7 Things You Should Know about Tracking

When talking about education, there’s quite a buzz about how “the system” is failing. I get it. There are so many things that infuriate me about “the system.” However, I’ve recently found myself in conversations with individuals (these are often people who aren’t in education, and our conversations have revolved around our potentially impending education secretary) who make calls to “shake things up” without a clear vision about what exactly is causing these system failures.

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We need to make sure we understand the cause of the grease fire in the kitchen before we arbitrarily do something to put it out—like throw water on it—hoping and praying it will work when we have the resources to make informed decisions about how to truly extinguish the flames.

Of the problems worth discussing, I’ll start with one I mentioned in my last post: tracking. Also known as ability grouping, tracking often begins in the third grade (and sometimes as early as kindergarten), when students are identified as gifted and put in separate classes to give them special accommodations. In high school, the degrees of separation between the gifted and “general” populations become greater. In addition to honors classes for students with giftedness in certain areas, there are also Advanced Placement classes and  International Baccalaureate programs that offer more rigorous coursework; on the other end of the spectrum, students who don’t meet the expressed and implied (behavior) qualifications for these courses are often placed in “college prep” or even remedial levels of the same classes. Now that you’ve been given a very condensed overview of tracking, I’d like to provide you with seven important points about tracking and its impact on schools.

7 things you should know about tracking:

  1. The labeling of students adversely affects the way teachers interact with and perceive them. In 1963, Robert Rosenthal and Reed Lawson conducted an experiment; the results of which came to be known as the Pygmalion Effect (source). In this experiment, Rosenthal and Lawson gave student researchers two sets of rats, and the students were to run maze experiments using these two groups of rats. Arbitrarily, one group was labeled “bright,” while the other group was labeled “dull.” The results of the experiment were that the “bright” rats completed the maze almost twice as fast as the “dull” rats. Rosenthal and Lawson were able to deduce that the expectations the student subjects had for the rats subconsciously affected they way they treated the rats which they were assigned, and these shifts in expectation had dramatic effects on the performance of the rats.
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    This is bad news for rats, but it’s also bad news for students and teachers. Rosenthal didn’t stop his research there. He conducted a similar study with classroom teachers and students (source). This time, certain students were labeled as having “unusual potential for intellectual gains.” For the students who had been (randomly) reported to their teachers as having this aptitude, they actually did show much greater gains in IQ. The expectations for the growth of the students seemed to have a real effect on the actual growth students experienced.
    giphyThe first time I heard this information, I had a moment (lots of moments) of panic. Had I been treating my students differently due to their labels? Did my expectations for success in my honors classes propel each of them toward success? Were my “regular” students immediately at a disadvantage because of the way I was impacted by the name of their section? Not only are students put in positions due to this labeling that will directly impact their success, but teachers are put into positions where they often accidentally and negatively impact certain students. This goes against everything that education is envisioned to be.
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  2. Students’ environments directly impact their ability to learn. For years, constructivism, the theory that “children discover and construct meaning from their experiences in the environment,” has been a driving theory in the field of education (source). In constructivist thought, the learner is at the center of the instruction, while the teacher performs more of a facilitating role. The lower levels of tracking are inconsistent with constructivist thought; if the environment is so important to the learning of the individual, classrooms with large numbers of students in need of remediation must be rethought. When the environment of the classroom is determined by educational deficiencies of students rather than strengths, we as educators must question how these environments are affecting the growth and development of our students.
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    The environment of my English I classes was chaotic and it was really difficult to highlight the strengths of any students. They were all in that section of English I because they had under-performed in some way. I was aware of it. They were aware of it. Rather than constructing their learning with valuable and authentic experiences, they were constructing their learning with instability, behavior disruptions, and more attempts at remediation than at-grade-level growth.
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  3. Students have multiple intelligences/multiple cognitive styles. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (some prefer to use the term “cognitive styles,” rather than “intelligences”) rejects the idea that intelligence looks one way; the idea is that utilizing each of the seven cognitive styles in the classroom will ensure that “most human beings [will] have the potential for solid advancement“ (Evans, 1995, p. 64; Gardner, 1983, p. 372). Teachers see the multiple intelligences at work where classes are populated with students who are celebrated for their different strengths (and there is an assumption that students all have strengths), not grouped by their perceived lack of strengths. Where the utilization of multiple intelligences is not seen is in these classes where students in need of remediation are all tracked together. The ability to access knowledge for these students is limited, as “many students are tracked into categories of the able and the less-able, and consequently, there are ‘marked inequities among students and their access to knowledge” (Evans, 1995, p. 64; Goodlad, 1984, p. 153).
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  4. Lower-level courses, which are meant to remediate, do not achieve the intended purpose. It seems as though the intent behind tracking, to provide students in need of remediation with remediation, has not played out in the practice of teachers’ classrooms. Instead, the general presupposition of what the students are able to accomplish actually drives the content delivered; while my magnet students are discussing the implications of allegory in Lord of the Flies and questioning the inherent goodness in humanity, my “regular” students might only get so far as reading comprehension strategies and perhaps the first three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (remembering, understanding, applying) in regards to content knowledge. The design of these courses intended for remediation also limit the equity of the educational experience which should be provided to all students and limit the “opportunity for [students] to express their varied talents and to do the very complex problem solving which must follow any learning” (Evans, 1995, p. 64-65).
    . .
  5. Tracking disproportionately affects students of color and students in low socioeconomic situations, and this is not a new phenomenon. In 1988, the National Educational Longitudinal Survey showed that poor, African-American, Latinx, and students who are recent immigrants are twice as likely to be in remedial courses, which limits their access to higher-level knowledge, and thus limits their access to broader success in life (Wheelock, 1992, p. 9-10).
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    We don’t have to go back in time too far to know that there exists a long history of inequality in our country and the educational system—many school districts remained segregated into the 1960s, and these non-white schools were funded at rates disproportionately lower than their white counterparts. According to Linda Darling-Hammond (source), after the integration of schools, achievement steadily increased for minority students while it remained relatively the same for white students; however, when tracking exists, this growth is stunted. Tracking takes students with fewer resources—often minority students—and it corrals them into larger, homogeneous sections that provide them with fewer resources than the higher-level courses. Many lower-level tracks don’t even offer the math and science courses required for admittance into college. Teachers in lower tracks tend to be less qualified, and students of color are more likely to be put into lower tracks, even when aptitude and cognitive scores are similar to their white peers. Are you anxious? Is your blood boiling? This arguably affects our ability to achieve justice for various groups on every level.
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  6. Heterogeneous grouping is proven to benefit students with special needs. Over 20 years of research has consistently demonstrated that the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms results in favorable outcomes. Positive outcomes have been shown for both students with high incidence disabilities (learning disabilities and other “mild” disabilities) and those with low incidence disabilities (intellectual, multiple, and “severe” disabilities). In 2001, a study investigated the effects of inclusive programs for students with high incidence disabilities and their typical peers. This two-year study found that 41.7 percent of students with learning disabilities made progress in math in general education classes compared to 34 percent in traditional special education settings, without the presence of nondisabled peers. Additionally, the presence of students with disabilities in general education classrooms leads to new learning opportunities for typical students (source).
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  7. Schools that eliminate tracking enjoy better school-wide test score averages. We can’t ignore the fact that we live in a world driven by test scores. As much as I wish I could personally throw every high-stakes standardized test in the garbage, we need to work with what we have. With the evidence above, we can certainly draw conclusions that when lower levels are eliminated, the students expected to grow in achievement will also cause an overall increase in test score averages. Additionally, scores on tests such as the PSAT, SAT, and ACT are often used as an indication of achievement; however, some students are never offered the classes that provide the math, science, and language skills necessary to perform well on these tests, and as a result, they will inevitably underperform on these assessments. When students have equal access to courses and classroom experiences, their preparedness for these high-stakes tests will increase.

