On the Wrong Track

By Debra Viadero — January 01, 1999 8 min read
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Among education practices, tracking ranks in popularity somewhere between dunce caps and rapping knuckles. Though some parents and teachers still endorse certain forms of tracking, most experts believe it is harmful and outdated. The book on tracking, the critics contend, closed long ago.

But now a handful of researchers have rekindled the debate, pointing to both new and old studies. “In the education journals, it’s taken as gospel that tracking is a bad thing,” says Tom Loveless, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University. “What I’m saying is we just don’t know if tracking is good or bad, and we really don’t know if detracking is good or bad.”

Decisions based on the conventional tracking-is-bad assumption are risky, he says. “When you have urban and low-achieving schools rushing to embrace a policy that’s unproved, that’s a very dangerous thing.”

Tracking can take many forms. Many U.S. public schools separate their best students from poor ones through advanced-placement and honors classes. And many primary teachers divide students into ability groups for reading instruction. Such ability grouping is different from traditional tracking. Students can move from one group to another as they progress, and the entire class usually gets the same basic instruction. In tracking’s most rigid form, students are assigned to specific academic paths--college, vocational, general, and the like--and take all their classes with others in those groups.

Among education’s intelligentsia, this form of tracking fell from favor in the mid-1970s, after researchers warned that it exacerbates social inequities. One of the best-known studies from that time was conducted by Jeannie Oakes, now an assistant dean of the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. Looking at a national sample of 25 schools, she found that poor and minority students were disproportionately placed in the lower tracks. There, they encountered less qualified teachers, thinner curricula, and poorer instruction than their high-achieving counterparts.

Another widely quoted analysis of the tracking literature by Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Slavin maintained that even if tracking were not unfair to poor and minority students, it still wouldn’t be a particularly effective way to bolster achievement. Students of all ability levels, Slavin argued, do no better in tracked classes than in mixed-ability settings.

In her 1985 book Keeping Track, Oakes concluded: “The results differ in certain specifics, but one conclusion emerges clearly: No group of students has been found to benefit consistently from being in a homogeneous group.”

Such findings led many school systems to abolish tracking--usually over the protests of well-heeled parents of gifted or high-achieving students. About the same time, federal courts ordered some large urban systems to detrack as part of desegregation cases.

But even as school systems moved away from tracking, new studies contradicted Oakes’ work and suggested that the practice pays off for certain groups of students. Adam Gamoran, a University of Wisconsin at Madison researcher, used a nationally representative survey from 1987 to study tracking. He determined that the gains made by bright students in higher-level tracks are offset by the losses of weaker students in low-level tracks. “Tracking has the effect of increasing inequality of achievement,” he says. “Most people who look at tracking focus on either the effects on inequality or the effects on achievement, but not both. It’s important to understand that it’s a total package.”

In 1996, meanwhile, researchers Laura Argys, Dominic Brewer, and Daniel Rees analyzed data on 3,400 students from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. Their conclusion: Detracking boosts the test scores of low-achieving students but hurts the scores of average and high-achieving students even more.

When it comes to tracking, it seems you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Argys, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Denver, puts it this way: “Somebody’s going to pay for the choice, and it’s either the low-skilled or the high-skilled students. That’s a decision society is going to have to make.”

Still, the differing shades of these findings suggest the research on tracking is incomplete. That’s what Frederick Mosteller, a Harvard statistician, has concluded. In 1996, Mosteller reviewed the tracking literature and found only 10 studies, dating from 1960 to 1974, that he considered to be true scientific experiments. Where these studies point to any gains, he argued, high-ability students benefit. But the bottom line, he wrote, “is that the appropriate, large-scale, multisite research studies on skill grouping have not yet been carried out even though the issues have been debated as major public concerns within education for most of this century.”

Given the lack of definitive evidence--and the suggestion that high-ability students benefit from tracking--Loveless of Harvard insists that the burden is now on the detracking camp to make its case.

But the views of Loveless, Argys, Mosteller, and other skeptics are viewed with suspicion by researchers and scholars convinced long ago of the harm that tracking visits on society’s have-nots. They point out that Loveless’ criticisms were widely circulated recently by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank with a conservative bent. Some also believe that because Loveless, Argys, and Mosteller are not affiliated with schools of education, their slant on the data may be somewhat skewed. “I’d like to believe that those of us in education schools are less willing to accept numbers outside of their context,” says Kevin Welner, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. “Simply comparing a structurally tracked school with a structurally untracked school confounds a variety of situations and tells us virtually nothing.” But many of the large-scale studies on tracking, he points out, are based on just such comparisons.

When researchers take a close look at the practice in individual schools and districts, Welner insists, the findings are often troubling. In one Pennsylvania district Welner studied, for example, African American students were two and a half times more likely than white students of the same ability to be placed into low-track classrooms.

UCLA’s Oakes acknowledges that some high-achieving students may, in fact, do better in classes with other high achievers. “Being in a high track certainly does seem to pay off,” Oakes says, “not only for high-achieving kids but also for anybody else who gets in there. Which tells us that parents know exactly what they’re doing when they lobby to get their kids in a high track.” But the fact remains, she adds, that being in a poor track depresses achievement.

For his part, Loveless concedes that earlier forms of tracking may have been unjust. But he points out that the practice has mutated over the past two decades into something much more benign. “Placement by IQ tests is a thing of the past,” he writes in a recent critique of research on the subject. “The rigidity of tracks has softened, with track assignments usually made on a subject-by-subject basis.”

Samuel Lucas, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley who recently analyzed data on national samples of students, agrees that tracking has become less rigid and explicit. But that, he says, is part of the problem. Students let themselves be shepherded into, say, consumer mathematics rather than algebra, never realizing that without algebra they might not accumulate the credits needed to earn a spot at a four-year college or university. “It means that many of the students may not even be aware of the ways in which their futures are being shaped,” he says. By the time they realize that the opportunity is lost, it is too late.

Lucas’ research shows that when students move out of their track placements, the direction is usually down. Promotions to more-challenging tracks account for only 20 percent of the moves from one track to another, he says.

Complicating the tracking debate is the fact that the practice is so hard to eliminate. Wisconsin researcher Gamoran studied 24 schools in the midst of restructuring to make their curricula more equitable. Only one--a small high school--succeeded in detracking classes in every subject area. “If you’re going to eliminate tracking, then you need to do it in a way that all students find meaningful,” Gamoran says. “And that’s a hard thing for teachers to do.”

Though doing away with tracking is tough, schools and districts should not stop trying, Oakes and Welner say. Some schools, Oakes notes, have successfully introduced mixed-ability classes by giving low-achieving students extra instruction--through Saturday classes or double doses of difficult subjects. “To wait until somebody has an ironclad recipe for undoing tracking, I think, is foolhardy,” she says. “I can’t imagine any educational problem where we’ve had as much evidence as we have with this one and not acted.”

In the end, those on both sides of the tracking issue agree that the decision to detrack--or not--is a value judgment. But who should make that judgment? Loveless believes it should be left up to individual schools. Welner sees it differently. “If you accept that students in low-track classrooms have an inferior education,” he says, “then you have to ask whether we, as a country, are going to be satisfied separating out one group of students and giving them an inferior education.”


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