Tracking is separating pupils by academic ability into groups for all subjects or certain classes and curriculum within a school. It may be referred to as streaming, setting, or phasing in certain schools. In a tracking system, the entire school population is assigned to classes according to whether the students' overall achievement is above average, normal, or below average. Students attend academic classes only with students whose overall academic achievement is the same as their own.
Among older students, tracking systems usually diverge in what students are taught. Students in academically advanced tracks study higher mathematics, more foreign languages, and literature. Students in lower academic tracks often acquire vocational skills such as welding or cosmetology, or business skills, such as typing or bookkeeping. Students are usually not offered the opportunity to take classes deemed more appropriate for another track, even if the student has a demonstrated interest and ability in the subject.
Ability grouping is not synonymous with tracking. Tracking differs from ability grouping by scale and permanence. Ability groups are small, informal groups formed within a single classroom. Assignment to an ability group is often short-term (never lasting longer than one school year), and varies by subject. Assignment to an ability group is made by (and can be changed at any time by) the individual teacher, and is usually not recorded in student records. For example, a teacher may divide a typical mixed-ability classroom into three groups for a mathematics lesson: those who need to review basic facts before proceeding, those who are ready to learn new material, and those who need a challenging assignment. For the next lesson, the teacher may revert to whole-class, mixed-ability instruction, or may assign students to different groups.
Tracking was once popular in English-speaking countries, but is less used now. Strong tracking systems formed the basis of the Tripartite System in England and Wales until the 1970s, and in Northern Ireland until 2009. Germany uses a strongly tracked system. In Germany, students' achievements in their last of generally four years of primary school determine the type of secondary school they will be permitted to attend, and therefore the type of education they will receive. Weak tracking systems have been used in American schools. In this approach, local schools assign students to classrooms according to their overall achievement, so that a given classroom is primarily composed of students with either high, average, or low academic achievement.
- 1 History of tracking
- 2 Origins of race-based tracking in school desegregation
- 3 Track assignment
- 4 Advantages
- 5 Disadvantages
- 6 International Perspective
- 7 A Small Act and similarities to class-based tracking abroad
- 8 Proposed reforms
- 9 References
- 10 External links
History of tracking
Tracking and its various modifications is among the predominant organizing practices of American public schools, and has been an accepted feature in the country's schools for nearly a century. Coming into use at a time when schools were enrolling growing numbers of immigrant children as the result of compulsory schooling laws, tracking was adopted as a means of sorting those children viewed as having limited preparation or capacity for schooling from native children. Unfortunately, however, tracking quickly took on the appearance of internal segregation.
The types of tracks have changed over the years. Traditionally, there were academic, general, and vocational tracks, identified by the kind of preparation they provide. By the 1920s, some schools had developed up to eight distinctly labeled tracks that represented particular curricular programs that reflected as assessment of students’ probable social and vocational futures. Many secondary schools now base track levels on course difficulty, with tracks such as basic, honors, or college-prep. Primary schools might track in terms of high, average, or lower ability. As noted by Oakes and Martin, "school policies determine three structural qualities of the tracking system: extensiveness (the number of subjects tracked and the type of distinct curricula offered); specificity (the number of track levels offered); and flexibility (whether students move from one track to another)". Although, in theory, track assignment is based on academic ability, other factors often influence placement.
Origins of race-based tracking in school desegregation
The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court ruling of 1954 determined that the separate school statute established by Plessy v. Ferguson was unconstitutional, but a plan was not set forth for desegregating schools until the following year with the Brown II case. For schools in most southern regions of the United States, integration did not occur until the early 1970s. Mickelson (2003) stated that tracking was used as a tool to maintain white privilege by placing African-American students in lower academic tracks in Charlotte, North Carolina public schools after the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg desegregation ruling. Haney (1978) did a historical analysis on the negative effects of desegregation on African-American educators. At the secondary school level, African-American teachers or less qualified white teachers were assigned to teach African American students. Teachers in lower tracks were also found to be less organized in preparing lessons and taught fewer concepts to students (Oakes, 1987).
