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Three Reasons Tracking Kids is Wrong (And How to Start Making a Change)    

As I sent my kids off to school the other day, I noticed that my daughter was hanging back. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Today we have a big test,” she said, “and if I don’t do a good job, I’ll be in the low class next year.”

It took a moment for me to respond to her anxiety, and I tried to be reassuring. However, deep down, I knew I was placating my daughter and that anything I said would be less powerful than what she learned from friends and teachers. Over the past several years, I’ve struggled as a parent when my own children have experiences in school that I question as an educator. In this case, I do not know where my children get the terminology of “low, middle, high” when they refer to the courses in which they are placed each year. Whether these words come from fellow students or from teachers, they reinforce all kinds of ideas that are both inaccurate and potentially damaging to a child’s academic identity. Furthermore, when we track students into different groups based upon perceived ability, we are reinforcing a set of beliefs that is destructive to children. Below are three important reasons that we should, once and for all, walk away from tracking, as well as some questions to ask ourselves as we walk away from this outdated practice.

Tracking Holds Kids Back

Do we think that hanging out with people who are theoretically just like us is a desirable social model? And if the answer is no, is it a desirable academic model? Quite often, students are placed into classes with students who are considered to be of like ability, usually based on assessment data. That practice is flawed for so many reasons, not the least of which is an overreliance on testing results which are not always accurate. Beyond that, if we combine groups that are perceived as the same, not only do we unfairly stereotype scores of students both academically and socially; we also miss a huge opportunity to elevate students by maximizing their collective differences. I do not learn nearly as much from those who have the same skills or perspective that I have; instead, I tend to have more meaningful growth when I interact with people who challenge my own way of thinking. Students need that same benefit. Think about how much progress they will be able to achieve when we reinforce the important reality that we make one another stronger because of our differences, and not in spite of them.

Tracking Supports Fixed Mindset

As we know, moving from a set point can be a difficult accomplishment. While schools sometimes argue that tracked placements are not permanent, students often lack the adult advocates to help them change their situation. Coupling that with a gradual decline in self-belief, students tend to remain in the same tracked groups from the early grades all the way through high school. We spent a lot of time telling students that they can change, that intelligence is not a fixed point, that we believe in their ability to constantly grow. Why, then, does it make sense to place them into a leveled learning environment that sends the opposite message, either implicitly or otherwise? If we really believe in a growth mindset, we cannot support tracking both ideologically and practically. It does not make sense to place students into a situation that labels their academic identity and expect that they will remain there without any consequence to their sense of self. Instead of just talking about having a growth mindset, our actions should support what we say we value.

Tracking Promotes Inequity

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a brilliant writer. He came into my class as a happy accident; one day, I was grading student test papers with a group of colleagues and I came across his. At the time, he was enrolled in so-called “regular” English, but his writing was absolutely masterful. When I asked him why he was not in a more advanced English class, he said, “I’ve just been put in regular English since the third grade. I wanted to switch out, but they told me I’m in the right place.” I didn’t know who exactly “they” were, but I did have a feeling that “their” decision was influenced by my student’s racial background since there was no other way to explain why this excellent student was being held back. In schools all over the country, demographic data shows that students of color are overwhelmingly enrolled in remedial or lower-level courses while their white peers are placed into honors or AP classes. This pattern is not accidental, nor is it a passing trend. Students are placed into classes at a young age and the rationale behind these placements is often the result of either implicit bias or explicit racism. Unless we stop making decisions about what students can do based upon personal perception when they are still at their most formative stage, nobody will check the inexcusable results that happen time and time again. The only way to stop this de facto segregation is to engage in a vital antiracist practice and stop tracking.     

What considerations go into making the change away from tracking? To begin the process of positive change, here are some questions to pose:

  • What need does tracking serve? How can we meet that need in heterogeneous groupings?
  • Are classes tracked because of perceived ability or perceived motivation? If the former, what data measures do we use to make these decisions? If the latter, why is academic ability aligned with behavior?
  • If we begin to experiment with heterogeneous groupings, what might be a good grade level or department to begin with?
  • How can we explore our beliefs about tracking as a school, confront ideas that do not serve students, and have productive conversations about moving forward?
  • What kind of professional development or support might teachers need who make this transition?
  • What are our biggest concerns about making this transition? How can we address these concerns productively without moving backward?

While the questions above are just a start, they provide some reflective opportunities as well as a call to action for change. Over the past year, we’ve been given a huge opportunity to reexamine so many of our educational structures, to challenge their effectiveness, and to put a stop to the status quo. As we think about scheduling students for next year and helping them recover from so much learning disruption over the course of this pandemic, the last thing on our minds should be finding ways to further limit opportunity and access. Tracking has not, nor should it ever be, a legitimate way to provide students with a strong sense of academic confidence. Instead, it has created a system of have and have-nots, and that is simply unacceptable. Looking forward, making a case to remove tracking with our school teams is a solid investment in our students and in what they can really do when we believe in them wholeheartedly.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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