‘Tracking’ Hampers Minorities’ Access To Math, Science Careers, Study Finds

By Peter West — September 26, 1990 4 min read

Efforts to increase the number of minority students who choose careers in science and mathematics are hampered by the propensity of educators to assign poor, black, and Hispanic children to elementary- and secondary-level classes designed for students with low ability, a new study of academic “tracking” charges.

“To the extent that placement in classes at different ability levels affects students’ opportunities to learn--and the evidence from our study suggests that the effects are quite profound--minority students disproportionately suffer whatever disadvantages accrue to students in low-track classes,” researchers at the rand Corporation argue in the report released last week.

Analyzing a 1986 national survey by the National Science Foundation of math and science education, the research team--headed by Jeannie Oakes, an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles graduate school of education--found what it calls a “pervasive” national pattern of tracking poor and minority students.

The practice has long been evident in secondary schools, where students often are encouraged to choose between a sequence of courses for the college-bound and less-demanding, “nonacademic” courses.

And while school officials may argue that they are wisely allocating scarce teaching resources by pairing the best teachers with the most capable students, the rand researchers found “no empirical evidence to justify unequal access to valued science and mathematics curriculum, instruction, and teachers.”

Even more disturbing, Ms. Oakes says, at the elementary level, poor and minority pupils are similarly tracked into classes where teaching is inferior and into schools that are considerably less well-equipped to encourage high achievers.

In the report, “Multiplying Inequalities: The Effects of Race, Social Class, and Tracking on Opportunities to Learn Mathematics and Science,” she argues that poor and minority students also suffer because educators may have lower expectations of their abilities to succeed in advanced science and math courses.

“Because school officials judge so many low-income and minority stu dents to have low ability, many of these students suffer the double disadvantage of being in schools that have fewer resources and classrooms that offer less access to knowledge,” the report states.

Elementary-Level Tracking

The nsf-supported study found that 80 percent of the math and science classes in grades 7 through 12 in 1986 were tracked.

At schools with large minority L populations, however, advanced classes made up only 12 percent of the math and science offerings, com pared with 34 percent at predomi nantly white schools.

As a result, “high-ability students at low-socioeconomic status, high-mi nority schools may actually have few er opportunities than low-ability students who attend more advantaged schools,” the report suggests.

The study also found that 65 per cent of elementary-school math and science classes are classified as ei ther slow, medium, or fast-track.

Furthermore, at elementary schools where minorities made up 90 percent to 100 percent of the stu dent body, low-ability classes accounted for 28 percent of the science and math courses, compared with only 7 percent at schools with virtu ally all-white populations.

Those findings are especially dis turbing, Ms. Oakes said, because L they suggest that tracking decisions are being made for reasons other L than academic performance.

“At the elementary levels, these decisions are far less predicated on a past history of performance,” she L said in an interview. “I think that judgment carries with it a whole lot of psychosocial implications that the study did not look at.”

The report has disturbing implica tions for efforts undertaken by many national organizations to encourage minority and female students to seek careers in engineering, math, and the sciences, Ms. Oakes said.

A spate of recent reports have pre dicted dire consequences if math L and science outcomes are not imL proved, she noted. Despite those re ports, she said, the rand analysis shows that while such improvement “is seen as politically important,” that concern “doesn’t seem to trans late into actual practice.” Ms. Oakes said that schools might not have had time to revise their methods of assessment and assignment of students in light of the recent reports.

But, she added, cases of tracking persist because of “deeply held as sumptions and beliefs about differ ences in abilities and how those dif ferences relate to social class.”


The report contains a series of recH ommendations that the authors ar gue will help reverse current trends. They include:

Increased public attention to the problem, especially “strong advoca cy from Washington and the state capitals.”

The creation of additional educa tional resources that would “go first to those schools with the greatest need,” such as those that lack labo ratory facilities.

Federal support for such a policy is necessary to combat political op position that may result from such an “affirmative-action” strategy, the report notes.

The redistribution of education funding and resources as well as L new organizational schemes within schools to ensure capable teachers are assigned to a broad range of stu dents.Such a redistribution should also “encourage a more equitable distri bution of resources and opportuni ties within schools,” the report states. Increased monitoring to ensure greater accountability on the part of schools and school districts.

“Such monitoring should be sup ported by a hierarchy of financial in centives to develop programs for equalizing opportunity, beginning at the federal level and extending to states, communities, and schools.”

Copies of the report, number R- 3928-NSF, are available for 10 each from the RAND Publications Department, 1700 Main St., P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, Calif. 90406-2138.

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘Tracking’ Hampers Minorities’ Access To Math, Science Careers, Study Finds