The origins of race-based tracking actually reach as far back as the federal court ruling in Roberts v. The City of Boston in 1850, a case that upheld separate school curriculums for blacks and whites on the belief in inherent racial differences in intelligence (Harvard Law Review, 1989). During the mid- to late-1980s, there were a few federal court cases in the Mississippi and Georgia the involved unfair race-based tracking in school systems. Quarles v. Oxford Municipal Separate School District, NAACP v. Georgia, and Montgomery v. Starkville Municipal Separate School District each ruled in favor of school districts based on the argument that socioeconomic status was a legitimate reason for tracking. Courts also held the belief that racial discrimination in education was a thing of the past by the 1980s (Harvard Law Review, 1989). Unfortunately, in rural areas of Mississippi and Georgia, African-Americans were made of a large proportion of low income students, placing them in lower academic tracks. As late as 2009, Childers (in press) found that in a successful Ohio high school that was majority African-American, students of color were still placed in lower academic tracks at a rate that did not reflect the student population. The argument for the proliferation of African-Americans in lower tracks was student choice rather than racially based practices of administrators (Childers, in press).
The ways by which students are assigned to tracks and the amount of fluidity within the tracking system varies by school and occurs in a variety of manners within individual schools. While some schools assign students to a particular track and do not allow for mobility between tracks, other schools allow students to be placed into an advanced class for one subject and a lower-ranking class for another. Non-academic factors such as schedule conflicts often affect students' track assignments as well.
Within some schools, tracking occurs in a variety of manners. Secondary schools, in general, tend to assign students to high tracks based on objective criteria, while low-track students are often placed using more-arbitrary measures. In some cases, placement is based entirely on student decision. In secondary schools in particular, test scores from primary schools may be used to determine a student's secondary track. Counselors may also work with students to choose a particular class that in turn puts them on a given track. In both primary and secondary schools, parents and peers may influence academic choices even more than guidance counselors, by encouraging students with similar backgrounds, whether academic, vocational, ethnic, religious, racial, etc., to stay together. Additionally, grouping may be done by teacher and counselor recommendation without the students' knowledge of any difference in course sections available. Though this is sometimes the case, students are often aware of ability grouping that occurs in this manner.
Proponents of tracking say that tracking has several important strengths. A major advantage of tracking is that it allows teachers to better direct lessons toward the specific ability level of the students in each class. While tracking for regular instruction makes no real difference in scholastic achievement for low and average ability students, it does produce substantial gains for gifted students in tracks specially designed for the gifted and talented. Tracking meets the need for highly gifted students to be with their intellectual peers in order to be appropriately challenged and to view their own abilities more realistically. Tracking has been refined to lean more towards a subject by subject basis rather that a person by person basis. This means that students could be in classes with their peers, as to math vs. English. Maybe a student is at a higher level in math and in a class with advanced math students, but they may be in a lower English level and are grouped with peers at their level in English.
Another positive aspect of tracking is that since it separates students by ability, students' work is only compared to that of similar-ability peers, preventing a possible lowering of their self-esteem that could result from comparisons with the work of higher ability students, or inflating the egos of the high-ability students when compared to low-ability, same-age students. Since high self-esteem is correlated with high academic achievement, tracking should, theoretically, promote academic success. However, the awareness by the student of being placed into a low track might lower self-esteem and vice-versa.
Supporters of tracking also note that it allows for higher achievement of high-ability students. Kulik and Kulik (1992) found that high-ability students in tracked classes achieved more highly than similar-ability students in non-tracked classes. Similarly, Rogers (1991) recommends that gifted and talented students spend the majority of their school day with ability peers. In 1982 and 1990, the Kuliks also found a moderate improvement in attitude toward subject material for all ability levels. Another factor of ability grouping that has been advocated is the Joplin Plan that refers directly to ability grouping for reading. These groups are generally more interchangeable and less defined. In another study, Argys, Rees, and Brewer (1996) found that high-track students’ achievement dropped when lower-ability students were integrated into the same class. Both of these studies suggest that tracking is beneficial to high-track students. Tracking can also encourage low-ability students to participate in class since tracking separates them from intimidation of the high-ability students. Some supporters of tracking also view tracking as an effective means of allocation since it helps direct students into specific areas of the labor market.
Rogers classifies tracking as one of ten types of grouping. High ability groups are often assigned special work that is more advanced than that of the other students in the class. For gifted children, such advanced work contributes to their social and emotional well-being.
Despite the positive aspects of tracking, some scholars have noted limitations of the system. Tracking often does not work as effectively as it should because of the composition of the tracks. In practice, tracks are generally not as homogeneous as they could be (although they are more homogenous than a non-tracking system, which randomly assigns students to classrooms), so some of the potential benefits can't be fully exploited. Even when tracks initially are nearly homogeneous in students' academic abilities, heterogeneity can develop over time, since students learn at different rates. Some systems reassess all students periodically to keep students of comparable ability together as they progress.
