Should schools rethink reluctance to track students by ability?

Released Thursday by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, the 15th annual Brown Center Report on American Education focuses on the effects of the Common Core on curriculum and achievement; whether tracking in eighth grade is related to Advanced Placement outcomes in high school; and school leadership from an international perspective.

Here are the highlights of the report:

Part One: Reading and Math in the Common Core Era

The Common Core State Standards have been adopted as the reading and math standards in more than forty states, but are the frontline implementers—teachers and principals—enacting them?

kidsonpencilsIn this study, researcher Tom Loveless examines the degree to which CCSS recommendations have penetrated schools and classrooms.

Key findings include:

  • The dominance of fiction is waning: In 2011, 63% of fourth grade teachers said they emphasized fiction to a great extent, vs. only 38% who said the same of non-fiction. This 25 percentage point gap shrunk to just 8 percentage points in 2015.
  • Fewer eighth graders are enrolled in advanced math: From 2011 to 2013, the long-standing growth of advanced courses stopped dead in its tracks; from 2013 to 2015, enrollment in advanced math declined from 48% to 43%.
  • These changes are associated with adoption of the Common Core: States that are classified as “medium” or “strong” implementers of the standards were more likely than the average state to see a de-emphasis of fiction and a decline in advanced math enrollment.
  • Implementation status is unrelated to changes in NAEP scores: Gains and losses (from 2009-2015) among strong, medium, and non-implementers of Common Core all fall within a single NAEP scale score point—a trivial difference.

Part Two: Tracking and AP

Tracking, the practice of grouping students into different classes based on ability or prior achievement, is a controversial topic. In this study, Loveless investigates whether middle school tracking is related to AP participation or test scores in high school, using state-level tracking data from 2009 and AP data from 2013 to tackle the question.

Key findings include:

  • Tracking in eighth grade math is popular across states: The average state tracked about three-quarters of its math students, with Arkansas the least tracked state (50%) and Nevada the most tracked (97%).
  • States that had a larger percentage of eighth grade students in tracked math classes produced a larger percentage of high-scoring AP students four years later.  The heightened AP performance held across racial subgroups—white, black, and Hispanic.
  • There was no relationship between tracking and AP participation, suggesting the heightened performance on AP exams was not a result of increased selectivity into AP.

Part Three: Principals as Instructional Leaders–An International Perspective

All around the world, school principals are called on to provide instructional leadership.  In this study, Loveless asks: What does that leadership look like from country to country; and is it associated with student achievement?

Key findings include:

  • Principals are most likely to exert influence over instruction by developing and setting educational goals for their schools (versus other types of leadership activities). More than 50% of fourth grade students internationally have a principal who devotes “a lot of time” to developing and promoting their schools’ educational goals and monitoring teachers’ implementation of those goals.  Less time is spent giving advice to teachers about questions or problems with teaching (39%).
  • In three consistently high achieving countries — Finland, Hong Kong, and Japan — principals are especially reluctant to give advice; however, principals in Korea, another perennially high achieving country, are more activist in offering instructional guidance.
  • There is no evidence that principals’ instructional activities are associated with student achievement (based on Loveless’ difference-in-differences analysis of whether changes in principal behaviors are correlated with changes in scores on the Trends in International Math and Science Study.

In reading the Brown Center report Wednesday night, I found the section on tracking the most interesting, given the antipathy toward ability-grouping due to its misuse as a tool of segregation.

Here is a passage from the report worth discussing on the blog:

A positive relationship was found between tracking and superior performance on AP tests, the percentage of test takers scoring a 3 or better on AP tests. The positive relationship was statistically significant for white, black, and Hispanic students. The analysis cannot prove or disprove that tracking caused the heightened success on AP tests. The findings do support future research on the hypothesis that tracking benefits high achieving students—in particular, high achieving students of color—by offering accelerated coursework that they would not otherwise get in untracked schools.

