Student ability streaming
Student ‘ability’1 streaming has been endemic in Australian school education over the past 100 years. It particularly flourished in the period from the 1930s through to the 1960s linked to ideas about individuals having a fixed general level of intelligence which can be objectively measured and an accompanying belief that homogeneous ability classes enable the most effective forms of pedagogy. While these views were increasingly challenged from the 1970s by notions that such beliefs and practices act to reproduce and perpetuate social inequality and that students demonstrate a range of learning capacities in school settings in different areas of the curriculum and at different times in their school life, ability streaming is still in evidence in classrooms, schools and school systems across the country. The intent of this article is to provide an analysis of some grassroots history and experience of student ability streaming and to link this to relevant research about its impact on students and their school education.
From the student perspective
My own first experience of student ability streaming was as a student at a government secondary school in Auckland. Amazingly, at least to me, the school had two John Grahams in the same year level – myself and a football (rugby) champion. We never really got to know each other, didn’t look alike and probably both felt it was a bit creepy having someone around occupying the same name. The school was a fairly large suburban co-ed secondary school which had a strict academic streaming policy which placed the students who had done best in school tests and exams in the A class and those who had the lowest marks in the E or F class. I was an A student from the school’s entry level (Year 9) and for the first two years the other John G was in one of the other alphabet letter classes. In the following year he ‘made it’ to the A class, so there were then two of us in the same classroom who simultaneously raised our heads when someone said our name.
As an A streamer you were made to feel (and felt) special, we were the smart kids who were taught by teachers who were generally more experienced, more senior and more highly qualified. Within the student population being in the A class was not just about academic opportunities or effective pedagogical practice, it involved self-esteem, self-efficacy, peer group links and values and parental approval. In this system expectations of achievement rose or fell because of your class placement. It permeated the culture of the school and its community.
At Year 12 although students could choose a range of different subjects, the school maintained its general ability (A to D at this level) class system based on academic performance in the previous year. So, the trauma I felt looking at the class lists posted on the student noticeboard when we arrived for the first day of Form 6 (Year 12) and saw my name (with the differentiated middle initial) allocated to F6 B was very real. The bell was ringing, my friends were laughing (I think), and I was in a state of shock with no time to seek an explanation before having to go to my designated class for (what I considered) ‘dummies’. When the teacher arrived, I pointed out to him, with great agitation and a smouldering sense of injustice, that I was not supposed to be there. My marks in the external Form 5 School Certificate were all top-notch so it had to be a case of mistaken identity with my namesake. There was a pause as he left the class to check out what I’d told him. After a while he came back having verified the ‘mix-up’ and said I was to take my bag and proceed to the A class at the other end of the corridor.
On the long walk there, I passed the other John Graham on his way to the B class. We didn’t acknowledge each other, and even now I still remember how upset he looked.
Streaming or ‘tracking’ students was a taken-for-granted orthodoxy and a key organisational principle in most secondary schools at that time. The idea was that all students, and particularly those at the high end of achievement, benefitted by being placed in classes with others who had similar ‘general ability’. Some advocates of streaming also believed that it enhanced a necessary ‘competitive urge’, where the streaming hierarchy acted as a stimulus for students to try harder in order to rise up to a higher ability class, or to not fall down to a lower one. Teachers also supposedly benefitted because they had only a limited range of ability in their classes (of around 30 students) and could use a more standardised form of pedagogy. ‘Mixed ability’ teaching was confined to some primary schools which were either too small to have streamed classes or believed that student capacities were still emerging rather than being fixed, and academics had to be balanced against student well-being. These considerations fell by the wayside once school education became ‘serious’ in the secondary years.
Streaming in one form or another is still baked into school education. There are many schools and school systems around Australia supporting various types of streaming such as year level general ability grouping, subject-specific streaming within class or across one or more-year levels, ‘accelerated learning’ programs within mainstream schools, and selective secondary schools for high performers. The usual justification for ability grouping is that it has the capacity to significantly improve individual educational attainment, no matter what achievement level a student is at. Low performers get the attention they need, and high performers are challenged rather than bored. This ‘common sense’ belief, however, runs counter to much of the research about streaming which casts doubt about its effectiveness in supporting academic progress at any level and outlines a range of negative learning and social impacts on students, schools and schooling systems.
