On the Wrong Track?

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Some researchers are daring to suggest that tracking students may not be as bad as everyone thinks.

Among education practices, tracking often ranks right up there with dunce caps and rapping students across the hand with wooden rulers. Most experts think the practice is outdated and harmful--even if it remains popular among parents and some teachers. The book on tracking, they contend, closed long ago.

But a handful of researchers, pointing to some newer studies and rehashing old ones, are reopening the debate.

"In the education journals, it's taken as gospel that tracking is a bad thing," says Tom Loveless, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University who is skeptical of much of the literature on tracking. "What I'm saying is we just don't know if tracking is good or bad, and we really don't know if detracking is good or bad."

Making decisions based on those conventional assumptions can have far-reaching consequences, he adds. ''When you have urban and low-achieving schools rushing to embrace a policy that's unproven, that's a very dangerous thing."

To some extent, public schools in the United States have sorted the best students out from the poor achievers at least since the turn of the century. Many still do in one form or another, usually because teachers find it easier to gear their instruction to students of similar ability levels. Advanced-placement and honors classes can be a form of tracking in high schools, for example. But, in tracking's most rigid forms, students are assigned to specific tracks, such as a college, vocational, or general track, and they take all their classes within those groupings.

There is a difference, however, between tracking and the less controversial practice of ability grouping. Most 1st grade teachers, for example, divide students into groups with names like "redbirds" and "bluebirds" for reading instruction. But students can move from group to group as they progress, and the entire class is receiving the same basic instruction.

Among education's intelligentsia, the most rigid forms of grouping students began to fall out of favor in the mid-1970s, after researchers started warning that tracking exacerbates social inequities.

Early Findings

One of the best-known studies was conducted by Jeannie Oakes, who is now a professor and an assistant dean of the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Looking at a national sample of 25 schools, she found that poor and minority students were disproportionately placed in the lower tracks. There, they encountered less qualified teachers, thinner curricula, and poorer instruction than their high-achieving counterparts.

And one widely quoted analysis of the tracking literature by Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Slavin maintained that, even if tracking were not so unfair to poor and minority students, it still wouldn't be a particularly effective way to bolster achievement. Students of all ability levels, Slavin concluded, do no better in tracked classes than they do in mixed-ability settings.

In her 1985 book, Keeping Track, Ms. Oakes concurred: "The results differ in certain specifics, but one conclusion emerges clearly: No group of students has been found to benefit consistently from being in a homogeneous group."

As a result, some school systems began to abolish the practice--usually over the protests of well-heeled parents of gifted and high-achieving students. When some large urban districts didn't detrack, federal courts sometimes ordered them to do so as part of desegregation cases.

Few experts now dispute the conclusion that in rigidly tracked systems, the students who rank at the bottom of their grades tend to get the short end of the academic stick.

Few experts now dispute the conclusion that in rigidly tracked systems, the students who rank at the bottom of their grades tend to get the short end of the academic stick. If a high school takes two students with similar test scores and places one in a low track and one in an average or higher track, the student in the bottom track probably will either make no learning gains or start to lag behind his high-track counterpart.

"If it's really true that tracking hurts both high- and low-ability kids, then it's an easy solution," says Dominic J. Brewer, a RAND Corp. researcher who has studied the issue.

Reappraisal Sought

But those scholars who have renewed the debate suggest that it's just not that easy. Like many tough education questions, the decision about whether to forgo tracking may well come with a cost.

"If I were to summarize it, I could not say the literature says that tracking hurts some people and doesn't help anybody else," says Laura M. Argys, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Denver.

In 1996, Ms. Argys, Mr. Brewer, and their colleague Daniel I. Rees analyzed data on 3,400 students who had taken part in a nationally representative survey known as the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. They wanted to see how tracking and detracking hurt or helped students.

Their conclusion: Detracking boosts the test scores of students in the bottom tracks, but it hurts average and high-achieving students even more. The difference was slight--less than a full test-score point--but it was enough to prompt the researchers to question the wisdom of undoing traditional tracking practices without careful study.

"Somebody's going to pay for the choice to go to detracking, and it's either the low-skilled or the high-skilled students," Ms. Argys says. "That's a decision society is going to have to make."

Adam Gamoran, a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher, used a different nationally representative survey to reach a similar conclusion in 1987. He found, however, that the gains bright students in higher-level tracks make are cancelled out by the losses weaker students suffer by being placed in low-level tracks. The end result, he says, is a wash.

But rather than focus on any one group of students, he takes a broader view.

"Tracking has the effect of increasing inequality of achievement," he says. "Most people who look at tracking focus on either the effects on inequality or the effects on achievement, but not both. It's important to understand that it's a total package."

He found, in fact, that the achievement differences between students in upper and lower tracks were even greater than achievement differences between students who stayed in school and those who had dropped out.

Unfinished Business

The differing shades of findings from such studies may suggest simply that research on tracking is an unfinished business. Frederick J. Mosteller, a Harvard statistician, reached that conclusion in 1996 after he reviewed the literature and picked out the studies he considered to be true scientific experiments. He came up with only 10, dating from 1960 to 1974.

If the studies show any benefit at all from the practice, he decided, it is to the advantage of high-ability students.

That basic finding is not all that different from Mr. Slavin's more than a decade earlier when he looked at many of the same studies. But Mr. Mosteller draws a markedly different conclusion. Noting that few studies met his standards for scientific rigor, he wrote, the bottom line "is that the appropriate, large-scale, multisite research studies on skill grouping have not yet been carried out even though the issues have been debated as major public concerns within education for most of this century."

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

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