Is Tracking Students by Ability Too Much Government and Too Little Education?

Critics say the decades-old system, used especially for math classes, stigmatizes children and doesn’t increase learning 

Compassionate Eye Foundation/Robert Daly/OJO Images via Getty Images

Separating students in the same grade into different classes by ability—tracking—has been seeing a resurgence. But for critics, allowing public school bureaucrats to decide which children should be in the smart class and which should be in the slow class is giving government far too much power. What’s more, it doesn’t appear that tracking works: Studies don’t show that it raises overall student performance.

Some schools begin tracking as early as second grade to make teaching a diverse student body easier. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump characterized tracking as government overreach and “a federal mandate.”

One critic is Tom Loveless, whose book, “The Tracking Wars,” was published in 1999. “The resurgence of ability grouping really is surprising,” he says. “Separating students by ability or prior achievement inevitably creates classes segregated by race and socioeconomic background and offering different curricula to tracked classes exacerbates achievement differences.”

Tracking also can reinforce students’ sometimes-flawed perceptions of their ability in a subject. Students must earn their way into the faster tracks, and studies show that this encourages children to identify themselves as good or bad, whether correctly or incorrectly, in math or other tracked subjects.

Mathematics is the most tracked subject in American classrooms by far. In eighth-grade math, roughly 75% of schoolchildren are tracked by ability, according to the Brookings Institution. Most schools use standardized test scores to decide each student’s track, but the pandemic canceled standardized tests in many districts last year and this year. So decisions such as which students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, and which ones take pre-algebra, depend more on grades and teacher recommendations. In any year, but especially the past year, students sometimes must write letters to the school justifying why they should be in the more challenging math class, or their parents must lobby a teacher or principal.

Some research shows that these subjective measures can be biased in favor of white boys and Black girls while underestimating the ability of white girls, even ones with well-educated parents. “My son was very bright but a laissez-faire student and was put into high-track math, no questions asked,” says Andrea Goldsmith, dean of Princeton University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and a former professor at Stanford University. “My daughter was making straight A’s in math as a fifth-grader but the teacher kept telling me she was not ready for high-track math and to wait a bit. So I waited and then I would go back and say, ‘Is she ready?’, and the teacher would say, ‘Not yet.’ So here I was a Stanford professor not wanting to make waves, and yet wondering why isn’t my straight-A daughter good enough for high-track math? I went back to the teacher three times before my daughter was finally moved to high-track math. Three times.”

Discouraging Math Girls

Are we still saying that math is for boys and not girls? asks Goldsmith, because that is what tracking can feel like to many parents, even those with the resources and resolve to keep pushing against the bureaucracy. And as with many government interventions, there can be little transparency with tracking. “The specific reasons for tracking are often not clear, even to the savviest parents and educators,” she says. “Girls are still made to feel we are not engineers, that girls don’t belong in high-track math. The implications can be severe. We still don’t have enough women engineers, and we need them.”

Critics of tracking argue that a more effective system is to keep students of all abilities in the same classroom but group them by ability within the classroom, which is known as differentiation. This exposes the children who would’ve ended up in the B class to more advanced material. “Everyone in a large classroom got a very robust level of instruction and the same expectation of high achievement; children weren’t separated out as better,” says Gaspar Bakos, an astrophysics professor at Princeton University, of his school years in Hungary.

During the 2014-2015 school year, the San Francisco Unified School District stopped tracking its eighth-grade math students, started requiring all students to wait until ninth grade to take Algebra I, and switched to differentiation. The problem with tracking was clear: From 2008 through 2010, nearly 80% of Black and Latino students were placed in general math, while 55% of Asians and whites took Algebra I. Of the Black and Latino students in Algebra I, more than half needed to repeat the class. In high school, the numbers didn’t improve: Among the class of 2014, barely 20% of all students were proficient in Algebra II, and just 5% of Black and Latino students were proficient.

The impact of the switch was dramatic. The percentage of students needing to repeat Algebra I plunged from 40% to 10%, including English-language learners and low-income students. For Black students, the repeat rate dropped from 52% to 19%, and for Latino students from 57% to 14%. At the same time, Black and Latino students are enrolling in advanced high school math courses at higher rates. “What has changed is the messages kids are getting; they are no longer being told that they have a fixed brain,” according to Jo Boaler, a Stanford University mathematics education professor who has worked with the district.

Math tracking systems are ineffective in part because only some students are exposed to the content they need to master the subject. The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics points to flat national math scores over decades, the need for remedial math in college for half of students and the poor performance of U.S. students on international math tests as evidence that current practices aren’t working.

Teachers often resist differentiation inside the classroom rather than separate tracks because they see it as more work. Math teachers are particularly resistant to detracking, according to author Loveless. And detracking opponents include parents of high-achieving children, who want their schools to offer an accelerated curriculum beyond conventional grade-level programs, he says in his new book, “Between the State and the Schoolhouse—Understanding the Failure of the Common Core.”

Reinforcing Stereotypes

So, despite the research, and more than other subjects, math can be a sticking point for educators and parents who believe a student either gets the material —is a “math person”—or doesn’t. Educators may reinforce these assumptions. Studies have found that white teachers tend to have lower expectations for Black students than white ones, and that Black students are less likely to be recommended for advanced math classes than white students, even by Black teachers.

Decisions about math placements can have a considerable impact on how students see themselves and how they perform in math. Children, especially in middle school, internalize their placement in tracked math classes, and those who perceive themselves as low performers tend to disengage and succumb to the image or stereotype of their group. “Math is one of the places where we reinforce you are good at it or you aren’t,” says Lizzy Hull Barnes, math supervisor for the San Francisco district. “Status in the classroom is so significant in math.”

But math mindsets don’t have to stay fixed for either educators or students. In one study, by Stanford researcher Dave Paunesku, students given a growth-mindset message—that one’s intelligence can grow with practice—mastered new math concepts more readily than students given generic encouragement.

Districts and schools that detrack can court skeptics by explaining the benefits to all students—and proving it with results, says Abi Leaf, the mathematics content specialist for the Escondido Union High School District in Southern California, which switched to non-tracked math classes for ninth and 10th graders in 2013. Teachers emphasize “that all children are brilliant, all people in a classroom have something to offer, and doing it fastest is not always best.”

Since the district detracked, enrollment in higher-level math classes has increased. In addition, “teachers say they are much happier with their work,” she says.

“It’s a shift in mindsets and beliefs,” says Barnes about the change. “It gives adults [and students] a different experience of math, and they build a vision of what’s possible.”

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