Eliminate Tracking System, Boston Schools Urged

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Public schools in Boston should eliminate tracking and ability-grouping, "which sort, label, and ultimately discard" a majority of the city's students, according to a report scheduled to be released this week.

The 190-page study, "Locked In: Locked Out," characterizes the city's tracking and grade-retention practices as a form of "institutionalized inequality."

It was produced by the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a nonprofit children's interest group.

According to the report, students in the school system's bottom rungs receive a "significantly different" education from that of their peers, including a more impoverished curriculum, lowered expectations, and reduced chances for academic success. Poor, black, and Hispanic youngsters are disproportionately represented in the low-ability groups, the study found.

The report lays out a five-year agenda for totally "de-tracking" the city's elementary and middle schools. At the high-school level, it proposes maintaining an "honors" track at each school, while ensuring that all students have access to an enriched core curriculum.

One of the report's most controversial recommendations calls for abolishing selective-admissions policies at the city's highly respected examination schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and Boston Technical School. Admission to the schools should be based on a lottery system, according to the report.

A 1988 study by Designs for Change, a Chicago advocacy group, concluded that selective-admissions criteria for high-schools in four large urban districts--including Boston--had resulted in a "new, improved sorting machine" that provides superior opportunities for high-achieving students at the expense of schools serving the disadvantaged.

An 'Immoral' Practice

The new, yearlong study--which is based on statistical data, educational research, and interviews with Boston students--confirms earlier analyses of the harmful effects of tracking, particularly for racial and linguistic minorities.

Its comprehensive profile of one school system underlines the extent to which the sorting, labeling, and grouping of students "pervades all aspects of life in Boston."

In addition to examining ability grouping within "regular" education classes, the study looks at retention policies; the placement of youngsters in formal categorical programs, such as special and bilingual education; and the role of selective-admissions schools.

By the time students enter Boston's middle schools, the report estimates, fewer than half remain in the academic "mainstream."

The rest have already experienced some form of placement apart from their age-level peers, either through nonpromotion or through full- or part-time separation from their regular education classes.

In many of Boston's middle schools, the report notes, whole clusters of students are sorted and labeled by "ability," while at the high-school level entire schools are arranged in a "highly stratified hierarchy."

Such "immoral" practices, in the words of the report, contribute to the failure of a school system that consistently loses two-fifths of its students before graduation.

"Once grouped," the report notes, "students rarely leave their position in the educational hierarchy, and if they do, they move downward on the educational ladder."

'Virtual Resegregation'

According to the report, white and Asian students have significantly better chances of being placed in "high ability" categories from the earliest grades. In contrast, black and Hispanic students are more likely to be placed in "low ability" or remedial classes, and they are more likely to be retained in grade.

By the time students reach high school, the report notes, differential placement rates "can result in the virtual resegregation of schools by course enrollment."

For example, at one area high school, where 20 percent of the students are Hispanic, 24 out of 25 students enrolled in Functional Math are Hispanic, and all 23 students enrolled in Math Review are Hispanic.

The report is particularly critical of the city's examination schools, which "siphon away" many of Boston's most successful and academically talented students beginning in the 7th grade. "If students require special education or bilingual support," it notes, "their chances of admission to any of Boston's examination schools are virtually non-existent."

Another Remedial Track?

The report also suggests that special-education programs--which serve 1 in 5 Boston students--"may frequently function, perhaps unintentionally, as a remedial track within Boston Public Schools."

Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be placed in special education than either white or Asian students. And special-education students as a group are more likely to repeat a grade, be suspended, or drop out of school than their mainstream peers.

The report is less critical of bilingual education, which appeared in the study to buffer students from academic failure. But it notes that students enrolled in such programs still suffered from sorting and labeling practices as they attempted to make the transition back into the educational mainstream.

Because bilingual students are pushed back into English-speaking classes so quickly, the report suggests, teachers may confuse their language difficulties with their academic potential and mistakenly place them in special education or low-ability groups.

'Broadening' the Mainstream

The report advocates a number of steps for reducing the isolation of groups of students, "broadening and strengthening" the academic mainstream, and extending "state-of-the-art" practices to all youngsters.

"It is not enough simply to cluster students of different abilities together," the report notes. "De-tracking cannot occur without changing the ways schools organize what they teach, how they teach it, and how they assess how well students have learned what we want them to know."

Some of the alternatives to rigid ability-grouping that it suggests include: a curriculum organized around themes and emphasizing critical-thinking skills; cooperative learning; cross-age tutoring; peer tutoring; and multi-age classrooms.

Although some Boston schools employ such innovative techniques, the report notes, they serve only small numbers of students within a school and, in some cases, operate for only part of each day.

The report also advocates eliminating a number of district policies that support and promote the tracking of students. These include the city's emphasis on basic skills, "high stakes" standardized testing, rigid promotion and graduation standards, and student "readiness" for school.

"The removal of these barriers, along with improved implementation of existing vehicles for whole-school reform," the report asserts, "are essential to free up Boston schools for real restructuring."

Political Realities

Anne Wheelock, director of the study, said that it would probably take 10 years to totally de-track the city's school system, but that real progress could be made within a five-year period.

The report advocates maintaining an honors track at the high-school level, she noted, because that is probably "more realistic," given the emphasis that colleges place on advanced-placement and honors courses in their admissions processes.

But she argued that the social cost of maintaining the city's examination schools was "simply too high," when faced with the negative effect such schools have on the majority of students in the system.

"In some ways, the selective-admissions schools are sacred cows in Boston," she said, noting that recommending major changes in their operation was politically risky.

"Our hope is that those recommendations won't be exaggerated at the expense of really understanding that we need a very broad and systematic reform in Boston that must at some level involve the examination schools," she said.

Vol. 09, Issue 27

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