This is a lot for one post, and many of you may be thinking, “This is great, but how do we actually teach students with varying needs in the same class?” That’s a great question, and it’s one I’ll be addressing in future blog posts, including strategies that have worked in my own classroom. We know the cause of (at least) this fire, and we have some indication regarding the steps required to put it out—we don’t need to appoint unknowledgeable outsiders to “shake things up.”

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Sources (that are not already linked in the text)

  • Evans, C. (1995). Access, equity, and intelligence: Another look at tracking. The English Journal, 84, 3. doi: 10.2307/821193
  • Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
  • Goodlad, J. I. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
  • Wheelock, A. (1992). Crossing the tracks: How ‘untracking’ can save America’s schools. New York: The New Press.

5 thoughts on “7 Things You Should Know about Tracking”

  1. I agree with your assessment of tracking. My input, from the perspective of an elementary teacher, is that the International Baccalaureate program in the Primary Years Program can alleviate some of the issues with tracking. The problem is with the new national testing programs, PYP seems to be on the way out.
    A much too simple explanation of my views is as follows: The PYP doesn’t allow tracking at this level. It is designed around units of inquiry. Students receive teacher instruction, but much of the learning is gained through the students’ investigations which encompass reading activities, online searches, field trips, etc. Students are grouped in many ways. A successful group usually has:
    1. Students who are good at research
    2. Some who are good at organizing information,
    3. Some who are good at artwork or tech skills (developing presentation skills)
    4. Some who are good at actually presenting the results
    I’m probably forgetting someone, but the learning that happened during these units was amazing. Students started to differentiate themselves for middle school not necessarily by report card grades but by acquired skills. Some moved on to middle schools with a specific focus…..performing arts, technology, medical, trades, college prep. Most of the specific focus schools are pretty well represented, with the exception of trades. The choices here are limited at best.
    In my 30+ years in teaching, I hadn’t seen the successes I witnessed in the program. It can be replicated through project-based instructions, but that is sometimes hard for teachers to swallow when they don’t have the same kind of control as in a traditional setting. Also, it really, really doesn’t fit into the Pearson Education style of learning.
    Thanks for indulging me.

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    1. This is great information! My school is part of an IB continuum in the district, but I know very little about the PYP–I have much more knowledge about the MYP (I teach year 5 students) and DP. I have actually heard some talk that AP is trying to give IB a run for its money by offering a similar program for much, much cheaper. It’s unfortunate, since it seems like (from your experiences) it works best in that continuum. Thanks for commenting and reading!

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  2. Hey Sam,

    I’m actually doing a presentation/ debate about the harmful effects of tracking in one of my classes. This was so helpful and broken down really well. It defiantly echoes everything I’ve read in my research on this topic. One thing that struck me in my research was the differences in what teacher’s wanted students to get out of certain classes at different tracks. Lower track teachers had goals for their students like, “learn to be punctual” and “learn to listen to directions.” Teachers of higher track students wanted their kids to be able to form their own opinion and think critically. I thought this divide in what is taught in the different track levels to be appalling and the topic has interested me ever since.
    Thanks for the great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sarah! I can attest to the different standards/goals that teachers have for their students. I wrote a proposal last school year about combining the “regular” and CP levels of courses, and in my research, I cited a source that basically said the same thing. At once point, since I taught multiple levels of English, I even saw those differences in expectations with my different classes. What class are you doing this for? Is it an ethics class? I’d love to hear more about how it goes.

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