The hypothesis that middle school tracking is associated with AP outcomes rests on the notion of an academic pipeline— that superior academic performance must be nurtured and developed over time. Think of how the following three phenomena coalesce to shape opportunity. First, students are assigned to tracks primarily based on achievement test scores. Because of the test score gaps between white and Asian students, on the one hand, and black and Hispanic students, on the other hand, honors classes or tracks designed to accelerate students often are demographically unrepresentative of their schools. That fact has invited severe criticism.

Second, in accordance with political opposition, schools in communities serving large numbers of black and Hispanic students tend to shun tracking. Accelerated classes are less likely to exist for students of color.

Third, much of the research on tracking has found that students in high tracks benefit academically from separate, accelerated coursework. Researchers believe that high-track students receive a boost from exposure to academically-oriented peers, teachers trained in acceleration, and a challenging curriculum. These three phenomena combine to limit opportunity for black and Hispanic youngsters. If tracking and accelerated coursework in eighth grade represent the beginning of a pipeline for promising young stars in mathematics or literature, that opportunity is more open to white and Asian students in suburban schools than to disadvantaged youngsters in schools serving students of color.

Reader Comments 0

46 comments
Milo
Milo

If only educators were bright enough to understand genetics. 

Kelli Jeffries
Kelli Jeffries

We've been watering the curriculum down since mainstreaming special ed students into regular ed classrooms began. LRE for mainstreamed special ed students equals a completely restricted environment for regular and advanced students. The rights of a few trump the rights of the majority. It is going to hurt this state & country in the long-run. We are stunting the intelligence and potential income of our future tax payers.

CSpinks
CSpinks

"An unasserted right is  NO  RIGHT  AT  ALL."

Charlotte Manning Harrell
Charlotte Manning Harrell

Tracking by that name is very harmful. Trying to teach 35 students by differentiation is impossible and takes place no where.

CSpinks
CSpinks

In an open meeting, I had to challenge an associate superintendent of a neighboring county's public school system when she suggested that a teacher could "provide for individual differences" in a regular public school classroom. To the extent that We, The People, acquiesce in such drivel is testament to our ignorance and/or apathy.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Yep, most folks will agree it makes sense to group by achievement level and provide instruction at a level and pace commensurate with that group's level.  That is, until they notice the preponderance of white and asian kids in the higher levels and blacks in the lower levels.

Oops.  Can't have that.  Not politically correct, donchaknow.  Better to just stuff them all in a single room and tell the teacher to "differentiate" her instruction - or else.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

To the regular person, the idea of tracking is not just logical - but obvious.  It's like basketball - if a kid shows aptitude, and then gets on a high level AAU team, he/she will clearly develop deeper skills.  If a kid has no aptitude, but gets put on that team anyway, they'll fail miserably.


Sadly the "de-tracking" of our schools was led by those of the Politically Correct eduacracy whose concern was making sure like they "cared for the less fortunate".  So their way of "caring" was to take away a tool (a highly successful one) from those who has natural skill (intelligence).  And thus consign the more naturally gifted to guaranteed outcome of mediocrity - thus wasting their natural gifts.


In the name of "caring".  Sad and sick, all in one.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@dcdcdc


I agree dcdcdcdc. I am sure that I am in better shape, a better athlete, and smarter than you - and I do not want to share public parks, public pools, and public libraries with you, as it hinders my natural gifts. I want my own, higher level, public facilities.  Please join me in my crusade to segregate us from each other.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

@AvgGeorgian @dcdcdc Right, because "sharing physical parks" is the same as learning at the same level.   I'm sure, had you just been given the chance, you'd be just as good a basketball player as Lebron.   But since you weren't given that chance - "Segregated" as you put it, you are stuck where you are in life.  So sad.


Wow, you are so bright - said no one - ever.  Something tells me you were tracked w/ the lowest group.


