School & District Management

On the Wrong Track?

By Debra Viadero — September 23, 1998 11 min read
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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 Most experts think the practice is outdated and harmful--even if it remains popular among parents and some teachers.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. 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.”

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.

“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.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 1998 edition of Education Week as On the Wrong Track?


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