Evidence for Learning: Setting or streaming

Setting or streaming

A summary of the research evidence on setting or streaming in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of setting or streaming on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on setting or streaming. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of setting or streaming in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Students with similar levels of current achievement are grouped together either for specific lessons on a regular basis (regrouping or regrouping), or as a whole class (streaming or tracking). The assumption is that it will be possible to teach more effectively or more efficiently with a narrower range of achievement in a class. In Australia, there is a strong culture of streaming in schools (Johnston & Wildy, 2016) even though it is detrimental to student achievement.

Perry (2008) examined educational inequality using PISA data and discussed streaming practices in Australia and internationally. Curriculum differentiation within institutions, such as tracking or streaming, is the mediating factor in the relationship between student SES and academic achievement. In particular, the use of ability grouping explains 60 per cent of the association between student SES and academic achievement.

Based on interviews with eight teachers across three Australian primary schools, Macqueen (2010) examined the attitudes of teachers towards streaming (regrouping) in literacy. She concluded that regrouping negatively impacts teaching practices and student learning. However, no academic achievement data was used to support this claim. Another study by Macqueen (2012) examined the academic outcomes of between-class achievement grouping for literacy and numeracy in Australian primary schools. Results on standardised tests for streamed classes and mixed-achievement classes were compared. Years 3 – 6 students in the study were streamed based on literacy and numeracy data. Growth results in writing were very similar between the two groups. No significant differences were found between individual schools or classes for literacy (p=0.279), mathematics (p=0.497), or writing (p=0.727). Regrouping in the study proved ineffective.

The Australian study by Vialle, Heaven and Ciarrochi (2015) examined the relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement in 65 high-ability secondary students. They found no differences in measured self-esteem between gifted and non-gifted students (mean of .745 for the gifted group, .781 for non-gifted). There was no correlation between self-esteem and academic achievement for the gifted group (r=.020, ns).

An international literature review by Belfi, Goos, De Fraine and Van Damme (2012), which contains Australian data, examined the effect of setting or streaming on non-academic measures. They found ability grouping to be slightly beneficial for the wellbeing of students who are academically strong and very detrimental for the wellbeing of weaker students. The reverse was found to be true for academic self-concept. While single sex schools are advantageous for the wellbeing and academic concepts of girls, there appears to be no effect for boys’ only contexts. In Australia, the most common streaming practice is setting, whereby streaming occurs for only a few classes, commonly literacy and numeracy, without explicit targeting and rearranging. With this method of streaming, the impact is less visible.

Another international literature review by Johnston and Wildy (2016), which has an Australian focus, examined streaming in the secondary school context and its effects on students’ learning outcomes (academic, social and psychological). While there are no national or state/​territory policies on streaming in Australia, 98 per cent of schools in Australia use some form of streaming to organise students. The authors discuss how teachers may mediate the effects of streaming. Teachers generally prefer streaming because it presumably allows for a greater level of targeted teaching. Overall, however, streaming appears to have a negative impact on the academic outcomes of all students. Equity is another issue that concerns streaming. Students’ social backgrounds are directly linked to how their academic outcomes are affected by streaming – the lower the SES, the greater the negative impact on students. The authors also examined streaming in relation to Australian Curriculum and OECD recommendations for promoting equity and quality in education. The vast majority of the literature on streaming within Australia focuses on mathematics and top-performing students, and often misses its negative effects on lower performing students and minority groups.

Belfi, B., Goos, M., De Fraine, B., & Van Damme, J. (2012). The effect of class composition by gender and ability on secondary school students’ school well-being and academic self-concept: A literature review. Educational Research Review, 7(1), 62 – 74.

Johnston, O., & Wildy, H. (2016). The effects of streaming in the secondary school on learning outcomes for Australian students – A review of the international literature. Australian Journal of Education, 60(1), 42 – 59.

Macqueen, S. (2010). Primary teacher attitudes in achievement-based literacy classes. Issues in Educational Research,20(2), 118 – 136.

Macqueen, S. (2012). Academic outcomes from between-class achievement grouping: the Australian primary context. The Australian Educational Researcher, 39(1), 59 – 73.

Perry, L. B. (2008). Using PISA to examine educational inequality. Orbis Scholae, 2(2), 77 – 86.

Vialle, W., Heaven, P. C., & Ciarrochi, J. (2015). The relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement in high ability students: Evidence from the Wollongong Youth Study. Australasian Journal of Gifted Education, 24(2), 17 – 23.

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Ability grouping; gifted and talented, within class ability grouping.