Do you think?  Or just parrot PC BS? 

redweather
redweather

@dcdcdc Differentiated learning is used in charter schools as well.

teachermom4
teachermom4

My twins head to high school next year. While both are labeled "gifted", one is definitely more well-rounded than the other. When they entered middle school, I did not request that they take all gifted classes. However, as things have progressed, one has moved herself up from on-level math to gifted math. We recently found out that the high school will no longer accelerate kids who are not already in accelerated math. She will now be in college prep math next year, not even honors, because of the track she was on. This also impacts science. So, gifted math and gifted science will mean nothing, because it wasn't "accelerated". She will have to take college prep science because of the math. She had high CogAT and ITBS math scores, but that doesn't matter. It is likely that she will be in classes with kids who really don't want to be there because she started middle school on-level. As a teacher, I know that means more discipline issues and less teaching. More distraction, and less learning. It concerns me, along with the fact that she loves science and technology and will likely look for a career in a related field. 


My other daughter is less of a concern, simply because her interests and talents lie in the humanities, where both are placed on a gifted track. This is much more complex and difficult than when I was in high school.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@teachermom4

Your child can work harder and longer, and can access college classes in high school if she needs more of a challenge. You have options.

Beach Bound2020
Beach Bound2020

@teachermom4 Some districts offer a summer "bridge" math course for students like yours. They learn the standards that were not covered in the on-level middle school math course thus becoming eligible for the accelerated course in high school.  There may also be a virtual class that would serve this purpose as well.  Ask the school counselor.

Another comment
Another comment

Sounds like Fulton County! They tried to do the same thing to my daughter who always scored in the 90% and above on ITBS, but her on the black and Mexican track. Even the high achieving illegal kids call it the "black and Mexican" track. I removed my child to Private school. She was already bullied to death in the non gifted classes. So sorry I didn't kiss butt enough with the PTA to be part of the 10% selected for Gifted on the arbitrary score.

( some how my 21 year old daughter has a higher GPA in college than ever single one of her K-3 Cobb County friends that made Target ( gifted). She didn't despite test scores and teacher recommendations. I was too busy working then PTA butt smoozing. I did the same removed her from Public to catholic school. Then brought her back at High school and told them she was AP/ IB. The senior year when the idiot counselor wanted to allow her to go 1/2 time, I said no, you violated the law and never had the parent meeting. She will do dual enrollment. She was the only dual enrolled student in the school at the time. )

Unless schools want to enforce discipline we can not allow our children's education to be hijacked by cultures that do not value education. By parents who have trained their children to scam the SSI disability check system for a bigger check for mama and them for life, since we eliminate welfare.

teachermom4
teachermom4

@AvgGeorgian @teachermom4 One of the issues is that at the beginning of the school year, parents were told that kids who maintain at least a 95% average all year would be moved up to accelerated for high school. She had a 101% first semester, and has a 97% this semester. The high school changed its mind and told parents in January that NO child who is not in accelerated math would be able to take the accelerated track, and therefore the higher level science, as well. They label both honors and gifted the same, so that leaves college prep as the only option for both of those content areas. I understand she can try dual enrollment eventually, but that doesn't help right now. She is a victim of poor counseling and policy change.


I teach 5th grade, and I have no problem with ability grouping. Differentiation is an idea that looks great on paper but does not function in reality.

Karrie Carden Nelson
Karrie Carden Nelson

yes. we should it is so much easier to teach a group that is at the same level, differentiation is a joke when you have so many kids in your classroom.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

I agree. Maybe the answer is much smaller classes.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

"Third, much of the research on tracking has found that students in high tracks benefit academically from separate, accelerated coursework."


I too benefit from accelerated activities with my peers - can you please create an AP section of the blog for my peers and me?


Also, I am really good at standing in line, driving to work, getting paid, exhibiting good manners etc. I could get even better at these things if I could be in a special accelerated group.

Ugaboss
Ugaboss

Students who show repeatly that they are not interested in learning should not be there. When these students are put in a classroom it brings everyone else down.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Ugaboss

Maybe they would be interested in more hands on things that are  more expensive to teach.

redweather
redweather

@AvgGeorgian @Ugaboss Although I appreciate your point, too often these days the perceived solution is typically that students must be accommodated. Unfortunately the real world, which is where they are headed, doesn't exactly work that way.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@redweather @AvgGeorgian @Ugaboss


If you were responding to my post, I suggest a good basic academic curriculum with technical educational opportunities that begin in elementary school. The real world does provide a wide variety of activities and skills - schools usually do not.

