On the Wrong Track?

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Some researchers, convinced long ago of the harm that tracking visits on society's have nots, have worked hard to help schools find alternatives.

Given a lack of definitive evidence in either direction--and some suggestion that high-ability students benefit from tracking---critics such as Mr. Loveless say the burden of proof is on detracking proponents to prove that getting rid of tracking is the better option.

Alternatives to Tracking

But some researchers, convinced long ago of the harm that tracking visits on society's have nots, have worked hard to help schools find alternatives. They have testified in court cases and have sometimes borne political attacks on their efforts.

And they view Mr. Loveless and other skeptics, such as Ms. Argys, with suspicion. They point out, for example, that Mr. Loveless' recent criticisms were widely circulated this past summer by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank with a conservative bent. They also note that neither Mr. Loveless, Ms. Argys, nor Mr. Mosteller has an appointment at an education school. (Mr. Loveless, though, taught both gifted and disabled students during nine years as a special education teacher in public school.)

"I'd like to believe that those of us in education schools are less willing to accept numbers outside of their context," says Kevin G. Welner, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Simply comparing a structurally tracked school with a structurally untracked school confounds a variety of situations and tells us virtually nothing," he adds. Many of the large-scale studies on tracking, however, are based on just such comparisons.

Ms. Oakes points out, for example, that the achievement levels of students in high-track classes in a poor, urban district may be much lower than those of similarly tracked classes in affluent suburbs. Such subtleties are often lost in studies that draw on national databases.

When researchers take a microscope to individual, racially diverse schools and districts, as Mr. Welner and Ms. Oakes have done in a handful of urban districts in recent years, they find that tracking breeds inequality and can cut off some students' path to a four-year college. In one Pennsylvania district Mr. Welner studied, for example, African-American students were found to be 2½ times more likely than white students of the same ability levels to be placed into low-track classrooms.

New Flexibility

Ms. Oakes concedes now, however, that some high-achieving students may, in fact, do better in classes with other high achievers.

"Being in a high track certainly does seem to pay off--not only for high-achieving kids but for anybody else who gets in there," she says. "Which tells us that parents know exactly what they're doing when they lobby to get their kids in a high track."

But the fact also remains, she adds, that being in a poor track depresses achievement.

"I'm disconcerted that this kind of analysis might call into question the whole topic," Ms. Oakes says of Mr. Loveless' criticisms.

But, even if tracking is truly unjust, Mr. Loveless and others say, the practice has changed since it first came in for criticism two decades ago.

"Placement by IQ tests is a thing of the past," writes Mr. Loveless, who has visited 29 schools for a forthcoming book on the subject. "The rigidity of tracks has softened, with track assignments usually made on a subject-by-subject basis."

Samuel Lucas, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who recently analyzed data on national samples of students, agrees with Mr. Loveless that tracking has become less rigid and explicit. But that, he says, is part of the problem.

Students might let themselves be shepherded into consumer mathematics rather than algebra, for example, never realizing that without algebra they might not accumulate the credits they need to earn a spot at a four-year college or university.

Some frustration over the issue also stems from the fact that detracking is notoriously hard to do.

"It means that many of the students may not even be aware of the ways in which their futures are being shaped," says Mr. Lucas, who also has a book on tracking due out at the end of the year. "Years later, they may realize--way after it's possible to do anything about it--that that's what happened."

When students move out of their track placements, his data show, the direction in which they are going is generally down. Only 20 percent of the moves from one track to another involve students moving up to more challenging classrooms.

A Judgment Call

Some frustration over the issue also stems from the fact that detracking is notoriously hard to do. High school math and foreign-language teachers, in particular, tend to view their subjects as sequential. Students, in other words, must master basic arithmetic before they go on to algebra. As a result, teachers in those subjects sometimes resist changes in tracking.

Mr. Gamoran, for example, studied 24 schools that were in the midst of restructuring and exploring ways of making their curricula more equitable. Only one--a small high school with small classes--succeeded in detracking classes in every subject area.

"If you're going to eliminate detracking, then you need to do it in a way that all students find meaningful," Mr. Gamoran says. "And that's a hard thing for teachers to do."

But, if the job is challenging, Ms. Oakes and Mr. Welner say, then it just means schools should keep trying. Ms. Oakes, in a recent paper on the arduous, court-ordered efforts in San Jose, Calif., to detrack, even suggests that top-down mandates may be necessary to prod slow-moving districts to take action.

Although detracking is hard, she argues, it's not impossible. Some schools have successfully introduced mixed-ability classes by giving low-achieving students extra instruction--sometimes through Saturday schools or double doses of difficult subjects.

"To wait until somebody has an ironclad recipe for undoing tracking, I think, is foolhardy," Ms. Oakes says. "I can't imagine any educational problem where we've had as much evidence as we have with this one and not acted."

In the end, all sides agree, the decision to detrack or not has to be a value judgment.

"If you accept that students in low-track classrooms have an inferior education," Mr. Welner says, "then you have to ask whether we, as a country, are going to be satisfied separating out one group of students and giving them an inferior education." But it is a judgment, Mr. Loveless argues, that should be left up to schools.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 27, 30-31

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as On the Wrong Track?
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