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Does detracking promote educational equity?

Tracking is back in the news. Controversy erupted in Virginia earlier this year when a proposal was floated requiring every student to take the same math class through 10th grade. The idea was quickly abandoned, with officials explaining that it’s “just a thought process right now.”

In California, a draft of the 2021 Mathematics Framework took a step beyond the thought process, formally recommending that all students take common, heterogeneously grouped math classes through 10th grade and that no student be allowed to accelerate until 11th grade. The document declares, “The lack of tracking or acceleration will allow all students to regard mathematics as a subject they can study and in which they belong” (ch. 7).

Tracking in Mathematics

Tracking takes many different forms, but all of them involve matching students, based on test scores or previous coursework, to curriculum as embodied in courses. This post focuses on middle and high school math classes in the U.S., which have traditionally been arranged in a hierarchical sequence of three courses: algebra I, geometry, algebra II—followed by pre-calculus (which often includes trigonometry and math analysis) and calculus. Tracking comes in when students take these courses in different grades, a practice that usually begins in middle school.

Students are initially tracked by where they start the sequence. Some eighth graders are placed in algebra I, for example, while others are assigned to a general grade-eight course and take algebra I the following year. Success or failure up the ladder leads to further differentiation as students either pass (thereby moving on) or fail (thereby repeating) particular courses. At the end of the sequence, high achieving seniors may take AP Calculus, IB Calculus, or a class in a local college. The typical student will finish with pre-calculus, although some may take a statistics course as seniors. High schoolers who struggle with math may take multiple years to successfully complete algebra I and geometry.

Criticism of Tracking

Tracking’s critics charge that it promotes inequity. Because school performance is highly correlated with socioeconomic status (SES), both initial placement and progress in a hierarchy of differentiated coursework may produce class rosters correlated with SES, a pattern that carries over to race and ethnicity. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, asked 12th graders the highest math course they had taken. As shown in Table 1, white and especially Asian/Pacific Island students are more likely to take calculus than Black and Hispanic students.

Table 1: Highest math course taken, by race/ethnicity, 2019

Race/ethnicity Calculus Pre-calculus Trigonometry or algebra II Geometry Algebra I or less
White 22% 28% 42% 5% 3%
Black 11% 23% 54% 8% 3%
Hispanic 14% 26% 47% 8% 6%
Asian/Pacific Islander 48% 25% 21% 3% 2%
Source: NAEP Data Explorer. Data from 12th Grade NAEP Mathematics Assessment.

Critics charge that tracking is not an innocent bystander to these disparities, simply reflecting extant inequities of society. Rather, critics argue that tracking exacerbates inequities by allocating high-status knowledge to some students while denying it to others. The solution, they believe, is to delay tracking for as long as possible, offering the same math courses to all students in classes composed of students who are heterogeneous in ability.

Defenders of tracking, conversely, argue that a one-size-fits-all approach serves neither low-achieving students, who may benefit from interventions that alter curriculum and instruction to address weaknesses, nor high-achieving students, who may benefit from acceleration into above-grade level curriculum.

Reviewing the evidence on detracking

Research on tracking extends over a century. Hundreds upon hundreds of studies have not settled the debate. The literature is usually described as “mixed,” but with a clear warning that tracking can exacerbate gaps between high and low achievers.[1] Research is more plentiful on tracking as a problem, as a source of inequality, rather than detracking as a solution. Reformers have been hampered by a lack of empirical evidence that abolishing tracking would reduce inequities. Evaluations of untracked schools tend to be based on a small number of schools or on samples that were not scientifically selected to support generalizable findings. Two of the most widely cited studies are Burris, Heubert and Levin (2006) and Boaler and Staples (2008).

The 2006 study is of a district in Nassau County, New York, that detracked its middle school math classes. Cohorts before and after detracking were compared, with more students—particularly Black, Hispanic, and students from economically disadvantaged families—successfully completing advanced math courses in the district’s only high school after the reform. The wealth of the community (median family income of $146,000 vs. the $71,000 national average) and high overall achievement level of the students raises questions about whether the same benefits would occur elsewhere. Students scoring in the fourth stanine or below on a nationally normed math test (scores of 1-4 on a nine-point scale), for example, constituted only about 6% of students in the study, whereas they represent, by definition, about 39% of students in typical high schools and much more than that in low-achieving schools.

The 2008 study consisted of three schools in California. One of the schools, named Railside by the researchers, adopted numerous reforms—including heterogeneously grouped classes—but also employed instruction that emphasized constructivist, student-centered approaches, block scheduling of 90-minute periods of half-year as opposed to full-year courses, and curricula that stressed conceptual understanding over procedural competency. The researchers concluded, “Compared with the other two schools in the study, Railside students learned more, enjoyed mathematics more and progressed to higher mathematical levels.” It is noteworthy that the learning advantages were evident on some tests of mathematics achievement but not on the state mathematics assessment used for accountability purposes.

