To Track or Not to Track

Because my daughter is a gymnast, we spend the early months of the year travelling to gymnastics meets. This means many weekends spent in the car or on an airplane. And although my daughter might roll her high school eyes heavenward, it’s also a great time for uninterrupted chatting.

On one recent trip out of town, we were talking about planning for next school year. My daughter had the chance to register for classes and we were talking about what she would be taking and why she chose the classes that she did. She mentioned her enormous anxiety at making sure that she got the classes that she wanted. Her concern was not whether her friends would be in class with her or who the teacher would be—it was whether she would get the classes that she needed in order to get into the university of her choice. She’s not only concerned with the university, but with a particular program. You see my daughter is keenly interested in becoming an aerospace engineer. She has already planned out what she’ll need to take for each of her four years of high school in order to get into the programs that she’s interested in. And she isn’t alone. There is so much pressure on students to know what they want to do and where they want to be; courses that look fun or interesting are often replaced by those that will look best on a college application. Advanced placement and Advanced classes are the gold standard on college applications. According to the LA Times article A Parent’s Guide to AP Classes:

For highly selective schools such as Ivy League schools, Stanford, and public universities like UCLA and UC Berkeley, it’s common for accepted applicants to take about eight AP classes throughout high school, though that number can range from five to 13. There are many colleges, though, that don’t ask for that many AP classes and offer a very good education, even though they’re not in U.S. News & World Report’s top 30 schools. Students can get into a four-year school with just one AP, and in some cases, with none. Students with a high school degree can also attend community college without any AP classes, and then transfer to a four-year school. 

According to Wake County’s High School Planning Guide, “AP courses support students in cultivating important skills and habits of mind that are essential for college and career readiness. Additionally, students may receive higher consideration for admission to colleges and universities, as well as possible college or university course credit and/or placement.” Although it is different for every school, being able to take advanced courses can often require a teacher’s recommendation, achieving a high grade in an honors class, or having scored high enough on standardized testing in middle school.

It seems that policy makers are determined to make all children “career and college ready” and to help them achieve the ‘American dream.’ However, this is at odds with what is being demonstrated in high schools all over the country. Many schools implement tracking, or stratifying students according to ability levels. Tracking can begin as early as elementary or middle school but is most common in high school. Some schools can have as many as four or five tracks or allow students to obtain technical or vocational skills, but tracking occurs most often in English and math classes.

In recent years, schools have tried to get away from the rigid levels of tracking by beginning the process of “detracking” and replacing it with curriculum differentiation. Some schools refer to it as “ability-grouping systems” or “leveling systems” but whatever its name, the effects of tracking can be harmful to student morale and success. Educational stratification requires educators, parents, and students to maintain certain ideas about intelligence, ability, and curriculum.

So what do AP classes, college and career readiness and tracking have to do with one another? Students who are considered “lower ability” are virtually tracked out of certain opportunities. Tracking doesn’t allow students the opportunity to try something new, challenge themselves, or take advantage of an amazing teacher or experience. Excellence and equity can be compatible—but not with tracking programs that only continue to reinforce inequity in our schools.

In a the essay titled, “Access to Knowledge: Challenging the Techniques, Norms, and Politics of Schooling,” Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton write:

Those who promote ability grouping, special education, gifted programs, and the myriad other homogeneous instructional groups in schools claim that these classifications are objective and color blind, rather than, as Goodlad suggests, reflecting myths and prejudices. Advocates of grouping explain the disproportionate classification of white students as gifted or advanced and of students of color as slow or basic as the unfortunate consequence of different backgrounds and abilities. They base their claims of objectivity on century-old (and older) explanations of differences that are neither scientific nor bias-free.

Labeling restricts what students and their teachers believe they can do. It prevents schools from providing a rich and varied curriculum for all students. It is time to reconsider unequal educational opportunities and provide students with a chance to learn and to grow.

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One Response to To Track or Not to Track

  1. claire.s says:

    Thanks for this post. Just as Oakes and Lipton write, it’s clear that tracking, which claims to be based on ability, often leads to a disproportionate amount of de facto segregation in different levels of classes in schools based on race and socioeconomic status. It can cause teachers to raise or lower their expectations for each group of students, and limit some student’s expectations of themselves. Do you think that there is a difference between differentiated curriculum or the “ability-grouping systems” that you mentioned and tracking? In the John Kuhn book, we read about a student that was incredibly skilled in welding but could not pass the math examination that he needed to graduate. Do you think that there should be differentiated curriculum to enrich students like these that are highly skilled in areas other than the typical math and reading? Or is this just another form of tracking that will inevitably contribute to enforcing systems of inequality?

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