Getting on track

At one time, schools routinely sorted students upon arrival, usually by an admissions test. In some instances, a bit of discretion accompanied the culling; brighter students were the blue team, while lower-scoring peers were the red team.

That wasn’t the case at my high school, where ability-tracked classes carried obvious names. The highest scoring students were in the A/B track. Students with mid-range scores ended up in the C/D track, while the lowest performers were lumped into the E/F group.

Whether tracking is subtle or blatant, students always know whether they’re in the “smart” class or the “dummy” one. And their performance can rise or fall in accord with the label put on them.

A recognition of the negative effects of tracking on students caused it to fall out favor in the last 25 years. Research found tracking led to inferior educations for many students consigned to the lower levels — disproportionately, low-income and minority children. Lower tracks featured more drill and repetition and less content, and teachers drifted toward strategies of maintaining order rather than teaching.

Among the organizations condemning tracking were the National Governors Association, American Civil Liberties Union and Children’s Defense Fund.

Despite the opposition and the research, tracking and grouping are resurfacing, according to a new study by Tom Loveless of the Brown Center on Education Policy.

Based on 1990-2011 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the study found a resurgence of grouping in fourth grade and tracking in eighth-grade mathematics. (The study defines tracking as what happens between classes, and ability grouping as what occurs within classes.)

The study found that “ability grouping in fourth grade decreased in the 1990s and then increased markedly in the 2000s, with the rebound apparent in both reading and math. In reading, ability grouping has attained a popularity unseen since the 1980s, used with over 70 percent of students. As for tracking, it has remained commonplace in eighth-grade mathematics for the past two decades, with about three-quarters of students enrolled in distinct ability-level math classes.”

Why does it matter? Because sorting kids into smart and not-as-smart may also divide them into winners and losers. A 2010 study from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found “students who are lower-grouped for reading instruction learn substantially less, and higher-grouped students learn slightly more, over the first few years of school compared to students who are in classrooms that do not practice grouping.”

Schools that want to “detrack” often meet resistance from parents, who complain their kids will be hampered by peers who don’t care or who disrupt the class.

“The question to ask is why are there kids who don’t seem to care and kids who are disruptive,” said retired Ithaca College professor Jeff Claus, whose focus was multicultural education and the preparation of culturally competent teachers, the education or opportunity gap, and race and racism in education.

“Effectively detracked schools and programs demonstrate that many of these so-called disinterested students become successful, engaged, contributing students when over a period of years their education treats them and their potential differently than sorting and labeling them as failures,” Claus said. “Effective detracking isn’t effective if it doesn’t also provide genuinely challenging, high-quality education for the students who previously would have been in higher groups. The research shows both academic and social benefits for these students when reform is done right.”

Too often, tracking is seen as an either/or argument. But Claus cites many schools that have detracked and still meet the needs of top performers.

“You might teach a mostly mixed group of students three days a week, while creating interest and/or skill-based sub-groups two days a week that support lower-performing students,” he said. Students who are excelling could receive “opportunities for enrichment activities that require them to apply their knowledge creatively and effectively in novel situations, rather than move quickly through a superficial curriculum.”

Tracking casts a long shadow on students, even high achievers. A classmate tracked into “B” rather than “A” classes at our high school went on to near-perfect SAT scores and a full scholarship to college. Yet, she asked last week, “Do you think it was my math score that kept me out of ‘A’?”