Will Detracking Enhance Equity?

These case studies indicate that detracking may work under certain conditions, but they are less persuasive evidence that abolishing tracking in favor of classes with students heterogeneous in ability, all studying the same curriculum, will work everywhere or even in most schools. A study that forcefully raises that question was conducted by David N. Figlio and Marianne E. Page. They analyzed data from the National Education Longitudinal Survey of 1988 (NELS:88), which followed a random sample of several thousand students from eighth grade through high school and into post-secondary education and work. Using several methods of identifying whether schools were tracked or untracked, Figlio and Page uncovered neutral to positive effects of tracking. The most surprising finding of the analysis was that students from disadvantaged backgrounds appeared to benefit from tracking. Figlio and Page concluded, “We can find no evidence that detracking America’s schools, as is currently in vogue, will improve outcomes among disadvantaged students. This trend may instead harm the very students that detracking is intended to help” (p. 29).

Tracking for Equity

Political opposition to tracking took shape after the 1985 publication of “Keeping Track” by Jeannie Oakes. Although many schools subsequently reduced the number of tracks offered in academic subjects, mathematics was resistant. NAEP data document that pattern persisting, with clearly differentiated mathematics courses offered to approximately 75% of the nation’s eighth graders in 2015.[2]

Tracking continues despite enduring opposition based on equity concerns. Can schools use tracking to serve the cause of equity? David Card and Laura Giuliano studied an urban district’s program that identified high-achieving fourth and fifth graders and placed them, along with students identified as gifted by IQ scores, into separate classrooms. Filling out gifted classrooms with high achievers proved to be a crucial design feature, as Card and Giuliano explain: “For poorer schools with only a handful of gifted students in any grade, the program is similar to a tracking program that sets aside a separate class for the 20 or so top-performing students in the grade/cohort” (p. 33). The researchers found large, positive effects for the high achievers in the tracked classes, particularly students of color or students from disadvantaged households, and no negative spillover effects for students in other classes. Card and Giuliano also urge universal screening and using achievement tests, as opposed to relying on teacher or parent referrals, to identify historically underserved students who may benefit from acceleration.

What about low tracks? Opponents have long argued that low track students are ill-served by tracking, receiving a dead-end curriculum taught by the least-trained math teachers. It is hard to raise that argument if low tracks study the default, grade-level curriculum, which in eighth grades located in Common Core and non-Common Core states alike, consists of topics that state officials insist are demanding. Card and Giuliano’s current study in progress is of two predominantly Black and Hispanic urban districts that offer an accelerated sequence of math courses for high-track students in sixth grade (a compressed course of middle-school material), seventh grade (algebra I), and eighth grade (geometry). When these students enter high school, they are two years ahead of the typical ninth-grade student in math—and two years ahead of the sequence offered in Common Core. The abstract of the research project states, “The project aims to understand the potential of early academic tracking in promoting and sustaining achievement, especially among underserved students with high math ability, and to examine the effects of an accelerated math track in middle school for students who do and do not participate in the accelerated math track.”

What’s next?

A century of research has not quelled the controversy surrounding the use of tracking in schools. Most high schools in the U.S. continue to provide differentiated courses in mathematics despite critics who claim that tracking exacerbates educational inequality. The schools that have experimented with detracking have not yet produced results strong enough to convince the mass of educators to abolish tracking.

What now? A prudent approach is to accept the existence of both tracked and untracked schools and then build a menu of effective ways for educators to address the weaknesses of either system. In terms of policy design, more empirical research is needed on how untracked schools can meet the needs of high-achieving math students. For tracked schools, the objectives should be twofold: to employ strategies that will identify high-achieving mathematics students from historically underserved populations, and to ensure that low-track students receive the high-quality instruction that they need to become better math students.


Footnotes

  1. To appreciate the confusing results of meta-analyses on tracking, see: John Hattie, “Visible Learning,” (New York: Routledge, 2009). Hattie finds a small, positive effect (d= 0.12) for “ability grouping,” which includes tracking, but he warns of the impact on equity (pp. 89-91). He also finds larger positive effects for “ability grouping for gifted students,” (d = 0.30) and for “acceleration” (d = 0.88), with the latter contingent upon offering advanced curriculum (pp. 99-101). [Back to top]
  2. The Brown Center Report study ends with 2011 data. The NAEP school-level question was asked on principal surveys through 2015, with 78% of students attending tracked schools in 2013 and 74% in 2015 (author’s calculations). [Back to top]

The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.

In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.

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