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Tracking May Not Be As Common a Practice As Assumed, Study Says

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San Francisco

Tracking, the traditional practice of grouping students in classes by ability levels, may not be as commonly practiced in schools as its critics sometimes assume.

That conclusion comes from a federal study presented last month at a six-day national conference of the American Educational Research Association, the nation's largest group of educational researchers.

The U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics and Westat Inc., a private research company based in Rockville, Md., conducted the research. The study is the first of its kind that sought to take a national pulse on the increasingly controversial practice of tracking.

Critics claim the practice perpetuates racial and social inequities among students and denies some students the opportunity to go on to college.

Supporters argue that some students, particularly those who are academically gifted, need differentiated instruction in order to meet their full potential. In untracked classes, they fear, bright students may get a "dumbed down" curriculum and grow bored and restless.

"For the first time, this is a national survey of what's happening in terms of policies and practices," said David Baker, a co-author of the study who is now an associate professor at Catholic University of America.

Varying Definitions

Mr. Baker and other researchers surveyed 912 high school principals and compared the responses with data from other surveys on school staffing.

Only 15 percent of the principals said that, as a matter of official policy, their schools practice traditional tracking in the sense that students are not permitted to take courses outside their own academic tracks.

But the picture became murkier when the researchers compared those responses with lists of the mathematics courses those same schools offer and with the numbers of students enrolled in them. They found, for example, that in many schools with policies against tracking, some or all students are enrolled in courses differentiated by ability levels.

On the other hand, some schools that say they track students have a large number of students in classes intended for a wide range of academic levels.

The researchers concluded that students in about one-third of the schools studied were, in actual practice, fully or mostly tracked.

In schools in that category, differentiated courses were offered and students were placed in them according to their ability. Students, for the most part, could not move to higher-level courses in those schools.

Another one-third of the schools, however, were hybrids. In other words, they might have retained gifted or honors programs for their most able students while offering open access to a wide variety of courses, including some traditionally reserved for aspiring college students.

The researchers described the remaining third of schools as untracked or mostly untracked. Not only were all courses open in those schools, but students often switched to higher-level courses.

Changing Policies

The researchers found that school policies on tracking are evolving. More than half--57 percent--of the principals surveyed said their policies had changed in the past five years.

"The sense that we got was that there's this complicated system of schools where there are seven, eight, and sometimes 17 math classes being offered, which can get very confusing for students," said Jennifer Manlove, a co-author of the study who is now a researcher with Child Trends Inc., a research firm in Washington.

Ms. Manlove said offering students a wide array of course options could create, as well as address, inequities.

"Families from lower socioeconomic levels may not have the resources to make those decisions," she said.

Some researchers at the conference, however, were skeptical of the researchers' numbers.

"I'm not so sure it's clear in the literature what it means to talk about a mixed system," said Sam Lucas, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "If some classes are tracked, there is still some tracking going on."

Others noted that the survey, intended to give a quick response on a controversial topic, did not include data on individual students or on whether minority students may be disproportionately grouped into lower-track classes--a common concern of critics.

The survey did find, however, that tracking was more common in wealthier schools than in poorer ones. Schools in the Northeastern states, larger schools, and schools in towns or suburbs also tracked students more often.

The full analysis of the survey will not be completed until August. Meanwhile, a report giving summary tables of its results, titled "Curricular Differentiation in Public High Schools," is available from the Elementary/Secondary Education Statistics Division, Special Surveys and Analysis Branch, National Center for Education Statistics, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20208-5651.

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