For decades, educators and policymakers have debated the merits of tracking, the practice of enrolling students in classes — usually in middle or high school — based on their perceived ability or achievement levels.
Research has shown that tracking can be harmful to students in lower-track classes, who are disproportionately low-income and Black and Latino, and provides no significant benefits to higher-tracked students. Starting in the 1980s, some schools moved to detracked systems, where all students are exposed to high-level classwork.
In recent years, some school systems have detracked math programs, in particular, to address achievement gaps, and California is considering doing so statewide through 10th grade. Math is the most-tracked subject, and proponents of detracking — including the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics — argue that eliminating tracking creates more equal opportunities for all students.
But California’s proposals have fueled heated debate, with opponents arguing that detracking is unfair to students who are more advanced learners.
So how do tracking and detracking show up in classrooms? And what do parents need to know as they consider what classes their children should be enrolled in?
The History of Tracking
Tracking in U.S. schools can be traced to the 1900s, after the arrival of poor immigrants from Italy and Ireland, according to Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies education policy.
Children who immigrated from those countries, or the children of immigrants who did, were considered “less capable” by school administrators, Welner says. Those students were provided a less rigorous curriculum because they were expected to work in factories, rather than attend college.
Over the next several decades, Welner says, other student groups were similarly denied access to more challenging coursework, including Black students during desegregation followed by immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
“Each time this new wave of newcomers came into mainstream schools, they were denied the high-track curriculum, the rich opportunities to learn and were instead tracked into watered down, lower-track classes,” says Welner, who also directs the National Education Policy Center, an organization that conducts education research.
Most schools have since moved away from the strict practice of funneling students into either “college-prep” or “vocational” tracks in high school, and have increased academic standards across the board, with the expectation that all students should graduate prepared for college.
But tracking in its modern form — where students who are advanced in a particular subject take honors or Advanced Placement classes, and those who need extra help take remedial courses — does not look all that different, Welner says.
“It’s still very much, ‘this student is college material, this student isn’t college material, so we need to have them in different classes,'” he says.
Pros and Cons of Detracking
In most high schools, guidance counselors and teachers decide students’ course placements based on tests and other academic measures.
Detracking means placing students with mixed abilities and academic achievement in the same classes, with the intention of exposing all students to high-quality curriculum.
Proponents of heterogeneous classrooms say tracking stigmatizes children and exacerbates racial and economic achievement gaps. Black, Latino and low-income students, as well as English-language learners, are disproportionately represented in low-track classes. Students in lower-track classes tend to receive less rigorous instruction focused on rote skills. And studies have shown that low-achieving students do better academically in detracked classrooms with a more challenging curriculum.
“Providing an excellent education for all students is not easy. But tracking is a cop out,” Welner says. “To default to a tracked system pretty much ensures that you are denying a high quality of education to the students who are not in the high-track classes.”
But Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that having students with a wide range of abilities in the same class can make it difficult to teach. That can hold back students who are high achievers and are ready for more advanced work, Loveless says.
For a school that is detracking, “I would urge that school to provide a lot of opportunities for their high achievers to accelerate,” says Loveless, who describes himself as neither pro or anti-tracking. “And they may in the end have to group them separately so that can be accomplished.”
Schools cannot be expected to “take kids who are three, four years behind and have them perform far above grade level,” he says.
Welner says detracking should also be coupled with extra classroom support for teachers, and for students who enter class with less preparation. Schools can also provide reading and math interventions to students in elementary school, so they do not fall behind in the first place.
What Detracking Looks Like
Twenty-five years ago, when Dale Leibforth started working at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, it felt as if there were “two high schools.”
“You saw an honors-level track and a regular-level track,” he says, adding that students enrolled in honors seemed to be more prepared for AP courses.
Racial differences were also apparent. White students were overwhelmingly enrolled in honors-level courses, while Black and Latino students were funneled into regular-level classes.
“It didn’t seem right,” recalls Leibforth, the math department chair and Advanced Placement success manager at Evanston.
So during the 2011-2012 year, the high school implemented a detracking system called “pathway to honors.”
Under that system, ninth grade students are automatically enrolled in pathway to honors classes in several subjects. To receive honors credit for those classes, students must receive an 80 percent or higher on assessments that are generally administered three times each semester, Leibforth says.
“You’ll have students who earn honors credit and students who will earn regular credit,” he says. “But both groups will have been exposed to the honors-level work throughout.”
While the school did not fully detrack its math classes — students are still tested for accelerated math classes beginning in fifth grade — it found a way to expose all students to higher-level coursework, and provide extra support.
In most districts a typical high school student takes algebra followed by geometry, algebra II and then either precalculus or no math class at all senior year. But advanced students may take algebra or geometry before starting high school, which allows them to take calculus or other higher-level math classes senior year.
In Evanston, students who start algebra in ninth grade are enrolled in small classes, where they are given more targeted instruction. The school then offers a summer geometry class, which allows those students to make up ground so they can eventually reach calculus.
During the academic year, the school also provides support classes in geometry and algebra II, where students who require extra help take a second class to reinforce math concepts.
Leibforth says the efforts have boosted enrollment in Calculus AB and Statistics, which are AP classes.
And through the pathway to honors program, more Black and Hispanic students are earning honors credit, while white students are performing “the same and oftentimes better” than they were previously.
Plus, there are other advantages, he says.
“If you walk into a class now, it matches the diversity of the school,” he said. “There’s a great benefit from having these multiple perspectives in the classroom.”
What to Do if Your Child Is in a Low Track
Parents who believe their children have been placed in the wrong track in a particular subject should advocate with school administrators, Loveless says.
But he cautions that accelerating students who are not prepared for higher-level work could create challenges for schools and may not serve the students well.
Welner argues that lower-track classes are “harmful for every child,” and suggests parents look for detracked schools or advocate for detracking efforts.
In his research at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, which moved from a tracked system to an International Baccalaureate curriculum for all students, Welner says students who were previously considered high or low track both performed better academically under the new system.
“Generally if your child is in a tracked school, you do not want your child to be in a low-tracked class,” Welner says. “Low-track classes tend to be warehousing students, not educating them.”
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