School & District Management

Devil Is in the Details When It Comes to Tracking, Detracking

By Holly Kurtz — March 21, 2014 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When it comes to high school reform, what may really matter in the end is not necessarily the buzzy name of the new approach but the more nuanced details about support, buy-in, and implementation.

This is the message I gleaned about algebra-for-all, tracking and “detracking” reforms, which are the topic of a research brief released Thursday by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The brief reviews multiple Consortium studies of more than 150,000 students who attended Chicago high schools between 1994 and 2003. The authors conclude that, for lower-achieving students, tracking or ability grouping in 9th grade algebra was associated with higher grades and lower test scores than was heterogeneous grouping or detracking. For higher-achieving students, the opposite was true. So should schools track? Should they detrack? It’s hard to say without first understanding the context of the study.

Starting in 1997, Chicago implemented two major waves of high school reforms that incorporated tracking, detracking and algebra-for-all. In the first phase, a new policy required all entering 9th grade students to take algebra or a higher-level math course that year. This policy had the effect of reducing tracking or ability-grouping between classrooms since all students, not just the highest-achieving or most ambitious, were suddenly required to take college-preparation math. Remedial math was eliminated. That said, even after the change, the very highest-achieving students—those in the top 25th percentile—continued to take classes with higher-achieving peers. Students in the bottom three-quarters of achievement were most likely to end up in mixed classes.

In the wake of that policy change, low-achieving students were more likely to fail 9th grade math and, eventually, less likely to graduate from high school. They were no more likely to attend college. In the meantime, higher-achieving students’ test scores declined, in part, the researchers suggested, because struggling and unsupported lower-achieving peers were slowing down the class. The high achievers were also less likely to go on to take advanced math, which may have helped explain why they were also less likely to attend college. One reason was that schools often lacked the capacity to both offer higher-level courses and also accommodate the curricular changes, which extended well beyond algebra-for-all in that they raised basic graduation requirements in all core subjects, Consortium director and brief co-author Elaine Allensworth said.

“It’s kind of a depressing story,” Allensworth said . “The whole intention was to get more students able to go to college.”

If the Chicago detracking reforms failed, it might have been because they did not incorporate best practices from detracking research. For example, in a classic article in the peer-refereed journal Educational Researcher, Ford Foundation Executive Jeannie Oakes, arguably the nation’s best-known scholar of tracking and detracking, writes that teacher buy-in, while always key, may be particularly important to detracking reforms. That’s because these reforms require educators to set aside deeply held beliefs, conscious and unconscious, such as the idea that tracking is more efficient because student ability is easily observable and difficult if not impossible to change. Instead, if detracking is to succeed, educators may need to adopt beliefs in line with the “mindset” research, pioneered by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, who suggests that student achievement is very changeable, especially if students and teachers alike believe that success depends on effort rather than on innate intelligence.

Allensworth said that the Chicago research did not survey teachers about their attitudes toward the 1997 changes. Yet teachers complained at the time that they felt left out of high school redesign reforms, which were fast-tracked to the point that at least one hearing was held on Christmas Eve.

In addition to teacher buy-in, best practices for detracking reforms include professional development for educators on working with hetereogenous classes, according to a 2006 review essay that Rutgers professor Beth Rubin wrote for the peer-refereed journal, Theory into Practice. Also crucial are additional support for students who struggle because they suddenly find themselves in harder courses with higher-achieving classmates. In Chicago, neither teachers nor struggling students got systematic support during the Phase 1 detracking reforms.

“Students just were mixed together,” Allensworth said. “You need to think about the kinds of supports students and teachers are going to need to make this happen.”

By contrast, when Phase 2 began in 2003, teachers did receive extra training and curricular support as they implemented a policy that assigned the students achieving below the national average to “double-dose” algebra courses that met for two periods a day. Schools also agreed not to disproportionately assign their newest teachers to these low-track classes. This practice was important because schools that track students also tend to track teachers by reserving the more advanced classes as a “reward” for the more senior or successful teachers. As a result, novices find themselves tackling the low-track classes.

During Phase 2, which continues in various forms today, everyone took algebra but tracking became more pronounced since the lowest-achieving students were taking the double-dose courses. With the unsupported, struggling students gone from their classes, the higher-achieving students earned better test scores but their grades declined.

“This happened partly because teachers demanded more from students in classes with higher-achieving students, making it more difficult to pass,” the brief’s authors wrote. “More critically, the double-dose algebra policy caused some high-skilled students to become the lowest-skilled students in their class—particularly if their math skills were just above the
national average.”

As with Phase I, it was unclear how teachers viewed the Phase II changes. However, the results were much better this time. The double-dose students were more likely to pass math and to graduate from high school than were their peers whose test scores were a hair too high to qualify them for this double-dose track. Double-dose students also had higher test scores.

“People often think that grouping low-achieving students together is detrimental,” said Takako Nomi, the lead author of the brief and an assistant professor of education at St. Louis University in Missouri. “But for test scores, double-dose students’ scores actually improved despite declines in peer ability. So, it’s likely that supplemental instruction helped.”

So what was the key ingredient of this Phase II reform? Was it the tracking? The double-dose algebra? The additional teacher support?

Allensworth concedes it is impossible to say because there is no way to disentangle those factors from one another.

She did note that, at some schools, scheduling issues pushed low-achieving students into regular algebra classes in which the achievement levels of their peers were more diverse than they would have been in the double-dose track. Because they were low-achieving, these students also received an extra shot of algebra in the form of a second period with the same teacher. Their test score gains were on par with the gains of students in the double-dose track, which suggests that the additional instructional time was likely an important factor. Because they were receiving additional support, these below-average achievers did not slow down the pace of instruction in their heterogeneously grouped algebra class.

One drawback of the double-dose classes was that students misbehaved more. As a result, they were more likely to be suspended or receive disciplinary infractions.

Carol Burris, a Rockville Centre, N.Y., principal and education activist who has both implemented and studied detracking, said that her suburban high school tried and abandoned double-dose algebra after one year for this very reason.

“It simply did not work,” she said. “It resulted in many behavior problems, lots of off task behavior and poor scores.”

Instead, the school groups math classes heterogeneously, but provides every-other-day support classes to struggling students. In her book, On the Same Track: How Schools Can Join the Twenty-First-Century Struggle Against Resegregation, which was published this week by Beacon Press, Burris summarizes research that suggests neither her school nor the Chicago findings are anomalies in terms of their findings about the discipline problems in low-track classes:

“Lower-ability students appeared to be more likely to act in a manner consistent with the class as a whole, whereas higher-ability students were less likely to do so,” Burris writes. “Higher-ability students seem less reactive to or dependent on class norms than did lower-ability students.”

The Chicago researchers suggested that schools that track students should anticipate behavioral problems in low-track classes and handle them by providing “sufficient support to teachers.” The lesson is relevant: About three-quarters of 8th graders attend tracked math classes.

In the end, the Chicago researchers conclude that their findings provide unconditional support for neither tracking nor detracking in urban high schools like Chicago’s. Rather, the devil is in the details, with each approach accompanied by its own challenges and benefits that can be magnified or downplayed, depending upon how educators handle the reforms.

To me, however, an additional subtext of these studies is that, when it comes to detracking reforms, it is difficult to separate the outcomes from the context. You need to understand the treatment in order to interpret the results.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.