Math Tracking Starts as Early as Elementary School, a New Study Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — February 07, 2024 6 min read
Tight crop of junior-high students' desks during a math class at school with paperwork showing math problems.
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Tracking, or grouping students according to their perceived ability, is a common feature in high school math. But a new study finds that it’s widespread as early as elementary and middle school, too—and that states approach the practice in notably different ways.

The findings, from the RAND Corporation, are based on a nationally representative survey of nearly 2,300 elementary and middle school principals, grades K-8, administered in spring 2023. The survey also reports state-level findings for California, Texas, New York, and Florida.

The results shed light on how and when students get placed on differing math trajectories—a decision point that can shape their academic future through high school. And they underscore the extent to which students’ opportunities are determined by the state, or even neighborhood, in which they live.

Math tracking has also been a key subtext in recent debates about math course sequencing—including those that surfaced around the newly adopted California Math Framework, in which both proponents and opponents of early access to high school coursework claimed that their policy recommendations would advance equity.

“We all know that … tracking happens in schools. We all know that tracking may have some negative impacts. But we didn’t really know how different it might be in different contexts,” said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at RAND and an author of the report.

Tracking appears to be handled differently in different states, with varied criteria used to place students, Kaufman noted. “All of this suggests some deep inequities in who is and isn’t tracked.”

About 4 in 10 elementary school principals said that their schools grouped students by achievement level in math, while 68 percent of middle school principals said the same.

But not all children are equally likely to experience tracking. The rates varied by state, and by demographics. Principals in Florida, for example, were most likely to say that they grouped students this way, while principals in California were least likely.

At the middle school level, students in schools that mostly served higher-income neighborhoods were also more likely to experience tracking. Forty-five percent of principals in low-poverty schools said they sorted students into different math classes, compared to 33 percent of principals at high-poverty schools.

“We know that there are real opportunities for gatekeeping by accelerating students in middle school. When we don’t accelerate students equitably, we’re shutting doors to students’ futures,” said Kristen Hengtgen, a senior analyst on the P-12 policy team at the Education Trust, a group that advocates for marginalized students. Hengtgen was not involved with the report.

But there are avenues for accelerating students in a way that opens up advanced coursework for more kids, Hengtgen said. “This report confirms that as long as tracking exists, we need to get students more equitable access to options.”

Access to Algebra 1 varies by state

Many debates about tracking boil down to when students take Algebra 1—the first course in the traditional high school math sequence, and one that sets students up for higher-level study in the subject.

Students in “advanced” tracks often take Algebra 1 in 8th grade, starting on a timeline that will allow them to complete calculus, or other advanced math, by the end of high school. But federal civil rights data has shown longstanding inequities in when students take this foundational course.

Black and Latino students are more likely to take Algebra 1 in 11th or 12th grade compared to their white and Asian peers, cutting off their access to more advanced, college-preparatory classes.

Because middle school teachers and principals oversee this decision about 8th grade Algebra 1, determinations made about students’ abilities in 6th or 7th grade—or even earlier—can shape the trajectory of the rest of their math careers.

Most middle schools—85 percent—offer Algebra 1, the RAND survey found. Still, 65 percent restrict access to the course to certain students. And again, there were some big differences by state.

For example, a third of California middle school principals said they didn’t offer Algebra 1 at all. About half of them said that their school only allowed certain students to participate in Algebra 1.

In Florida, though, 99 percent of middle school principals said their schools offered Algebra 1. But access to the course is widely restricted: Eight in 10 principals said only some students could register.

Some of these differences may be driven by state policy, said Kaufman. In Florida, the state grades middle schools in part based on the percentage of students who pass high school-level course exams, including for Algebra 1. As a result, Kaufman said, Florida schools are incentivized to offer the class—and to restrict access to those students whom principals are confident will pass it.

Other factors influence decisions about tracking, too, the survey found. The most common criteria are diagnostic or interim assessments, with 85 percent of K-8 principals saying they rely on these scores. Eighty-three percent of principals said they take teacher recommendations into account.

One factor played a much larger role in higher-income schools: parent requests.

Half of principals said they incorporated parents’ preferences when making decisions about tracking in low-poverty schools, while only 30 percent of principals in high-poverty schools said the same.

“The research tells us that parents of students in low-income schools, parents of Black and Latino students, are as engaged in their children’s education,” said Hengtgen. But they may not know that they can advocate for their kids to be placed in higher-level courses, she added.

The report underscores the importance of partnering with families early on to ensure that parents understand what options are available, she said.

Many struggling students don’t access supports

The survey also examined the kinds of support that schools provided to struggling students—and found that kids with the highest needs may not be receiving the strongest teachers, or supplemental instruction that could help them thrive.

Less than a third of principals said that they assigned their most knowledgeable teachers to struggling students, with another third saying they had no control over these assignments. The survey doesn’t explain why this is. Factors like certification, teacher preference, and labor contracts can shape how classrooms are staffed.

In schools where principals or teachers are making these decisions, it’s possible that students are experiencing “math-teacher tracking,” a phenomenon in which less experienced educators are assigned to lower-level classes.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and others have deplored this practice, arguing that it leaves students who would benefit the most from seasoned teachers with the least access to them.

Outside of regular class time, elementary and middle school principals say that they provide a host of support for struggling students. The most popular in both grade bands are tiered intervention plans and tutoring, with at least 80 percent of principals reporting that they offered these options.

Still, a minority of school leaders say that all or almost all of their struggling students are actually using these supports.

“This is an opportunity to rethink how interventions are being offered and how they’re communicated to students, so the onus is not on the struggling student,” Hengtgen said. “ ... We know students aren’t going to come after school or stay in summer for those opportunities.”


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