Low-track classes tend to be primarily composed of low-income students, usually minorities, while upper-track classes are usually dominated by students from socioeconomically successful groups. In 1987, Jeannie Oakes theorized that the disproportionate placement of poor and minority students into low tracks does not reflect their actual learning abilities. Rather, she argues that the ethnocentric claims of social Darwinists and the Anglo-Saxon-driven Americanization movement at the turn of the century combined to produce a strong push for "industrial" schooling, ultimately relegating the poorer minority students to vocational programs and a differentiated curriculum which she considered a lingering pattern in 20th century schools. In addition to the unequal placement of students into tracks, there is evidence to support the assertion that the appointment of teachers to classes is disproportionate. The most-experienced, highest-status teachers are often assigned to teach high-track classes, whereas less-experienced teachers are usually assigned to low-track classes. Teachers of the high-track courses were found to be more enthusiastic in teaching, better at providing explanations, and more organized than teachers of low-track courses.
Scholars have also found that curricula often vary widely among tracks, as might be expected. While the enrichment and/or acceleration of curricula is considered to be a major benefit to gifted and talented students., lessons taught in low-track classes often lack the engagement and comprehensiveness of the high-track lessons, reflecting their more remedial nature. This can put low-track students at a disadvantage for college acceptance because they often do not gain the knowledge and skills of the upper-track students, presuming they could and would if not taught under a tracked system. Oakes (1985) found that in high-track classes, teachers often used course materials and taught concepts which required extensive critical-thinking skills, whereas teachers in low-track classes tended to draw heavily from workbooks and rarely assign work that required critical thinking. "But tracking described by Oakes in 1985 had little to do with educating gifted and talented children." In general, curricula of high-track courses are much more intensive and in-depth than those of low-track courses, as would be expected. Teachers reported spending less time addressing disciplinary issues in high-track classrooms than in low-track classes. The connection between low-track students and perceived behavioral concerns has been reported frequently. Teachers in these instances often suggest that more time is required to promote proper student behavior over the development of critical thinking and independent learning.
Some studies suggest that tracking can influence students' peer groups and attitudes regarding other students. Gamoran's study (1992) shows that students are more likely to form friendships with other students in the same tracks than students outside of their tracks. Since low-class and minority students are overrepresented in low tracks with Whites and Asians generally dominating high tracks, interaction among these groups can be discouraged by tracking. However, there is no research showing an academic benefit to low track students from such interaction.
Tracking can also result in a stigmatization of low-track students. In some cases, this stigmatization is thought to have a negative impact on students' academic performance and to influence students' attitudes. In one study, it was found that, among low-achieving students, students in tracked classes were more likely than students in non-tracked classes to believe that "their fate was out of their hands." According to Carol Dweck, this could be because their teachers impose upon them a 'fixed mindset,' but it is not an inherent attribute of tracking itself. Dweck implies that teachers who promote a growth mindset could stimulate students to greater academic achievement regardless of tracking. So whether a fixed mindset is predictive of, or resulting from, a low track assignment is unknown.
The effects of social stigmatization can be some of the worst outcomes for students in lower academic tracks. Schafer and Olexa (1971) interviewed high school students in lower academic tracks to examine the effects of tracking on self-esteem and perceived academic competence. They found that students lost confidence in their abilities by their placements in low-ability classes in which teacher expectations for them were low. These dilemmas were very common as students made transitions to new schools (e.g., elementary to middle school, middle to high school). The tracking of African-American students in elementary schools reflected remnants of early desegregation in which African-American secondary school teachers were demoted to teaching in lower grades (Haney, 1978). In these elementary schools, class-based tracking disproportionately placed African-American students in lower tracks with African-American teachers, regardless of ability. In transitions to middle and high school, tracking by ability created a division among these students and stripped students in lower tracks of their perceived academic efficacies. Goodlad (1983) and Oakes (1985) found that students in lower tracks were more likely to drop out of school or participate in criminal activities. Proponents of tracking would have said that students dropped out due to lack of ability, but Mickelson (2003) stated that students differed widely even within lower tracks. Even when students demonstrated high academic ability, it was virtually impossible to change their academic tracks without delaying high school graduation (Mickelson, 2003).
Across countries there are wide differences in the use of formal tracking systems. Even though some countries track students into differing-ability schools by age 10, others such as the United States keep their entire secondary-school system comprehensive. Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann identify the impact of tracking by comparing differences in student outcome between primary and secondary school across tracked and non-tracked systems. The results suggest that early tracking increases educational inequality. While less clear, there is also a tendency for early tracking to reduce mean performance.
