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The tie between mixed-age ability grouping and standards-based grading

By May 12, 2009June 17th, 20164 Comments

When McREL delivers professional development on cooperative learning, we often talk about the tangent topic of ability grouping. The discussion is often fraught with misconceptions and strong opinions. Needless to say, it’s a controversial subject.

Lately an old form of mixed-age ability grouping has been given a closer look by schools and districts that are moving toward standards-based grading. This old form of ability grouping began in four elementary schools in Joplin, Missouri in 1954 and is known as the “Joplin Plan” (Cushenbery, 1967). Essentially, forms of the Joplin Plan include careful diagnosis of each student’s proficiency level in a given subject (reading level, math level, etc.), placement in a mixed age group at similar proficiency levels, and structural changes to the school’s schedule to accommodate teaching multiple levels/groups of different aged students. The big difference between this type of grouping and what most educators think of as ability grouping is that Joplin Plans are not based on homogeneous aptitudes in a given subject at a uniform age or grade. In other words, it does not group all of the 4th grade students “good at math” in one group. It groups students ages 9-11 that are performing at the 4th grade level together.

Now consider the mixing in of standards-based grading. It uses a form of assessment that mixes summative and formative data based on proficiency criterion for standards of what every student is expected to know, and a score is set compared to these benchmarks rather than a ranking compared to a norm. It is fully expected that every child will become proficient in all areas by the end of a period. If they are not, the data will show more precisely which areas are in need of improvement and which areas are at acceptable levels of proficiency. For instance, instead of a “C+” in writing, a student would have a report card with 8 difference areas of writing assessed by rubric score. Combined this with other indicators of proficiency, students can be grouped more effectively into Joplin Plan structures. For instance, learning structures like these have been recently incorporated by Adams County School District 50 in Colorado. (see and “Adams 50 skips grades, lets students be pacesetters” at

I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking that in your experience, ability grouping has not worked and that it hurts those students at the bottom the most. If you are thinking this, you might be right, but dig deeper. Do some searching at and find out more. Think of the psychological dynamics of traditional ability grouping compared to Joplin Plan grouping. The type of ability grouping that many researchers have discounted tends to group same-age students together by aptitude in a given topic. Thus, all of the 4th grade students that are good at math are in a group and all of the 4th grade students struggling with math are in another group. Most of us intuitively know what is going to happen. The teacher will unconsciously have lower expectations for the students in the low group. In general, the students in the low group have poor vocabularies, work habits, and attitudes toward the subject. Thus, intellectual discourse is weak. As students are influenced by their peers, an environment is created in which it becomes “cool” to not work hard, not know what you are doing, and dislike the subject. While the upper level group doesn’t experience the same ill effects, they may become elitist, perfectionist, and intolerant as they compete against the “best and the brightest.”

In a Joplin Plan group, a 9 year old with a keen verbal ability and strong work habits could be in the same class with an 11 year old who struggles. The 11 year old may take example from the 9 year old and improve his/her performance. With varied levels of aptitude, but standardized proficiency levels, intellectual discourse tends to be of a level that promotes critical thinking and improves understanding. Maturity and proficiency level determine your group, not age or aptitude. An 11 year old could be in a 9-11, 10-12, or 11-13 year old’s grouping. All of which are at the same proficiency level. Hence, if a particular 11 year old like’s to tease 9 year olds, he/she can be put in the 11-13 grouping. Assessment is ongoing, so students can be regrouped on a quarterly basis if needed. This allows us to make up lost time for students who are behind in their proficiency.

My own son is in such a grouping. I volunteered in his group just the other day and was impressed with how skillfully the teacher managed to deal with students of different age, but similar proficiency. Still I wonder. This is a complicated topic. Does your school use some form of a Joplin Plan and/or standards-based grading? If so, how does it work in your school? Do you think it improves student achievement for all types of students?

Written by Matt Kuhn.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Lorraine says:

    I am very interested in this topic also. Our district has been using assessment data to set district, school, classroom, and student goals. Planning instruction based upon similar skill sets can assist teachers develop better lessons. Student learning can be addressed more directly with less boredom or struggle. Maybe the key is flexibility and the ability to move students between instructional groups?

  • Melissa Parry says:

    “Success for All” was a reading program that was employed for a school I once worked in. In that school it worked extremely well. The teachers were fully invested in making it work. It also incorporated elements of daily supervision of the teacher (to insure they kept students on task) and mandatory nightly homework. In a school across town, where the teachers were resistant to change and against supervision the same program made no difference in student achievement.

  • Kelly Wilhelm says:

    I am interested in this topic as well since I work in a school where we do homogeneously group our students and I have the “low-achieving students.” I have seen the students make progress, but unsure if they could have made more progress had they had fellow students to compete with in the classroom. I had not heard of the Joplin plan and am very intrigued by this thought. I like how it is still essentially teaching the same curriculum, just to the students when they are ready for that information. I recently worked with a STEM summer program focused on three main standards for the whole summer. The main idea of the summer program was the students had four weeks to master those three standards. If a student met the standard in one week, but did not in the other weeks, it was still considered they met the standard. It was not an average like we are used to in traditional educational thinking. It took a while for me to adjust to this thinking, but the more I worked with it the more it made sense. How can I say a child does not know something simply because the one time and maybe the only time I taught it to them, they did not master it? Children need more time and more opportunities to learn. They need to learn at a pace that meets their needs and not ours. I think the Joplin plan would enable the children to really learn at their own pace and not just be given the “basic” information in a low class for their grade level. I am curious to hear more from you about your son and how it is working for him. I am also curious as to the implications this would have on testing? Instead of grade level testing, maybe moving into skill testing?

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Kelly, thanks for the astute comments. It is working out pretty well for my son, but the mixed ages are hard to set up at the highest levels.

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