Tracking is the most commonly used term for ability grouping, the practice of lumping children together according to their talents in the classroom. On the elementary level, the divisions sound harmless enough: Kids are divided into the Bluebirds and Redbirds. But in the secondary schools, the stratification becomes more obvious—some say insidious—as students assume their places in the tracking system.
Opponents of tracking trace the practice to the turn of the century when most children attending public schools were from upper-middle-class families, but large numbers of black and working-class students were starting to enter the schools as the result of compulsory schooling laws and rising immigration. Separate curricula were developed for the relatively small percentage of students destined for higher education and for the masses who went on to menial industrial jobs. Tracking quickly took on the appearance of internal segregation. Today, though the world outside schools has changed, the tracking system remains much the same.
Should schools—as the engine of democracy—provide relatively similar curricula for all students? Or should they instead sort students by skill levels and prepare them for their different roles as adults?
Opponents of tracking fear that the labels students are given early on stay with them as they move from grade to grade. And for those on the lower tracks, a steady diet of lower expectations leads to a steadily low level of motivation toward school. In high school, the groups formerly known as the Bluebirds and Redbirds have evolved into new tracks: College Preparatory and Vocational.
A growing number of educators denounce tracking, arguing that the labels students are given early on stay with them as they move from grade to grade. They oppose a system which they say permanently condemns many students—a disproportionate number of whom are minorities—to an inferior education, both in terms of what and how they are taught.
In some cases, a tracked school can literally be unconstitutional. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has been called upon to work with schools in cases where the effects of tracking students have been a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation bars racial discrimination in federally financed education programs and prohibits tracking under some circumstances.
The arguments for tracking are more subtle today than they were 90 years ago. Tracking proponents say it is easier to teach relatively homogeneous classes and unrealistic to expect everyone to master the same curriculum. They say students feel more comfortable and learn better when they're grouped with peers of similar abilities. And they say tracking enables teachers to tailor instruction to the needs of respective groups of students. How, after all, can the same English teacher in the same class prepare some students for the Advanced Placement test in literature while others are still struggling with basic grammar?
Many fear that the transition to mixed-ability grouping may hurt gifted and other high-achieving students who have done well in an accelerated program of study. Some parents do not want to see their children's progress slowed down, as they perceive it would be, in order to accommodate slower learners.
Critics of ability grouping are trying to loosen or eliminate the practice, but they often find it's not so easy. Lumping students of all abilities together in one lecture-oriented class won't work; teachers must adopt new methods of instruction and flexible curricula to cope with these more diverse groups of students. As a result, tracking remains the most widely used method for dealing with student diversity, particularly in secondary schools.
Although much of the flap over tracking has been made by factions outside of the schools, teachers find themselves at the center of the issue—and they are far from united. One National Education Association official calls tracking "probably the most professionally divisive issue in the association." Those who teach specialized groups of gifted or learning-disabled students have an extra stake in the grouping process. But for most teachers, the issue boils down to how to give slower students the extra attention they need without shortchanging the more able students who may lose interest.