability grouping’, we refer here to ‘achievement’ rather than ‘ability’, as schools generally use measures of current performance, rather than measures of ability, to group students.
Regrouping and streaming are combined in this Toolkit entry because these practices are usually combined in the evidence reviews on achievement grouping. Both involve regular and consistent grouping of students into classes based on achievement.
For evidence on the impact of grouping students by achievement within classes, see the Within-class achievement grouping Toolkit entry. Other types of achievement grouping, such as grouping by achievement across year groups, and teaching high attaining students with older year groups, are not covered in the Toolkit as they are less commonly used.
How effective is it?
On average, students experiencing regrouping or streaming make slightly less progress than students taught in mixed achievement classes.
The evidence suggests that regrouping and streaming has a very small negative impact for low and mid-range attaining learners, and a very small positive impact for higher attaining students. There are exceptions to this pattern, with some research studies demonstrating benefits for all learners across the achievement range.
Overall the effects are small, and it appears that regrouping or streaming is not an effective way to raise achievement for most students.
Regrouping or streaming may also have an impact on wider outcomes such as confidence. Some studies from the broader evidence base conclude that grouping students on the basis of achievement may have longer term negative effects on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining students, for example, by discouraging the belief that their achievement can be improved through effort.
One of the challenges of achievement grouping is ensuring that students are correctly allocated to groups. Some studies from the UK suggest that misallocation is a particular problem for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at greater risk of misallocation to lower attaining groups, and the negative impact which can accompany this.
A recent EEF project aimed to improve outcomes for students by tackling poor setting practices, including misallocation. The project had no overall impact on achievement, but this appeared to be largely because it was a challenge for schools to change their setting practices.
How secure is the evidence?
The evidence on regrouping and streaming has accumulated over at least 50 years and there are a large number of experimental studies. The conclusions on the impact of regrouping and streaming are relatively consistent across different evidence reviews. However, most of the reviews present relatively basic analysis. They do not explore whether effects vary between different types of study and different interventions and the evidence base would benefit from new reviews which address these issues in more depth. Overall, the evidence is rated as limited.
The majority of the experimental evidence comes from the USA, and there are few rigorous experimental studies from other countries.
There is more evidence from secondary schools than primary schools, as regrouping and streaming are more commonly used for older students.
A large correlational study in the UK found no overall effects on GCSE performance of setting in English, mathematics or science. However, disadvantaged students are likely to do relatively worse when in sets organised by achievement.
What are the costs?
Regrouping and streaming are organisational strategies that have few associated financial costs. Additional expenditure may be needed if regrouping or streaming results in greater numbers of classes or requires additional resources for different groups. Overall the costs are estimated as very low.
What should I consider?
Have you considered alternative approaches to tailoring teaching and learning? One to one and small group tuition are targeted interventions which have positive impacts on achievement.
How will you ensure that your regrouping or streaming approach enables more effective teaching for all students, including lower attaining students? Which groups will your most experienced teachers be allocated to?
How will you ensure that all students follow a challenging curriculum, including lower attaining students?
How will you minimise the risk of allocating students to the wrong group? Have you assessed whether your grouping criteria could disadvantage certain students? For younger children, have you taken their relative age within the year group into account?
How flexible are your grouping arrangements? Students progress at different rates and so regular monitoring and assessment is important to minimise misallocation and ensure challenge for all students.
How will you monitor the impact of regrouping or streaming on student engagement and attitudes to learning, particularly for lower attaining students?