A Small Act and similarities to class-based tracking abroad
The 2010 HBO documentary, A Small Act, documented the difficulty of Kenyan students being able to afford attending secondary schools. These elite schools were viewed as pathway to law school, medical school, and other forms of advanced education. Students who were kicked out of school for insufficient funds were fated to lives of poverty. In Kenya, having only a primary school education prepared one for menial labor, while secondary school equated to future social mobility for poor Kenyan children.
The Kenyan system of education closely mirrored tracking in American high schools where students in college-preparatory tracks were able to attend four-year universities immediately after graduation and vocationally tracked students could only enter community colleges and technical schools. Middle-class Kenyans were more likely to complete secondary schools and attend college, similar to college-preparatory students in the United States. Despite displaying promising academic ability, both low track students in the United States and poor children in Kenya can be at disadvantages in their educational advancement. For those in the United States, they acquire vocational skills at the sacrifice of reaching their full academic potential and the job security of a college education. The prospects for poor children in Kenya are even worse, having acquired few job skills in their primary school education.
Poor children in Kenya did have the opportunity to gain admission to secondary schools through merit scholarships, which required that students attained satisfactory scores on entrance examinations. There were indeed opportunities for bright poor children, but merit scholarships were limited in the number of students who could be awarded. In the United States, bright students in vocational tracks can enroll in two-year universities, but they lack the scholarships and post-secondary funding of their college-preparatory counterparts. Vocational students negotiate with the burden of scant financial support for college, and poor Kenyan children have the stress of passing entrance examinations even if they have academic ability similar to that of middle-class children or those in college-preparatory tracks.
Detracking occurs when students are deliberately positioned into classes of mixed ability. As opposed to tracking, students are no longer placed in groups based upon academic achievement or ability. Tracking can be associated with giving students in low-track classes less resources, fewer experienced teachers, low expectations, and unchallenging curricula. Proponents for detracking believe that low-track students will greatly benefit in school achievement if they are mixed in with high-track students.
Benefits of detracking
Critics of tracking such as Kevin Welner say that detracking will help close the class-based and race-based achievement gap. Often students in low-track classes are disadvantaged racial and ethnic minority students. Those in favor of detracking say that detracking challenges social views about race and intelligence.
Tracking has been shown to produce less academic achievement for low-ability students, and higher academic achievement for high-ability students; de-tracking would increase the achievement of the worst students and harm the achievement of the best students. Critics say that not challenging all students with the most advanced curriculum results in overall low student educational achievement, and that students in low tracks do not learn as much as their peers in higher tracks, e.g., advanced mathematics.
Teachers typically have higher expectations for students in high-track classes and low expectations for students in low-tracked classes, which affects the self-image of students.
Concerns of detracking
Detracking has been proven to reduce the achievement of students who would otherwise be placed in high-track classes. Parents of high-ability students and other proponents of tracking say that academically gifted students should have access to classes that maximize their potential. Detracking holds back high-ability students because teachers must reduce the amount and complexity of material so that all students in the class, including low-ability students, can understand it. Putting all students together in a heterogeneous group makes the teacher's job more difficult by increasing the range of performance of the students in a class.
In addition, how the teacher perceives students' academic abilities determines how detracking is carried out in the classroom. For example, in a school with many disadvantaged students, teachers assumed most students had low ability, and therefore the classroom curriculum was easier than what the students were capable of achieving. On the other side, in a wealthy school, teachers typically assumed students were college-bound and intelligent, and followed a creative and challenging curriculum.
Maureen Hallinan offers many suggestions for reforming the tracking system and counterbalancing its perceived negative consequences. Although tracking can segregate students by race and socioeconomic status, she says that, by ensuring that students are engaged in integrated settings[such as clarification needed] during the school day, some of the negative effects of the segregation[such as clarification needed] could be avoided. Some studies suggest that low-track students often have slower academic growth than high-track students, but Hallinan says that providing more-engaging lessons in class, altering assumptions about students, and raising requirements for students' performance could help. Research is needed in this area to test her hypotheses. In order to prevent stigmatization of low-track students, Hallinan suggests that schools challenge low-track students to achieve highly and should offer public rewards for gains in academic achievement. Such rewards would be necessary in all tracks to avoid the perception of unfairness.
Heterogeneous class assignment with part-time homogeneous groupings is one possible compromise.
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