A comprehensive 2016 review of the international literature about streaming and the effects of this practice on the learning outcomes for secondary school students in Australia concluded: “The vast majority of international research finds streaming to be disadvantageous for students academically, socially and psychologically.” (Johnston & Wildy, 2016, p.54) Meta-analyses of research studies on ability streaming (Hattie and others) concluded that its ‘effect size’ was close to zero which means it has little or no effect on improving student achievement. (Hattie, 2009; Hood, 2020; Victorian Department of Education and Training, 2022) On the other hand, these researchers found that it can have a negative impact on many students, particularly those in lower attainment groups, by typecasting them with a deficit view of their capacity (reducing expectations of what they are capable of) and closing off opportunities for progress through narrowing how and what they are taught.Longer term effects on the attitudes and engagement of students in low ability streams include discouraging the belief that their attainment can be improved through effort and a negative impact on their self-concept, confidence and motivation. (Education Endowment Foundation, 2021)
A recent study of Year 10 students in streamed classes in Western Australia came to the same conclusions. (Johnston, 2022) Students felt limited by what they saw as the lowered expectations of their teachers who had “conceptualised their ability because of the streamed class they were in rather than seeing them as individuals”. In other words, when teachers see their classes as mainly homogenous in ability, the expectations that they form for this ability level will affect student outcomes even more than any ideas they hold about the ability of individual students. Students may then adapt their self-concept as a learner to suit teachers’ expectations of the class as a whole.
Ability-streamed systems have been linked to the preservation and reproduction of social inequality. (Archer et al., 2018; Loveless, 2013) Students in low achievement streams are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds thereby reinforcing their already existing social disadvantage. Evidence has identified how low SES background students are often subject to lower teacher expectations about their capabilities and are consequently at greater risk of misallocation to lower attaining groups and the negative impact which can accompany this. (Meissel et al., 2017) Some studies have also found that student 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. Analysis of low attaining students in streamed environments has found that, on average, they fall behind by one or two months a year compared to similar students in mixed ability classes. (Higgins et al., 2016; Francis et al., 2020)
Systemic school streaming
When I became a secondary teacher in Victoria and was appointed to my first school, I experienced the impact of systemic school streaming. The school I was employed at was a large co-ed technical school in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Not having been to school in Victoria I had no real notion of what a Victorian tech school was and how it differed from the high schools where I’d done my Dip. Ed. practice rounds. Technical schools had played an important role in the development of public education in Victoria. They were set up to provide pre-vocational education and training, initially to boys and later to girls as well. They expanded educational opportunities for low SES communities, offering pathways to work and various types of post-school technical training. They also presented a learning alternative to high schools where the curriculum was strongly influenced by Year 12 university entrance exams.
By the time I arrived at a technical school, the myth about being able to divide young people when they were 12 or 13 into ‘head or hands’/university or work was fading, but still had some currency. It was also a time when the Australian economy was undergoing change and secure and satisfying employment opportunities outside of the trade sector for those who left school at years 9 or 10 were diminishing. Students and their parents within the public system who had university and professional aspirations and/or were middle class stayed away from tech schools. This contributed to the lack of parity of esteem between techs and highs. The school where I taught virtually ended at Year 10. After that, students went to jobs, apprenticeships, technical colleges (later TAFEs) or unemployment. There were only a handful of students at Year 11, and their courses lacked any clear qualification outcomes, and no Year 12.
I found that most of the tech school students I taught were there because it was the closest secondary school in the low SES area where they lived. They were not there because they did not want the option of going to university and were not necessarily looking for a post-school ‘technical’ job. The technical subjects provided at the school were largely low tech. I was an English and Humanities teacher and found that my classes included a number of students (particularly girls) who were highly talented in these curriculum areas. If they were in a high school, it would be assumed that they would stay at school and complete Year 12. When I moved to a high school after a few years the literacy skills and understandings of the Year 7 and 8 students there were not significantly different to most of those I taught at the tech.
