The Problem of Tracking in Middle Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 04, 2009 1 min read
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At a seminar hosted last week by ACT on improving the quality of education for students in middle schools, Nancy M. Doda, a consultant for Teacher to Teacher, expressed a strong dislike of tracking in middle schools. She explained that she’d recently visited a middle school in Long Island where tracking of successful students and unsuccessful students was so evident that it seemed to be a form of “apartheid.” She observed students who referred to themselves as being in the “dumb class,” she recalled. “What are we doing about that?,” she asked members of a panel who were presenting possible solutions for improving education in the middle grades.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, replied that combating tracking, where students are placed in classes according to their level of academic performance, “is about calling it malpractice and acting on it.”

But interestingly, Stacey A. Kopnitsky, an assistant principal at Cabin John Middle School, in Montgomery County, Md., schools, replied with an anecdote about how her school made a move to reduce tracking in English-language arts classes. The school decided to do away with a remedial class in English-language arts for the lowest performing students, and mix the students from that class in with students from two other classes of gifted and talented students. So the school blended the lowest-performing and highest-performing students in classes to learn English-language arts together. She said that each class was then taught by a team of two teachers. In one of the classes, one of the teachers who was part of the team was a special education teacher.

Kopnitsky said that test scores show that the change benefited the students who had been in the remedial class. Before the change, all of them scored at the lowest of three possible levels on Maryland’s English-language arts test. After the change, most of them scored at the second of the three levels in English-language arts.

So the school is continuing the plan for its second year*, this school year.

By the way, one reason that many schools do have tracking is because parents of high-performing students contend that it ensures their children aren’t held back academically.

If you have a story about a school doing away with tracking and what impact that had, share it with us here on the blog.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.