Tracking and Ability Grouping in Middle Level and High Schools
The term tracking refers to a method used by many secondary schools to group students according to their perceived ability, IQ, or achievement levels. Students are placed in high, middle, or low tracks in an effort to provide them with a level of curriculum and instruction that is appropriate to their needs. The practice of tracking began in the 1930s and has been the subject of intense controversy in the past 20 years.
Opponents argue that this model is detrimental to students, especially in the low and middle tracks largely comprising low-income and minority students (Slavin, 1990). Instructional methods tend to be more engaging, reflective, and challenging in high tracks, whereas low tracks emphasize good behavior and menial skills. Moreover, low-track students are often given the least qualified teachers and high-track students receive the best teachers, a practice that exacerbates the achievement gap and perpetuates a cycle of failure for low-achieving students (Education Trust, 2004). Tracking, therefore, unfairly isolates low-income and minority students in what amounts to a resegregation of students within schools (Oakes and Guiton, 1995).
Opponents further argue that, regardless of ability, students will generally attain higher achievement in more-rigorous classes (Hallinan, 2000) Even students who fail in Advanced Placement courses have a better chance of earning a college degree, simply by virtue of having been exposed to a challenging curriculum (Adelman, 1999).
Advocates of tracking argue that this model efficiently addresses the different achievement needs of students. Successful students are sent to high tracks while struggling students are assigned to low tracks, with the expectation that all students can perform according to their ability and motivation levels. It is also expected that students can move up and down the track ladder as their achievement levels change. Tracking, they argue, also makes teaching easier, as teachers can focus their lessons on one level of instruction only. Finally, defenders of tracking argue that research has failed to make a convincing case against tracking as findings show that high-track students would be held back and low-track students would not necessarily benefit from detracking (Loveless, 2002).
Whether right or wrong, tracking is a generally accepted and a central part of the culture of secondary schools and will not be easily abolished. Schools that have attempted to end tracking have faced significant barriers. Parents of high-track students have resisted it, arguing that detracking would harm their children by taking teachers’ attention away from them. Many teachers, especially high-track teachers, have also opposed a change that would make teaching admittedly more challenging.
NASSP Guiding Principles
- NASSP strongly supports the notion that high achievement is a goal for all students.
- NASSP recognizes that educators have a moral imperative to pursue practices that promote equity and excellence. All students have the right to have access to a rigorous curriculum regardless of family income level and race.
- NASSP advocates for schools to provide an environment where students are encouraged to take challenging courses.
- NASSP encourages schools to provide academic and social-support services, such as co-teaching or tutoring, for students who are struggling.
- NASSP is committed to building the capacity of schools to create personalized learning environments, where all students are valued and entitled to pursue their interests.
- NASSP believes that, while tracking was originally intended for practical pedagogical purposes, its unintended consequences make it an obsolete practice in the context of high expectations for all.
- In Breaking Ranks II, Strategies for Leading High School Reform (2004) and in Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (2006), NASSP argues that improving schools involves finding alternatives to tracking by eliminating low-level courses and opening challenging courses to all.
NASSP urges principals to:
- Create a culture of high expectations for all students. Rather than assuming that only some students need preparation for post secondary education, counsel all students for the possibility that they will seek higher education at some point in their lives.
- Provide a safe and personalized learning environment for each student.
- Provide early intervention strategies in reading/language arts, math and other core areas for students achieving below grade level.
- Identify a set of essential learnings in which students must demonstrate competency in order to move to the next level.
- Provide open enrollment for academically rigorous programs such as International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes, and provide tutoring and other instructional support to enhance chances for success.
- Provide focused professional development for teachers to enable them to acquire the skills and dispositions needed in detracked schools. These include high expectations for all, differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, and complex instruction.
- Organize students in heterogeneous learning groups; diversity can help students learn from each other.
- Reorganize the traditional department structure in order to integrate the school’s curriculum to the extent possible.
- Involve families at an early stage in planning and implementing heterogeneous groups. Educate families about alternatives to tracking by inviting them to observe classes, reporting results during the phase in state. Reassure parents who oppose detracking by showing how their children will also benefit from the changes.
- Provide additional time for struggling students. Interventions designed to remediate students who score two to three years below grade level in certain disciplines and in reading should not be construed as tracking. These students need immediate, intensive accelerated instruction in the form of additional time.
Adelman, Clifford, 1999. Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment. U.S. Department of Education, Jessup, MD.
Camblin, Sharon, Gullatt, Yvette, Klopott, Shayna, 2003. Strategies for Success: Six Stories of Increasing College Access. Pathways to College Network, Boston, MA. http://www.pathwaystocollege.net/webarticles/pdf/strategiesforsuccess.pdf
Hallinan, Maureen T., 2000. Ability Group Effects on High School Learning Outcomes.
Loveless, Tom, 2002. The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate, Thomas Fordham Foundation. NASSP, 2004, Breakthrough High Schools: You Can Do It Too, Reston,VA
Oakes, Jeannie and Guiton, Gretchen, 1995. “Matchmaking: The Dynamics of High School Tracking Decisions.” American Educational Research Journal Vol. 32, No. 1:3-33
Slavin, R.E. 1990. “Achievement Effects of Ability Grouping in Secondary Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis.” Review of Educational Research. Vol. 80: 471-499
The Education Trust, 2004. The Real Value of Teachers, Thinking K-16, Vol. 8, Issue 1. Winter 2004. The Education Trust, Inc. Washington, DC.
Wheelock, Anne, October 1992. “The case for Untracking”, in Untracking for Equity, Volume 50, Number 2, p. 6-10, ASCD.
Adopted July 13, 2006