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.