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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 12/22/2009

A different view on the value of tracking students

By Valerie Strauss

I recently posted a new report by Brookings scholar Tom Loveless about the value of tracking students in school.

Loveless found that de-tracked schools have fewer advanced students in math than do tracked schools--and that de-tracking is more popular in schools that serve disadvantaged students. Today we hear about a different study--with different results, from Kevin G. Welner, professor of education policy and program evaluation at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education and Director of the Education and the Public Interest Center. He can be reached at .

By Kevin G. Welner
Valerie Strauss kindly offered me this guest post on her blog. She asked that I write about a new policy brief that I co-authored, as well as about a second report released last week. Our policy brief makes the case for schools across the country to put an end to policies that cast off students into unchallenging, low-track classrooms.

Titled “Universal Access to a Quality Education: Research and Recommendations for the Elimination of Curricular Stratification,” it begins where the vast body of research leaves off: the harmful effects of ability grouping and the need for reform.

My co-authors and I draw on three case studies: a school (a San Diego charter), a school district (in Long Island, NY), and a nation (Finland) that have promoted high levels of student achievement by abolishing curricular stratification, often called “tracking.” This new report follows the release of a very different report a week ago by the Fordham Institute, written by Tom Loveless and called “Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools.”

Valerie posted about the report, as did several other sites around the web. The Fordham report concludes that non-tracked Massachusetts middle schools have fewer advanced students in math than do tracked schools, and – as can be seen from many of the 18 comments below Valerie’s post – the report has been commonly understood as offering support for the practice of tracking.

Obviously, these two reports are very different. Valerie asked me to write about both of them. So I’ll start with my own and then offer a brief critique of the one by Loveless. I won’t pretend to be objective; Tom would undoubtedly have a different perspective. I also very much encourage interested readers to download and read both reports, neither or which are written in academese.

Since at least the mid-1980s, researchers have powerfully documented the harms of tracking. My co-authors and I, along with the majority of people who have studied the practice, see it as indefensible. Our policy brief includes lots of citations to that research, but that was not our purpose. Instead, we wanted to present a set of positive proposals, helping policy-makers and practitioners who want to reform their tracking practices.

Accordingly, we use the three case studies to document successful tracking reform, highlight lessons, and offer recommendations for changing policy and practice. The final section of the brief presents model statutory code language that can be used by state legislators seeking to implement the recommendations set forth in the brief.

The educational leaders described in the brief realized that when students who experience difficulty are provided with an inferior curriculum, they are certain to fall farther behind. In contrast, the high-quality heterogeneously grouped schools they created give all students access to the best curriculum and an academic support system that helps ensure that they take advantage of it. These schools hold clear lessons for leaders of other schools, where students are still stratified into tracks. Detracking provides a realistic and proven pathway to academic excellence grounded in true equity.

We recommend a clear process for the phasing out of curricular stratification from grades K through 10 and granting meaningful access to Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses to all students throughout the reform process. We also describe the supports needed for schools, educators, and students as they create non-tracked schools. These recommendations, as noted above, are spelled out in specific model legislative provisions.

Our brief is published by the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder (which I direct), along with the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University. My co-authors are Dr. Carol Corbett Burris, the principal of South Side High School in New York (one of our three case studies), and attorney Jennifer Weiser Bezoza, the Director of Legal and Policy Analysis at Children’s Voices, a non-profit law firm in Colorado.

Turning now to the report written by Tom Loveless, it becomes clear that we were premature in assuming that the debate about tracking itself is settled.

Loveless is probably the country’s foremost opponent of detracking, and he has written extensively about the threat that he sees non-tracked classrooms posing for high-achieving math students. In this recent report, he follows up on two principal surveys he’d conducted, in 1995 and 2005, and he combines school-level tracking information with school-level ratings information – the percentage of students at a school who are labeled as “Advanced” on the Massachusetts state assessment.

Loveless’ key conclusion is that each additional track in eighth-grade mathematics is associated (in a regression model he presents) with a 3 percentage-point rise in students scoring at the advanced level on the state exam, after holding constant the school-level percentage of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch (FRL), which he calls “socioeconomic status”.

I wrote a full critique of the study for the scholarly journal “Teachers College Record” (TCR). I describe how the report combines weak data with questionable analyses to manufacture an argument against detracking. Better treatment of these same data would, in fact, likely show that high-achieving Massachusetts middle school students in heterogeneous, untracked classrooms do as well or better than those in tracked classrooms – certainly in language arts (English) and maybe even in mathematics.