CSpinks
CSpinks

@Ugaboss When will we accept that "one size does not fit all?" When will we provide alternative learning spaces/processes for our kids who don't learn well in regular classrooms and/or by regular instructional techniques?

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

You mentioned a "positive relationship" but I could find no description of the magnitude of the "relationship".


I could spend $5,000 on engine modifications that improve gas mileage(a positive relationship), but if $5K saves me $100.00 on gas per year, is it worth it?


This argument buys into the idea that the only goal of public education is higher academic test scores. Are the AP kids already doing okay? Do we need to design education so AP kids can get just a little bit more? They could get just a little bit more if they studied more and developed better independent study habits.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

"A positive relationship was found between tracking and superior performance on AP tests, the percentage of test takers scoring a 3 or better on AP tests. The positive relationship was statistically significant for white, black, and Hispanic students."


There are certain questions that almost never get asked because "the establishment" does not want to know the answer.  This is one.  


Why not?  Well....  I am not anxious to give offense, but do not see a way around this.  Considering the standardized test scores of students who major education in college versus the scores of students in some other disciplines- engineering, math, business, etc., I think it is likely that a fairly high proportion of our teachers/administrators/etc. did not go through school in the highest track and nurtured, on some level, resentment of students who did.  Voila! "Tracking bad".  "Differentiate instruction".


But hey, let's not dwell on the anonymous musings of some online knucklehead (me).  It should be easy enough to do some more RESEARCH based on the above study to compare academic outcomes for tracked vs. untracked students over time.


IF a research-based answer of "tracking is good for students" is one that the educational establishment is willing to risk the possibility of hearing.


insideview
insideview

@class80olddog if you are not a teacher, it would be difficult for you to understand the concept of why some students do better in a class of high achievers.We are all subject to peer pressure,  if it's positive and we receive support and affirmation, then we improve. I think Mary Elizabeth sings was referring to differentiated learning, not tracking. 

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

@insideview @class80olddog Competition is a lot better way of improving.  When the competition is too spread out and its too easy or too hard, performance suffers.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@xxxzzz


Your posts lack wit, or even a small measure of enlightenment - please try to keep up.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@insideview @class80olddog Yes, I know, we are just stupid business leaders and have no business commenting on education matters.  We should just shut up and send more money.  It is the attitudes like yours that will assure the passage of the State takeover plan and is driving the charter school movement.  Keep it up and you can probably get vouchers instituted.  The public is tired of hearing nothing but excuses from the educational community about why it is failing.

ParentTeacher
ParentTeacher

@class80olddog @insideview You never seem to get it.  The teacher in a class has little affect on student achievement on tests.  This is just another piece of evidence that the problems associated with poverty and low performing students can not be addressed through the current models of education.  In order to improve low performing schools and low income students we must have intensive early intervention, Pre-k thru 3.  This means really low teacher to student ratio, 1:8 or so, parental supports, adult literacy programs, family financial support.  This is such a complex problem that it can't be solved solely inside the walls of the school.  


If we really want to "fix" education, we have to turn our current model upside down for all students in poverty.  The current system or most any system will work for high achieving students.  

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

My former school moved away from tracking--except for the gifted, whose parents would NEVER put up with it--funny about that--and it has not seemed a success for those upper-middle kids at all. The lower-middle who have some parental support and are well-behaved seem to be holding their own, but a great deal of instructional time goes to trying to catch them and the low-achievers up. Thenthere are the BD and sped kids, often with no parapro.


