Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Ability Grouping in Catholic and Public Schools

Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Ability Grouping in Catholic and Public Schools

Article excerpt

Researchers have found that students who attend Catholic high schools tend to outperform public high school students on standardized tests of achievement. Although many aspects of this finding have been examined in subsequent research, little attention has been paid to the issue of how ability grouping affects achievement across school sectors. A nearly universal practice in middle and secondary schools, ability grouping works to channel learning opportunities to students. The authors trace the history of ability grouping and review the findings regarding ability group effects, the assignment process, and mobility across groups in each school sector. Their analyses suggest that the way ability grouping is implemented in Catholic schools contributes to the Catholic school advantage in achievement.


Catholic schools have long been regarded as institutions that provide a high quality education to their students. Catholic parents send their children to Catholic schools not only because they value the religious instruction the children receive, but also because they believe their children will receive an outstanding education. Increases in attendance by non-Catholic students indicate that non-Catholic parents also think these schools offer a superior education (Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993).

Until the latter part of the 20th century, little empirical research had been conducted to evaluate the quality of a Catholic education. The positive reputation of Catholic schools was based primarily on a sense that Catholic school graduates were successful in gaining admission to elite colleges, in receiving academic scholarships and honors, and attaining a high rate of college completion. It was not until the 1980s, more than 100 years after the creation of the Catholic school system, that survey data became available to permit research examining the Catholic school reputation for excellence.

The first wave of the national longitudinal survey, High School and Beyond (HSB) became available in 1982. This data set contained information on students in 1,015 secondary public and private schools across the country. Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore (1982) analyzed these cross-sectional data to compare student achievement in Catholic and public schools. They found that students in Catholic schools earned higher test scores than their peers in public or other private schools. While the differences in test scores across school sector were not large, they were noteworthy in their consistency across subject area, grade, and school demographic characteristics. This result became known as the Catholic school advantage. The study provided empirical support for the belief that Catholic schools are particularly successful in promoting student academic achievement.

The Coleman et al. (1982) study was criticized on methodological and statistical grounds. The sharpest criticism stemmed from the fact that the analysis was based on cross-sectional data and hence could not establish causality. When the second wave of HSB became available, Hoffer, Greeley, and Coleman (1985) repeated the analysis. Their results, based on longitudinal models, showed the same Catholic school advantage that had been observed in the cross-sectional study. The researchers concluded that Catholic schools are engaging in practices and policies that are particularly conducive to student learning. They hypothesized that a strong curriculum, strict discipline, and a communal spirit characterize Catholic schools and account for their academic success.

In the subsequent analyses of the HSB data, Greeley (1982) and Hoffer et al. (1985) employed several analytic techniques to examine the Catholic school advantage. These studies revealed a positive effect of Catholic school attendance on verbal and mathematics achievement gains from sophomore to senior year. This effect was equivalent to half a grade in these subjects. It was attributed to the strength of the curriculum, the number of required courses, and the amount of homework assigned. …

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