Track in, track out

We talked a bit about in our first class about academic “tracking” and whether or not that is a legitimate end use of academic testing.  I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I have some experiences I’d like to share along this theme.

I live in and have worked for a school district where I have been told confidentially by an AIG (Academically and Intellectually Gifted) teacher that once children are tracked into the gifted enrichment courses via testing in elementary or middle school, they are never removed.  This school district identifies children for either math enrichment or language enrichment, or both, depending on test results.  Every year, the school district sends formal notification to parents that their child has been identified for a particular enrichment program, signed by the child’s classroom teacher, the AIG teachers, and the principal, and the parents sign the consent form as well.  That lasts until high school, where AP (Advanced Placement) and honors courses take over in place of the gifted classes.

At a high school orientation session I attended, though, the teachers and administrators warned about taking “too many” honors/AP courses, and let parents and students know rather ominously that once a student enrolled in an advanced class, they would not be allowed to drop it if they found it too difficult in order to enter a regular class.  This could damage a student’s GPA (grade point average), which is something many parents and students in this competitive school district are very conscious of.

It seemed to me then a very strange policy that a student would not be allowed to drop an honors course in exchange for a regular course during the drop/add period, and it still does.

Just as strange to me was my experience of witnessing my son’s attempt to move from the “regular” track in English to an AP course at the beginning of his last year in high school.  He was bored, and wanted to take the AP course so that he could read and discuss the more interesting and challenging books on their syllabus, but was referred by his school counselor to the assistant principal for a decision on the matter, who told him that he could not enter an AP English class because he was not in that track already in high school, unless he had special permission from the chair of the English department.

Unfortunately for my son, he had already managed to alienate that person by turning in a lackluster performance in his class in a previous year.  Although it was clear to everyone involved that my son could easily “handle” the course material (reading comprehension test scores and writing samples showed that), his previous phone-it-in attitude had soured that teacher on him, and his request was denied.

At this point he had already received stellar scores on End-of-Grade, End-of-Course, and SAT and ACT tests, which had contributed to the reputation of high academic achievement of this school district and this high school.  (Do not doubt the power of national school rankings based on test scores:  the relatively high price of housing in this prestigious school district within the state, and even within the district as certain neighborhoods are zoned to particular schools, is largely due to these; as is a certain amount of hyper-competitiveness and academic anxiety among parents and students.)  Despite those test scores, he was not allowed to take the AP English course.  Although it was not said outright, he did not “deserve” to take the advanced class, though he was more than capable of doing well in the class.

It is possible that being denied access to a higher level English class negatively impacted my son’s chances of being accepted into the universities or programs he wanted to attend, where he had a better chance of finding a “fit” with like-minded peers.

So what do I think of this academic daisy chain, where once a student is tracked into an AIG program through standardized test scores they are in, and where once a student is out of the advanced track he or she may face an uphill battle getting in (even as a relatively privileged child of educated parents)?  Not much, frankly; but I do not know what we would replace this system with.  What matters more, test scores, academic performance, or “attitude,” in deciding who gets to be in which track?  How much should the personal and unquantifiable judgment of administrators and teachers matter?  I would welcome any thoughts or ideas from readers.

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4 Responses to Track in, track out

  1. angelajf says:

    A few comments that come to mind:
    1. I wonder if this “policy” of no drop/add with APs would stand if challenged. It seems like the “policy” was made to protect the school’s reputation as a top school. The gatekeeper mentality of only allowing “deserving” students into AP classes also seems to preserve the school’s reputation by only allowing students who teachers think will pull a top score.
    2. It is interesting how AP registration policies differ among schools. I know of two public school is different districts in NC who do not require students to have AP registration approved. What has happened, though, is that students often register thinking that just having AP on their transcript will help them and then get in over their head. When they stick it out, the students usually end up with a low score on the AP exam. Teachers of the classes often voice frustration that they are having to slow down and/or diminish the depth of the course because of these students.
    3. As a parent who just went through the college admissions craziness with my own child, I have no doubt that not being in AP courses affects admissions decisions. Almost every school my child and I visited and info session we attended emphasized taking the most rigorous course of study available at your study. In other words, if AP courses are available at your school, you had better take them.

    I don’t know what the magic answer is. Some sort of reasonable policy that allows students to alter registrations while also giving teachers input would be ideal.

    Liked by 2 people

    • juniperonjupiter says:

      Thanks for your comment and perspective, angelajf!

      1) If I were an AP gatekeeper, selecting “deserving” students on the basis of whether they did their homework reliably and could be counted on to not fall asleep in class, then my son would definitely not make the cut! But if I were selecting based on whether I thought students would score well on the AP exam, well…I’d probably have to include my son, as he’d received 5s (the highest score) on all his AP exams from other departments. I’m not sure which call I would make if I were the gatekeeper, frankly. And I’n not sure that either of those is a good reason to admit or exclude someone from an AP course. A clear and explicit policy would help.

      2) I can certainly sympathize with frustrated teachers having to slow down content delivery for other students, for students who want an AP course in order to look good on the transcript but can’t truly handle the demands of the course.

      3) I have heard the same advice about “taking the most rigorous course of study available at your school” many times as well. I wonder if that mantra was repeated before AP/IB (International Baccalaureate) courses existed? And do AP classes exist in order to give colleges another sorting mechanism for admissions; or do they exist to help students get basic college-level courses out of the way in high school (for less money) and, theoretically, more “bang for the buck” with more-advanced courses with their college tuition money; or some entirely different reason? And now we’d have to get into what college admissions officers are looking for, and how that drives K-12 schooling, which is a whole ‘nother discussion…


  2. sydneymitchell17 says:

    This was a really great post! This is super relevant especially for me being just a first year student in college, I know all too well the issues the tracking system has brought to many of my peers. I think that it is really hard to determine basically the entire outcome of a child’s educational career based on a test taken at the age of 5 or 6. How can this accurately predict what courses a student can handle 10 years down the road? I am unsure of what another alternative there is to this system but I do know that this tracking system really does limit students who were not placed into the gifted programs early in their schooling years. I have several friends who are just as smart if not smarter than I am who were unable to take AP and/or IB courses in high school, limiting which colleges they could get into. On the other side of this, I know many people who were placed into the gifted programs early on and were unable to handle the workload of these more difficult courses in high school. This tracking system is definitely broken. Great job!


    Liked by 1 person

    • juniperonjupiter says:

      Thanks so much, Sydney! I have so much sympathy for people your age, because I think you face so much competitive pressure to get into the college of your choice, and that competition was nowhere near as intense for my generation (unless we were shooting for the Ivies or Ivy-level). The test scores, grades, rigorous courses, extracurriculars, service learning and other volunteer work–the pressure to be well-rounded and to excel at the same time is crazy! I feel sad for your friends who were not able to take the AP/IB courses they wanted in high school, and also for those placed into too-difficult courses as a result of misguided tracking. Here’s to hoping we find a more sane way to handle school, tracking, and college admissions!


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