Researchers Offer Dueling Views on Tracking

By Debra Viadero — December 17, 2009 2 min read
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In the late 1980s, when I began writing about education, there were lively debates over whether students should be “tracked” into different academic classes based on their abilities. Some things never change.

The perennial nature of the tracking debate became obvious this week after the Fordham Institute published a report by Tom Loveless on tracking in Massachusetts middle schools. The study’s bottom-line finding was that schools with two or three levels of math instruction tended to have higher numbers of students scoring near the top on state math exams than those with only one math track.

In fact, the report goes on to say, each additional course level is associated with a 3-percentage point rise in the number of students scoring at the advanced level. In a school of 200 students and three levels of math, that translates to an additional 12 top-scoring students.

The report attracted a lot of attention in the blogosphere last week. That’s clear from this blog entry by the Education Gadfly. But it wasn’t the last word on this debate.

Close on the heels of that report, Kevin Welner, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, offered his own critique of the Fordham study. It was posted yesterday on the Teachers College Record Web site. (The article is available to subscribers only now but it will be free by Friday, Welner assures me.)

Welner argues that the Fordham study is flawed because its findings are driven mostly by the gains made by students in schools with three tracks as opposed to two. (In all, the Fordham study compared schools with no tracks, two-track schools, and those with three or more levels of instruction.) The problem, according to Welner, is that schools with three or more tracks tend be large schools located in suburbs, where families are more affluent and educational resources are more abundant.

While Loveless does control for differences among schools due to family wealth, Welner says, the research doesn’t account for differences in resource levels, teacher quality, parents’ education levels, and other factors that might explain the higher numbers of top-scoring students in schools with multiple tracks. “Dr. Loveless’ data are telling us that large, suburban middle schools have more math tracks and have more students scoring in the advanced range,” Welner writes. “So far, no surprises.”

As it happens, Welner and his colleagues—Carol Corbett Burris and Jennifer Weiser Bezoza—published their own report on tracking this week. The authors say they don’t “feign uncertainty or objectivity” about their belief in the need for schools to detrack; they are advocates. What they set out to do in this report, though, is offer case studies on successful efforts to detrack schools in three locations: the Preuss School, a charter school on the campus of the University of California at San Diego; the Rockville Centre school district in Long Island, N.Y.; and the entire nation of Finland, which did away with the practice in 1985 and went on to become a top-scoring nation on international exams.

Besides the case studies, the brief provides recommendations on how educators can go about detracking schools and school systems as well as sample language for state legislation aimed at abolishing the practice. This report didn’t make the same splash that the Fordham study did but it, too, is worth a read.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.