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Posted at 3:07 PM ET, 12/10/2009

The effects of tracking students in school

By Valerie Strauss

A new report out today makes the case that students do better in school when they are separated into groups based on their achievement.

The study is published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is by Brookings institute scholar Tom Loveless. It looks at tracking in Massachusetts middle schools and middle schools there that once had tracking systems but eliminated them.

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.

You can read the report here.

Let's discuss the issue of tracking. Please relate here--or send me at theanswersheet@washpost.com--any experiences you and your children have had with tracking and what you think about its effects.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 10, 2009; 3:07 PM ET
Tags:  tracking students  
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Comments

I think the tracking makes sense. It helps each student be challenged, which keeps them engaged with learning.

Another way to keep them engaged is for them to keep the end game in mind. That means we need to do more to help them set career goals, something we do very little of. There are a lot of materials out there with career education, like www.brightfuturespress.com, but we haven't integrated them into the curriculum.

Posted by: reevesg | December 10, 2009 9:44 PM | Report abuse

I went to an untracked junior high (that's what we called middle schools back in the 70's), and it was the most utter waste of time I have ever experienced. I can remember taking civics in a class with kids who were completely unable to read, who were sitting in the back bored out of their minds and doing things like lighting cigars under their desks. It was like this in every class. The teachers tried the time honored "solution" of having the more advanced students tutor the failing students, but all that meant was that the failing students threatened us outside of class if we didn't do their homework for them. What a nightmare. I can't imagine how anyone learned anything in that school

Posted by: bkmny | December 11, 2009 6:17 AM | Report abuse

Based on my experiences growing up in the 70s and 80s and attending every type of school imaginable (from public high-income to parochial, from private exclusive to low-income with bussed inner-city students), tracking was absolutely the best situation for me as a high achieving student. Even with my own children now, I see how tracking allows the class to move more at the level of the kids in the group - I find it's illogical and incredibly hard for most teachers with the large class sizes prevalent now in FCPS to "differentiate" instruction for such a huge range of abilities. Our local elementary definitely leans toward tracking kids, although they can't admit it. So much time is wasted for the kids ready to move on, when the teacher inevitably has to slow down and make sure the lower performing kids understand the material. And don't even get me started on the over-emphasis on SOL fact memorization without actually covering the material!

Posted by: livinginnova | December 11, 2009 7:28 AM | Report abuse

You mean, kids do better in a class where the teacher only has to teach one math class and one reading class, instead of two or three of each? Shocker. Schools stopped tracking kids because they were afraid of hurting the low kids' self-esteem. I've never understood how it helped them to be surrounded by kids who understood lessons better and quicker, though, and presumably showed their frustration when they had to wait while the slow kids asked more questions. End result: Either the above-level kids sit around bored for awhile, or the average/below-level kids go along and pretend they understand, then fail the test later. Seems like everyone would be happier (and do better) in a class that appropriately meets their needs.

Posted by: LadybugLa | December 11, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

I am a math teacher and can say that tracking results in a watered down learning experience for the above average student.

Posted by: bruinfan | December 11, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

bruinfan, I disagree. I'm also a teacher, and have seen our students challenged in the tracked classroom.

Posted by: LadybugLa | December 11, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Yes, sure tracking can be more convenient for a teacher. The spread of abilities will be less.

But the result will be some students get access to more advanced curriculum and consequently more access to academic opportunities.

So student's middle school academic ability becomes the predictor for a student's eventual academic attainment.
Not very equitable.

Try differentiated instruction. Teach to the middle, challenge the advanced, and support the struggling.

Posted by: CDuerr | December 11, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Yes, some students will and get access to a more advanced curriculum and they should. Pretending that there isn't a range of academic ability/achievement and effort/interest is being willfully blind.

CDuerr, I have never heard a convincing explanation of how dividing the teacher's attention among several (or more) groups, as in "differentiated instruction" is as effective as having the teacher's attention for the whole period, as in a tracked classroom.

Posted by: momof4md | December 11, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Read the entire report.

It says "Still, it appears that low-performing students may learn more when placed in heterogeneously grouped classes instead of low tracks.24"

It's not just about "self-esteem" for these kids.

Posted by: karin6 | December 11, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

As a high school teacher of American Studies and civics for 39 years and one who taught Honors and Special Ed sections,I agree that tracking is necessary and beneficial for most if not all students if done correctly. It must not be racially based or economically based and must allow for students to be in different levels of courses in different subjects and over different years.
I never saw a teacher who could both challenge the top students and assist the low-achieving students in the same class. All of my students learned much more and were happier in tracked classes than in un-tracked mini-courses I taught in the 1970s.
A major argument against tracking is that lower-ability students lose esteem in a tracked situation. If one wants to see the esteem of lower-achieving students lowered even more, put them in a class with high achievers - then their lack of skills is really highlighted! At the same time, top students in 'mixed' classes often 'clam up' in class to avoid the 'nerd' label and float along. I tried many things in my untracked minni-courses, with differentiated assignments and tests, group projects, extra credit and extra expectation. These methods never met with the success, both in terms of academic achievement and self-esteem, that tracked Honors and lower-ability [actually, lower effort was often a major component]classes achieved. I could challenge all my students and firmly believe that my lower-ability students especially learned more than in un-tracked situations.