When you have many 5th graders of average ability who still add 4+3 on their fingers, it is hard to tackle grade-level topics.  If you could put 2-3 lower level students into a grade level class (assuming a will to work and good behavior) I can see the others "bringing up" the behind students.  However, when you put 20-50% lower-achieving kids in the class, IT DOES NOT WORK FOR ANYONE!  Unfortunately many administrators want to do just that.

southerntchr
southerntchr

I am a high school English teacher and I can tell you that inclusion and mixed ability are NOT the answers for any of the kids.  In my honors class, where students chose to be in a higher level, more rigorous course, there are no discipline problems and we are able to go where I have never been able to take students before - the land of critical thinkers, problem solvers, literary analysis, real world writing, etc.  But, in my inclusion, mixed ability class, I am begging kids to pick up a pencil and write down what I just wrote verbatim on the board.  In this same class are the gifted students who should be in a different class but did not know they would be placed in this environment.  Trying nonstop to differentiate for all levels is exhausting and downright impossible with 28 students and no help.  Tracking worked for years.  Then, we suddenly started worrying about self-esteem.  How can we teach teenagers to read while we are trying to teach others in the class to understand Sophocles and Shakespeare?  Yes, not impossible, but impracticable with all we have on our plates.  Group them so I can help the kids! 

redweather
redweather

@southerntchr The self-esteem element is problematic. However, I have a student who is taking my freshman comp class for the second time. This time around she was fortunate to land in a class section with a bunch of high achievers. Early in the semester I worried that she might be self conscious about her weak writing skills, but being around these students seems to have had the opposite effect. It helps that this group of high achievers accepts her as she is. No one, for example, has complained about having to peer review her writing which is admittedly pretty rough almost all of the time. And she is making progress.


Another comment
Another comment

My oldest daughter ended up in a 10th grade Honors class where on the beginning of the school year the teacher administered reading placement test. The class ranged from a high of 12th grade and above ( my child) to second grade. Over half the class was at a reading level of 6 th grade and below. Every child that was white, or Asian was 10 th and above.

I went to the meet and greet the "mama" of the student who tested at the second grade level, showed up to demand that the teacher raise her daughter's grade. The teacher tried to explain that this was a placement test. She also tried in vain to explain her daughter and half the class did not belong in this class, they should be in the on level class ( or they should have been retained). She tried to tell the mother that she would fail students in her class, so reading ability was essential.

My daughter said the class was sad! That the ones who literally could not read beyond Elementary school level just thought that they were going to be promoted as always. They were actually students who didn't cause a whole lot of problems other than taking up a lot of time. One missing months giving birth. They were trying to avoid the thugs and gang members in the general classes.

The teacher made good on her threat that the next year, their would not be this mess of students who could not even read at grade level in honors class. The school only offered on level 11 th grade and AP. Problem solved, over half the class failed.

redweather
redweather

The counter argument to tracking is that less academically capable students can benefit from being in classes with more academically talented peers. The elephant in the room is that students who do not want to learn can often disrupt the learning environment to the detriment of all.

Maybe the folks at Brookings could study that by starting with this question: To what extent, if at all, does removing non-learners from the classroom environment enhance student outcomes? 

It just might benefit both learners and non-learners.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@redweather HOW exactly would grouping less academically capable students with high-achieving students benefit the former?  Would there be knowledge transfer by osmosis from the latter group to the former?  I see two possible outcomes from such a mixture: 1) The teacher keeps the class on schedule with the course work and the less academically able fall behind, or 2) the teacher slows down the class and relegates all individual attention to pulling the less capable students up to par, and the high-achieving students are ignored, possibly becoming bored and doing less well.  Tracking was a tried-and-true system that was not deemed PC and so was shunned in a lot of systems.  AP classes have now become the de facto tracking system and colleges react to that by requiring students to have a certain number of AP classes for admittance. (Grade inflation in regular classes has also driven the college admissions requirements - how else can you compare all those perfect 4.0 students).  I do agree with your assessment of removing the "non-learners" from the classroom - that is the "discipline" part of the trinity, plus the elimination of social promotion.  To quote our famous Mary Elizabeth Sings - "Each child should be taught according to their exact placement level" - sounds like tracking to me.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@redweather @class80olddog It's a long article, but worth the read.  Confirmed what I had sort of surmised as my children were in school during the "non" tracking phase.