WASHINGTON--Grouping students by ability worsens the academic prospects of low-achieving students while doing nothing to improve those of higher-achieving ones, according to an upcoming analysis of nationwide data heralded as the largest multi-year study of academic tracking to date.
Moreover, ability grouping also appears to lessen the chances that students will relate well to children of other races, the study has found.
The full study, based on data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, is expected to be released this winter by its authors, Robert E. Slavin, a principal research scientist at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University, and Jomills Henry Braddock 2nd, a former director of the center who is now a sociology professor at the University of Miami.
The authors released a summary of their findings here last week at a conference sponsored by the Common Destiny Alliance, a national coalition of organizations concerned with race relations.
“Given the segregative impact of ability grouping, the negative effects of grouping on such outcomes as self-esteem, delinquency, and dropout, and the anti-egalitarian nature of the practice, there is little reason to maintain the between-class ability grouping practices so prevalent in American middle and high schools and not uncommon at the elementary level,’' the researchers write.
“You never want to say, ‘This proves it once and for all,’ but this is the strongest evidence we have from a policy point of view that ability grouping is dysfunctional,’' said Willis D. Hawley, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, which coordinated last week’s conference.
Tracking and Self-Esteem
For their analysis, the researchers took data on 8th graders from the highest, middle, and lowest thirds in terms of achievement and divided them into two groups: those who had been tracked, and those who had not.
The researchers followed the students’ progress until they reached 10th grade. Then they compared the achievement levels of the tracked and untracked groups while controlling for prior grades and test scores, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other variables.
“The results were striking,’' the researchers write, noting that 8th graders who had been placed in the low track went on to perform “significantly less well’’ than their low-achieving but untracked counterparts on composite and core subject achievement tests in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies.
“Yet,’' the researchers add, “there was no consistent corresponding benefit of ability grouping for high or average achievers.’'
Similarly, ability grouping appeared to harm low-achieving students in terms of their self-esteem and their views of intergroup relations within their school, but did not appear to benefit the tracked high and average achievers in these areas.
These findings are especially significant, the researchers said, in that they appear to counter a common assertion by proponents of ability grouping that teachers are more effective when allowed to teach exclusively high or low achievers.
Limiting Race Relations
Low-track 8th graders, the study found, also were much more likely to end up in non-college preparatory programs in the 10th grade than were low-achievers who had not been tracked, suggesting, the researchers said, that being placed in a low-ability track “effectively slams the gate on any possibility that a student can take the courses leading to college.’'
Low achievers who had been tracked also indicated that they felt less control over their fate than did their untracked counterparts.
Exploring relatively new ground, the researchers also examined the effect of ability grouping on the attitudes of students of different races and ethnicities.
They found that tracking, by tending to separate students into classes that are composed of one or another ethnic group, limits the number of positive relationships that students can develop beyond their own racial or ethnic groups.
Students who were tracked were more likely to report that race relations in their schools were bad or that they had heard racist remarks, Mr. Slavin said.
“The adverse effects of tracking on students’ social skills and affective outcomes related to racial intolerance suggest the need for change,’' the researchers write.
“As a society,’' they state, “we cannot tolerate low skills in a major portion of our workforce and expect to thrive; moreover, we cannot tolerate intolerance and expect to survive.’'
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Tracking Found To Hurt Prospects of Low Achievers