Posted by: aspnh | December 11, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mom :)
A concern exists that hetrogeneous grouping slows down the learning of high-achieving students, and there is evidence that high achievers do better in accelerated classes (Kulick, 1991). But the benefits these students experience are not from the homogeneity of the group but from enriched curriculum--which lower track students would also thrive on given support (Oakes, 1992).

Further, track movement occures in a downward direction more frequently than it does in an upward direction(Burris 2008). There becomes fewer opportunities for enrichment and more "basic skills" or "remediation." The result is an increase in the achievement gap (a gap which occures along lines of race, economic status, and gender (in some cases)).

The issues surrounding detracking and differentiated instruction are decades old. For more insight into how differentiated instruction works and quantitative studies about its effectiveness for all learners please see: How People Learn by John Bransford published by the National Research Council, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). As a parent advocate you may want to look into the research articles at the Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

Posted by: CDuerr | December 11, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

You mean those kids who like to better themselves and set themselves apart dont do as well when not given the opportunity?

Why did they need a study about this again?

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | December 11, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

All schools "track" athletes--what do you think the varsity, junior varsity, and second string and so on are?

The difficulty with tracked subjects comes when the tracking is done not on the students' interests and aims but on someone else's estimate of the students' abilities--most students, allowed to choose their own level, would put themselves in the proper level. The other problem is when there is a situation like that in my high school, where the academic track was considered the "real high school" and the business and general tracks were being spoonfed watered-down math and English on the assumption that they were only marking time until they could get out. (One academic classmate wanted to take some secretarial courses to support herself through college, and the counselor told her if she could do academic work, she'd never need to work at a "menial job" like secretary!)

Incidentally, my university "tracked" to some degree--offering science and math classes for the non-science and -math major. These were somewhat easier, but the main difference was they tried to impart a layman's knowledge of the subject to those who would not be going on to higher, more specialized courses.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 11, 2009 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I've taught middle school for seven out of my ten years in the teaching profession. While taking a graduate research class I recently did a research project on differentiated instruction and I am still not convinced that it is the best way to teach all students. To me, tracking would be the best way to ensure that all students achieved. It is too difficult to teach a class when there are students at so many different ability levels. I think the only way to raise achievement is to teach students at the levels they enter the classroom and then raise them to where they need to be, if they are below grade level. A student will not be successful if he or she enters middle school several grade levels below in reading or math. It is not a reasonable expectation on teachers to expect these kids to pass a test on grade level, especially since pay will probably be tied to test scores in the near future.

Posted by: gauged34 | December 11, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

I have mixed feelings about this issue. As a student myself I tracking was the only way I was able to get a decent education in a city system even back in the 80's. However having a child with a learning disability but tons of smarts I can see how tracking has shorted her of opportunity when some accomidations and intervention would have enabled her to get the advanced learning opportunity. I have had to fight tooth and nail to get teachers to think outside the box. The reality is that it is hard for teachers to see the potential when they are given very little information about what interventions can make all the difference and it is too easy just to assume the child can't perform. However, you waste an awful lot of time and potential of high-motivated children (not just smart) if you don't track classes.

Posted by: Brooklander | December 12, 2009 8:23 PM | Report abuse

ALL students should make adequate yearly progress, whether they enter at a level above or below grade level. In untracked classrooms, the energy often goes into bringing kids up to grade level--resulting in No Child Left Ahead. Gifted kids just kill time rather than accelerating forward. In my observations is only the very rare, gifted teacher who is able to differentiate enough to challenge all kids in untracked settings--and without classroom aides, or with too large a group, it can become impossible. The wider the ability range, the tougher it is to implement differentiation techniques effectively.

Posted by: artsynj | December 13, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

The major concern with tracking is the strong likelihood that the resulting classes would appear to be segrgation by race. The recent disclosure of the continual gap in perforamence between white and black/Hispanic students in the D.C. schools is testament to the relevance of this potentiality.

Posted by: flcat | December 13, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse

I teach special ed in fourth grade and I can tell you, differentiated instruction is code for "fend for yourself, we don't have enough reading and math support personnel to help you." No other "profession" in the world throws clients or patients or students together in one room, with different maladies, and tries to treat them all at once. In reality, differentiated instruction is doable if there the ratio of students to teachers is appropriate. Appropriate, of course, depends on the student population, their needs, and many other factors. I have had the most luck in reading, writing and math when I have been able to "pull" the kids out of their heterogenous classrooms and work with them in a small homogenous group in my room. To those who say that my students are therefore missing quality instruction in their regular classroom (and some say that in my school), my response is, "Oh, really? If you were successfully teaching them with your heightened curriculum, why weren't they achieving?" Another thing to consider: in the advent of so many phony "scientifically-based programs," all teachers are going to end up teaching carbon-copy lessons anyway. This is being done, we're told, for the children's sake. I'm not so sure.

Posted by: specialeducator | December 15, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

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