I explain in the TCR critique how the Loveless regression analysis really only tells us about the distinction between schools with two tracks and those with three or more tracks (not about non-tracked versus tracked), and it really tells readers little more than the reality that suburban schools tend to have high-scoring students. None of this is particularly useful for policymakers.

The problem with the regression model is that the “3 percentile points” outcome is (a) driven solely by the difference between two math tracks and 3+ math tracks, not by the difference between non-tracked and two-tracked schools; and (b) notwithstanding the report’s repeated statement that the analyses controlled for “socio-economic status,” the FRL variable is a control for poverty rates but only a weak control for other differences in family wealth – let alone for the other differences between urban and suburban schools.

So, in the end, the data in the Loveless study suggest little or nothing about the effects of 8th grade math tracking or even the association between such tracking and the “Advanced” outcome. Even using the limited control of FRL rates, there is no benefit to high-achieving students associated with being in a school with two math tracks, as compared to an untracked school.

Finally, I should note the study’s results for English language arts (ELA), presented in the Report’s Table 11. Schools with non-tracked and tracked ELA classes are shown with the same rate of Advanced performance. Moreover, most schools (91 out of 126) are reported by their principals to have non-tracked 8th grade ELA classes. There is no corresponding regression analysis that controls for FRL, since ELA was not the main focus of Loveless’ study.

However, at the very least it appears that the lack of ELA tracking in Massachusetts middle schools is not associated with lesser performance of high-achieving students. This might be the headline to the Loveless study, if the underlying sentiments had been a bit different.

Kevin G. Welner is professor of education policy and program evaluation at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education and Director of the Education and the Public Interest Center. He can be reached at

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 22, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Kevin Welner  | Tags:  tracking students  
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For subjects such as art, social studies, and English, I would agree that there is little use for tracking.

But what about math and science? Is this suggesting that we should open up AP Calculus to students that haven't taken Trigonometry? Or AP Biology to students that haven't taken any Chemistry?

Posted by: someguy100 | December 22, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

This is interesting and encouraging (although Finland's system can't really be compared to ours). The US examples, however, point mostly towards success in de-tracking middle class schools. Rockville has a much lower proportion of free/reduced lunch recievers than the typical school district (13%), and by using the benchmark of two times the income needed to qualify for reduced-price lunches to identify students as "low SES," Preuss has actually set a criterion that includes a big portion of the middle class: $80,000 for a family of four.

The other problem is that this policy brief would be much more convincing if it gave more fine-grained detail about the extra supports, financial resources, and curriculum modifications that have been used to make this change work. Overall, the policy brief is much too partisan to be entirely believable. If de-tracking is aimed to create 8th grade algebra for all, the authors have some very heavy lifting to do in order to counter growing evidence that pushing students into algebra before they've mastered K-8 math does them no favor.

Posted by: jane100000 | December 22, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Why shouldn't students be tracked in art, English, social studies? At the high school level, at least, they should already have a general background and their work in all subjects more or less reflects their interest. I knew from an early age that I wanted to study history and languages and was uninterested in math and science. My high school didn't offer tracks in languages and social studies, but I took the minimum required math and science, avoided honors courses in these subjects, and took extra social studies and foreign language courses. I also took honors and Advanced Placement English. A classmate, urged to take AP English, passed it up because he wanted to go into music and needed extra time for his outside choir activities that he rightly judged would do him more good than AP English. I sat in history class, though, next to a classmate who openly did homework for other subjects and paid only enough attention to stay out of trouble--we both would have preferred a tracked class.

Incidentally, students WERE tracked in art in my high school simply because the only art classes were aimed at the students who wanted to study drafting or design or something (not the ones headed for college, incidentally).

My college "tracked" students simply by offering final courses aimed at non-science or non-math majors or survey history courses. These were designed to impart a layman's knowledge of the subject to those who would not need the detail that the majors needed.

Of course, tracking should only be done with the students' input--in junior high an enthusiastic principal tracked me into an advanced math class I knew I was totally unprepared for, and my high school principal regularly recommended me for extra-curricular science seminars on the basis of my GPA, totally ignoring the fact that I wasn't even taking a science course that year!

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 23, 2009 8:41 PM | Report abuse

Hello Jane. This is Kevin Welner. Thank you for the comment. You are correct about the Preuss eligibility criterion concerning family income. And the brief does try to be clear about the limitations of each of the three case studies. But please also note that Preuss will only accept students whose parents are not graduates of a four-year college, and see the table in endnote 47: Preuss serves 100% Title I students but outperforms every other school in San Diego County.

Posted by: member8 | December 23, 2009 9:26 PM | Report abuse

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