In 1985 the Blackburn review of education in Victoria, established by the Cain Labor Government, recommended that high schools and technical schools should be amalgamated to provide students with broader curricular options and that public sector secondary school provision should become ‘comprehensive’.Over the next few years, particularly under the Kennett Government, most technical schools closed or were amalgamated with neighbouring high schools.
Streaming through selective public secondary schools
The northern metro high school I taught at after my tech teaching years had at one stage operated as a selective enrolment school. This was long gone by the time I started teaching there and its student body mirrored the local community. Each year the school received a formal Department notification that students were to be informed that tests for entry into Victoria’s two selective high schools at the time - Melbourne High School and MacRobertson Girls High School - were going to be held and that interested students should apply to sit these. This did not go down well amongst the staff. We were proud to be a comprehensive secondary school which was able to meet the needs of all students - including the high achievers. The Department notice implied that the two selective schools could provide a better education than a local high school for the ‘smartest’ students. While there were limitations on the numbers from any one school who could be selected, several high achieving students who I taught in Year 8 left to enrol in a selective school in Year 9. In doing so, students at our school lost the important contribution they had been making to peer group learning.
The idea of the local public secondary school as representative of the full range of diversity in its community is an important principle for a healthy education system in a healthy democracy. The removal of academic “pilot” students from local schools is one factor contributing to high levels of socioeconomic segregation in the Australian school system. The impact is particularly felt in public schools in disadvantaged urban areas where the student profile comprises a disproportionate share of socially and academically disadvantaged students. This outcome undermines the academic attainment of students from low SES backgrounds when they are no longer learning in classrooms which have the broad mix of students, including those from well-educated homes, which research has shown enhance their achievement. (Teese, 2011)
The OECD called such segregation:
a double handicap for disadvantaged students, since schools do not mitigate the negative impact of the students’ disadvantaged background and on the contrary amplify its negative effect on their performance. Furthermore, evidence also shows that in countries where schools tend to be more segregated, the impact of the school’s socio-economic intake is higher. (OECD, 2012, p.107)
The reason for public secondary schools becoming less representative of their local neighbourhoods is mainly due to the funding privileges (both government and private) and selective enrolment policies of non-government schools. These schools remove from the public system a disproportionate number of students in the upper end of the socio-economic status spectrum and target high achieving students whose families may have too few resources to attend a private school (particularly a high-fee one) through scholarships.
Each year, when I was the Year 11 Coordinator at my northern metropolitan high school, I would receive enrolment applications from students at the local Years 7-10 Catholic school. They would indicate that Brother X had recommended that they enrol for Year 11 at our school rather than the senior Catholic College where the rest of their Year 10 peers were going. Their student reports inevitably indicated low achievement and often other social and behavioural difficulties. Our inclusive public school would enrol them and then do our best to address their learning needs which the private senior secondary college appeared unable or unwilling to do.
Selective secondaries in the public sector in Victoria also play their part in reducing the high achievers in non-selective public schools. These schools do not have a designated local community and enrol their students from across the state. Entry into the four Victorian general ability years 9-12 selective high schools - Melbourne High School (boys only), MacRobertson Girls High School (girls only), Nossal High School (co-ed)and Suzanne Cory High School (co-ed) - is through scholastic tests administered by ACER. The tests are held in July and students pay $160 to sit them (plus the additional voluntary costs of commercial tutoring). The other two public selective high schools focus on specific abilities. John Monash Science School (years 10-12) uses an entrance examination administered externally to the school by Edutest and an interview. The Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School (years 7-12) uses annual auditions and interviews.
The four general ability selective high schools have an SES student profile closer to that of elite private schools than the average public school (see Table 1). Most of their students come from advantaged backgrounds and are in the high SES category, with a very small proportion of students in the low SES quartile. Studies have shown that most families who actively and successfully engage in school choice aresocially and economically advantaged with high motivation and the possession of the requisite economic, cultural and social capital needed to succeed.
