October 01, 1994 3 min read

The Perils Of Tracking: A comprehensive new study out of Stanford University echoes what other researchers have said before: Tracking can prematurely cut off a student’s path to higher education. Biology Professor Sanford Dornbusch and his colleagues surveyed 1,200 students, from a variety of academic backgrounds, who were enrolled in six San Francisco Bay-area high schools. They also analyzed the students’ school placement records since the 5th grade and compared them with students’ current high school placements in mathematics and science courses. They found that as many as one-fifth of the white students who scored high on standardized tests and aspired to go on to college had been “misplaced’’ in lower-track courses. The proportion of high-ability African-American and Latino students who were not taking college-preparatory courses in those subjects was more than twice that of white and Asian-American students. Part of the problem, Dornbusch says, is that students--and their parents--often do not know when they have been tracked out of college-preparatory science and mathematics classes. “These results help us understand why so many talented and hard-working minority students are ineligible for four-year colleges and universities,’' Dornbusch says. But the problem goes beyond that, he adds. “If one-fifth of non-Hispanic whites and Asians are also misinformed, we are discussing a major national problem that does not just affect disadvantaged minorities.’'

Grade Inequity: An A grade at a school located in a high-poverty area may not mean the same thing as an A in a school located in a more affluent neighborhood, according to a U.S. Education Department report published over the summer. The study was based on data from the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Survey, which included survey information about 8th graders, their parents, and their teachers, as well as data on the students’ achievement and schools. For the purposes of the study, high-poverty schools were those where more than 75 percent of the students qualify for federally subsidized lunch programs. The researchers found that 8th graders from the poorer schools who received mostly A’s in English scored about the same on standardized tests as students from affluent schools who earned mostly C’s and D’s in that subject. In mathematics, the A students from high-poverty schools most closely resembled the D students from affluent schools. Such disparities, the report warns, can be harmful to students from the poorer schools. “How fair is it for a student who has received A’s and B’s all through school to arrive at college and find that he or she is unprepared for college-level math courses?’' it asks.

Power Sharers Beware: An upcoming report in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis suggests that school principals should not try to link shared decisionmaking to other kinds of reform efforts. Researchers Carol Weiss and Joseph Cambone spent five years observing and interviewing at 12 high schools. Principals at six of the schools were implementing shared decisionmaking, a reform that democratizes school governance by putting more control in the hands of teachers. Of those six principals, three were simultaneously trying to institute other innovations as well, such as interdisciplinary courses and block scheduling. The remaining six high schools were operating under traditional leadership structures, but three of them were engaged in some reform activity. All of the schools moving toward shared-decisionmaking systems underwent significant conflict over the course of the study, but the schools that were trying to share power and carry out other reforms at the same time had the hardest time of all. Those schools did not abandon shared decisionmaking, but they made no significant progress on the other initiatives. “Our analysis suggests that principals and policymakers must understand the magnitude of the change that [shared decisionmaking] involves for high school teachers,’' the researchers write, “and recognize that establishing democratic processes in schools is a significant reform in itself.’'

--Debra Viadero

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Findings