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 setting 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.
Setting 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 setting or streaming make slightly less progress than students taught in mixed achievement classes.
The evidence suggests that setting 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 setting or streaming is not an effective way to raise achievement for most students.
Setting 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.
In Australia, there is a strong culture of streaming in schools, even though it can detrimental to, and has not been adequately shown to considerably improve, student achievement. In Australian schools, the most common practice is setting. This is where streaming occurs for only a few classes, commonly literature and numeracy classes, without explicit targeting and rearranging. With this method of streaming, the impact is less visible. An Australian study that examined the effect of streaming for primary students in New South Wales found a zero to negative effect on student outcomes. Click here for a summary of the Australasian based research on setting or streaming.
How secure is the evidence?
The evidence on setting and streaming has accumulated over at least 50 years and there are a large number of experimental studies. The conclusions on the impact of setting 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 setting and streaming are more commonly used for older students.
In an Australian context, studies tend to show an overall negative or insignificant impact, with slight benefits for higher performing students.
A 2012 OECD review concluded that regrouping or streaming students is not associated with higher outcomes at a system level, and that students from low-income families are likely to be negatively affected. In Australia, a 2012 study conducted by the University of Newcastle examined the impact of regrouping in primary schools in New South Wales. The author concluded that on average regrouping did not appear to lead to improvements in learning.
What are the costs?
Setting and streaming are organisational strategies that have few associated financial costs. Additional expenditure may be needed if setting 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 setting 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 setting or streaming on student engagement and attitudes to learning, particularly for lower attaining students?