Table 1. Student characteristics of Victorian general ability selective high schools (2022)
|% Low SEA
|% Middle SEA
|% High SEA
|High School A
|High School B
|High School C
|High School D
*ICSEA - Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (Average 1000)
*LBOTE - Language background other than English
Source: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA)
In New South Wales, where the selective school model is far more pervasive, the most sought after public selective schools have a higher ICSEA than any private school. A study of the brain-drain from non-selective public schools found that selective schools in New South Wales comprise 11 per cent of government schools yet enrol almost half of the high achievers. (Ho & Bonner, 2018) An research study of 80fully selective, partially selective, private and non-selective government schools in geographic clusters in Sydney (64 schools) and Melbourne (16 schools) found that fully selective schools had the largest proportions of high SES students (89%) followed by private schools (81%), partially selective schools (57%) and public schools (50.4%). (Tham, 2021)
The most notable difference between the student populations in public selective schools and elite private schools is the proportion of students with a language background other than English. While the percentage of LBOTE students in the four Victorian selective high schools ranges from 87 to 91 percent, elite private schools have less than half these numbers. For example, the percentage of LBOTE students in Melbourne Grammar School, Geelong Grammar School, Scotch College and Haileybury College range from 15 to 40 per cent. (ACARA, 2023) Research into the migrant backgrounds of students in selective schools found that most were children of highly educated skilled migrants from Asia, especially China, Korea, other east and south-east Asian countries, and increasingly, India and south Asia. (Ho, 2016) While two of the private schools (above) had 1 percent of Indigenous students, the four public selective schools did not have any Indigenous students in 2022.
What academic difference does going to a selective school make? The few value-added studies in Australia show little if any academic improvement due specifically to attendance at a selective secondary school. A 2016 study of student outcomes of 18 selective schools in New South Wales concluded:
The absence of significant selective school effects on aggregate and subject-specific assessment scores across schools, including at the low and high cut-off schools, suggests that selective schools do not improve overall student achievement, similar to conclusions reached in other selective school evaluations. (Zen, 2016)
A 2018 study of three of the four general ability selective schools in Victoria, which compared outcomes of selective school students with those of non-selective school students who narrowly missed out on entry to selective schools, concluded:
We find matching estimates of 2 percentile points in ATAR from attending the selective schools, but they are likely overstated as they partially reflect pre-existing differences between the selective and non-selective students, such as additional motivation or latent academic ability. (Houng & Ryan, 2018)
The Year 12 results of selective schools which feature in the end-of-year league tables in the media every year have much more to do with the academic ability, personal attitudes and social backgrounds students bring to these schools than the value gained by attending this type of school. Evidence indicates that applicants to selective schools are not only academically able but are driven and conscientious with high educational aspirations. They are also disproportionately from immigrant and socio-economically advantaged backgrounds, both of which has been found to be correlated with higher levels of secondary school completion and educational aspiration.
Having an education system “characterised by winners and losers and haves and have-nots, with students competing for places and schools competing for students and resources”. (Perry, 2015) serves only to weaken the principle of a democratic society. What is the worth of segregating high achieving students in separate test-based selective schools within a public system of education if it not only undermines comprehensive non-selective public schools but entrenches a bias towards already socially advantaged students with little or no academic value added? Surely the goal must be to have a public system which is properly resourced and supported so that the wider community recognises that the quality of learning and achievement does not depend on the school you go to.
ACARA (2023). School profile 2022. https://acara.edu.au/contact-us/acara-data-access
Archer, L., Francis, B., Miller, S., Taylor, B., Tereshchenko, A., Mazenod, A., Pepper, D., & Travers, M.-C. (2018). The symbolic violence of setting: A Bourdieusian analysis of mixed methods data on secondary students’ views about setting. British Educational Research Journal, 44: 119-140. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3321
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Houng, B., & Ryan, C. (2018, June). Achievement gains from attendance at selective high schools. Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic & Social Research. Working Paper No. 8/18. https://melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/2810952/wp2018n08.pdf. p.34
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Zen, K. (2016). The Impact of Selective High Schools on Student Achievement [Honours Thesis, University of New South Wales]. School of Economics. https://www.business.unsw.edu.au/About-Site/Schools-Site/Economics-Site/Documents/ZEN-Kai-Thesis.pdf, p.82
John Graham is a former research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic) and the former editor of Professional Voice. He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. As a research officer he had particular responsibility for the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education. He has written extensively in various publications about all of these matters.
I have used the term ‘ability’ because of its common usage in school education and the relevant literature. It is not referring to a concept of a fixed and inherent level of competence or intelligence.