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Revisiting Tracking

This is going to be a divisive one. And for good reason. But I want to talk about tracking in schools. And it might not be the article you’re expecting, but hear me out. The question at hand? With advances in data-based instruction and differentiation, should we be reconsidering the practice of tracking students by academic ability? Yes, there’s a whole lot of evidence against its practice in its many historical iterations, and by no means am I suggesting we ignore hard data, in favor of a whim. But let’s talk about it.

To begin, we’ll need a definition, to make sure we’re all discussing the same thing: “Tracking” as generally recognized by academic institutions (and as I’d like to discuss it here), is the practice of grouping students in classes by academic ability. I am not addressing the practice of grouping students in all courses based on overall academic achievement. Surely, a student’s academic strengths should not be averaged together into a “high achieving”, “achieving”, and “low achieving” archetype. I don’t think any content-area educator would support that kind of designation as sound practice.

When “tracking” is discussed in a modern forum, the overwhelming repercussions of past mistakes tend to dominate the dialogue. At the beginning of the 20th century, the increase in industrial jobs started demanding skills and concepts well beyond those of 8th grade. More students remained in high school, and many struggled with the rigor of these expectations. Eventually, schools began grouping students into these “tracks”, based on the jobs they wished to pursue: rigorous courses for those on a more academic track, more basic life skills for students with their eyes set on lower-skilled work. Sadly, this system was quickly utilized to enforce internal segregation, sexism, and systemic racism, as many immigrant children, children of color, and women were not allowed or encouraged to pursue the college prep tracks. On top of that, a huge worry of the critics of tracking is that once a student is placed in a particular track, there is little-to-no opportunity for them to test out of the track. Once designated as “low achieving”, you remain there, despite any progress. These terrible practices have sparked a number of Supreme Court rulings, legislation, and a general (and very well-justified) distaste and outright hostility when the topic is broached.

Certainly, these concerns still exist in our modern education system. But, for a moment, consider how our systems of recording and analyzing student data have evolved over the past 10-15 years, and how they’ve changed the ways we talk about our kids. From standardized testing to common formative assessments, we have an expansive amount of data on student ability. Not to mention our vertical data teams, horizontal data teams, schoolwide and district-level data review, IEP and 504 review, professional learning communities, and reflection practices now built into the very fabric of how schools run and make decisions. These teams use these multiple sources of data to triangulate and cross-reference skill and content acquisition, notice long-term trends, and map a student’s progress against class, school, district, state, and national norms. In other words, it is now a vital part of all academic institutions to constantly review and revise our curricula and student plans, based on consistently updated data sets.

Now, implicit bias is a much larger societal issue, and there are many organizations working within school systems to help educators to recognize and mitigate the impact of decisions based on our unconscious attitudes and stereotypes. Many teacher training programs are facing this challenge head-on, integrating it into their curricula and recognizing it as a part of the job that will consistently need vigilance throughout one’s teaching career. And perhaps, if there is any real risk of tracking still fueling such inequities, as has been well-documented in the past, then this conversation should end here and now.

And yet, the emergence of the data-fueled, reflective curriculum - when done well - could potentially render the “stuck in a track” part of the fear completely innate. Teachers and administration in schools are reviewing continuously updated student data every week. If a student were to suddenly make notable leaps in a particular content area, it could not go unnoticed in our modern system. A student making gains in a remedial math course could, in theory, immediately be moved into a more challenging, rigorous course - if not straightaway, then within a quarter or a semester.

And despite its calamitous past, there is data that suggests that homogenous grouping can benefit students. A 2017 study in Germany has shown academic tracking school students with “considerably higher intelligence score gains” than their non-tracking and comprehensive school compatriots. An extremely rigorous study in Kenya in 2009 (with control and experimental classes) found that both low- and high-achieving students performed better in well-tracked classrooms than in heterogeneous classrooms. Not to mention that studies have found that teachers prefer to teach tracked classrooms and that it is currently making a silent comeback among elementary schools.

Anecdotally we know it, too. Differentiation and universal design works exceedingly well when the differences in ability amount to a year or two of academic achievement. But many of these strategies fall apart when, for example, half your class is reading at a post-high-school level, and the other half is five years behind the norm. In this all-too-common scenario, the reality is that these students need different things: they need to work on different skills, manage different strategies, and are prepared to handle still-rigorous, yet completely different content. In many cases, the lower-achieving students need a level of in-class remediation their higher-achieving counterparts simply won’t benefit from. The academic divide in many classes throughout the country lead even veteran educators to too-often “teach to the middle”, which excludes the outliers on both ends. Few benefit; and the educator burns out swiftly. It’s just not sustainable.

Let’s be clear: I am not recommending educators repeat the mistakes of the past. I am, however, suggesting we revisit the idea of better groupings of students within content areas and examining how our modern information age could better interact with such leveling. With all the individualized data reviews occurring across the country’s districts, one might be able to begin to imagine academic ability grouping being implemented in a more conscientious, culturally-responsive, and informed way. Maybe not. But if we can’t even discuss it, are we really doing all we can to ensure the success of every student?

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.