Student Achievement

Regardless of Its Form, Tracking is Inequitable, PISA Analysis Finds

By Holly Kurtz — May 14, 2014 5 min read
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“The unremarked revolution.”

That is how sociologist Samuel Lucas describes this nation’s transition from formal, rigid, and overt high school tracking (think vocational versus academic programs) to a subtler system in which students can enroll in different levels of classes for different subjects. A problem with the old approach was that vocational programs often became dumping grounds for low-income and minority students. The idea was that the “new” method, which dates to the Civil Rights movement era and continues in most high schools to this day, would be fairer. That’s because students could choose course levels that met their needs for a particular subject.

The United States was not alone in this quiet transition. Other countries, including Australia and Great Britain, also ended up tracking on a course-by-course basis, with students in different tracks generally attending the same schools. However, old-fashioned academic and vocational tracking (which often occurs between schools) continues to dominate high school in many parts of the globe, including Germany, Japan, Korea, and France. Now a new study takes to the world stage to examine whether one method of academic tracking is really more likely than the other to level the playing field in math for students from low-income families.

The overall answer is, not really.

The study, which appears this month in the current issue of the peer-refereed American Journal of Education, analyzes the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, math results of 99,000 15-year-olds in 3,400 schools in 20 nations.

“Overall, the findings of this article suggest that while course-by-course tracking and academic/vocational streaming differ in some important ways, in terms of the key outcome—math achievement gaps between tracks—they do not differ dramatically,” concludes author Anna K. Chmielewski, a postdoctoral fellow in the Pathways to Adulthood program, based at the Michigan State University’s College of Education.

Chmielewski found that course-by-course tracking did seem to lessen the segregation of low-income students. In other words, low-income 15-year-olds were more likely to be over represented in formal, vocational programs in nations that practiced old-fashioned tracking.

“This finding supports the life course perspective, which predicts that academic/vocational streaming will be more segregated, as it typically begins at earlier ages when parental background holds a strong influence over educational transitions,” Chmielewski wrote.

Chmielewski also found that, after accounting for demographic differences between tracks, the achievement gap between low and middle tracks was larger in nations that practiced old-fashioned, formal academic/vocational tracking.

However, she found that both types of tracking were associated with nearly identical math achievement gaps between high and middle tracks.

“This finding is the first evidence directly comparing achievement gaps between tracks in course-by-course tracking and academic/vocational streaming, and it supports the notion that course-by-course tracking and academic/vocational streaming expose students to similarly differentiated [opportunities to learn],” Chmielewski wrote.

Chmielewski also found that formal, old-fashioned tracking programs accounted for more of the overall income-achievement gap in a country.

“The overall country income-achievement gap is actually about the same in course-by-course tracking countries,” Chmielewski explained. “But since tracking explains less of these income-achievement gaps, there is still a lot of income-based inequality even among students in the same track. This is in part because, especially in the U.S., there’s already quite a bit of segregation between schools, and ‘high track’ and ‘low track’ can mean really different things in high-income and low-income schools.”

Overall, Chmielewski concluded that neither system was particularly equitable.

“Although [socioeconomic] segregation between tracks is higher in academic/vocational streaming, it is still high in course-by-course tracking,” Chmielewski wrote. “And although the achievement gap between the low and middle tracks is larger in academic/vocational streaming, the gap between the high and middle tracks is equally large in both systems. This reinforces the concern that course-by-course tracking may substitute an implicitly unequal system for an explicitly unequal one.”

In his classic 1999 book, Tracking Inequality: Stratification and Mobility in American High Schools,Lucas, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, noted that new-style tracking posed a new set of challenges for low-income students. The reason is that course-by-course tracking is less overt. Students are not clearly assigned to separate programs that prepare them for distinctly different pathways. As a result, they may be unaware that they are not taking the courses they need to qualify for admissions to a four-year college. For instance, students who take a lower-track 9th grade math class that divides algebra into two years of coursework (Algebra 1 and Algebra 2) may end up graduating before they have an opportunity to take all the math requirements necessary for admissions to a four-year college. Middle-class parents who have attended college often know this and warn their children. But potential first-generation college students may be close to graduation before they realize that they have taken the wrong courses.

Drawing on these findings, Chmielewski concludes:

“As more countries replace explicit academic/vocational streaming with less explicit course-by-course tracking, they may give more low-track students the expectation of college without giving them greater preparation to succeed in college.”

She noted that her study excluded completely untracked countries such as Finland.

“You can’t calculate achievement gaps between tracks when there are no tracks!” she said. “But prior research shows that [untracked countries] are often the most equitable countries, where income-achievement gaps are smallest.”

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