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May 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 8

Special Topic / How Tracking Creates a Poverty of Learning

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More than five decades have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the doctrine of "separate but equal" in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Yet a "separate but equal" curriculum still defines the experience of the vast majority of students in U.S. schools. Two and one-half decades have passed since the school accountability and standards movement began. Yet the practice of separating students by "ability" still contributes to the poor academic performance of low-income and minority students, maintaining barriers that deny these students an equal opportunity to reach high standards.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Educationdecision, along with a number of other successful legal challenges, established that "separate but equal" actually providedunequal access to education opportunities. These judicial rulings helped develop national awareness of the fact that the U.S. Constitution and our democracy do not tolerate the notion of second-class citizens. Almost 30 years later, in 1983, A Nation at Riskushered in the standards movement in education that continues today. That report's recommendation that schools adopt more rigorous and measurable standards was embraced by the designers of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002. In focusing attention on student populations that historically were left behind academically, NCLB recognized that allowing poor and minority students to fail academically is the worst kind of discrimination.
Six years after NCLB was signed into law, however, there is scant evidence that it has improved students' academic achievement (Lee, 2006). Data gathered from 11 urban school districts participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress Trial Urban District Assessment suggest that improvements are slight at best. From 2005 to 2007, the average reading scores for students increased in only 2 of the 11 participating districts at grade 4 and in 4 of the 11 districts at grade 8. In math, average scores increased in 4 of the 11 districts at grade 4 and in 6 of the 11 districts at grade 8 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007).
With so many education policymakers so determined to raise standards and close achievement gaps, what is holding us back? Unfortunately, although state NCLB assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress are standardized, the curriculum is not. Nothing ensures that all students have been taught the same content. In fact, given the prominent place of ability grouping and tracking in the accepted education paradigm, it is highly unlikely that all students have had an equal opportunity to master the subject matter required to pass these assessments.
Does this make sense? Shouldn't all students—particularly low-income students, racial and ethnic minorities, or English language learners—have access to a curriculum that is sufficiently rich and rigorous to enhance their chances not only to pass the state tests, but also to graduate from high school and succeed in college and the workplace?

An Entrenched Practice

Ability grouping began in the early 20th century (Hallinan, 2004; Oakes & Guiton, 1995). In response to an influx of immigrant children into U.S. schools, school administrators decided to place students in different groups or tracks primarily on the basis of test results or their past performance in school. By the middle of the 20th century, a majority of U.S. schools used some form of ability grouping or tracking. Today, almost all schools are still implicitly defined by this curriculum paradigm, which often starts in primary school and continues through high school.
The Westchester Institute for Human Services Research (2007) defines ability grouping as the practice of dividing students for instruction on the basis of their perceived capacities for learning, either within a class or into separate classes. Tracking historically refers to the practice of grouping high school students by ability into a series of courses with differentiated curriculums; students take high-, middle-, or low-level courses related to the track they have selected or been assigned to (academic, general, or vocational). Most students, if not all, are enrolled in one of these tracks by the time they complete middle school.
Students in the higher-level track are often taught enriched, challenging content, whereas those in the lower track are often given rote lessons characterized by filling in the blanks on a worksheet. Students in the first group may be taught a curriculum that reinforces how to learn and how to apply what is learned, whereas students in the second group may receive a more watered-down curriculum that emphasizes memorization (Ascher, 1992; Burris & Welner, 2005, Wheelock, 1992).
Efforts to detrack the system have met strong resistance (Hallinan, 2004; Oakes, Wells, Jones, & Datnow, 1997). Some of that resistance comes from stakeholders who want to protect the privileged place their children enjoy in the current system (McKerrow, 1997). Proponents of ability grouping argue that highly motivated students and less motivated students need to be taught separately so that teachers can better meet the needs of both groups. Students who are not "college material," these proponents assert, need to learn at their own rate and to have opportunities to learn a vocation or technical trade not requiring a four-year degree.
Although heterogeneous grouping does create instructional challenges for educators, it is unjust to maintain practices that mostly benefit students from advantaged homes. Less advantaged parents also want the benefits of an enriched curriculum for their sons and daughters. We cannot ignore the fact that for more than five decades, ability grouping has resulted in the separation of students by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Many studies have confirmed that minority and low-income students of all ability levels are over-represented in the lower tracks and underrepresented in the higher tracks (Ascher, 1992; Burris & Welner, 2005; Oakes & Guiton, 1995; Wyner, Bridgeland, & DiIulio, 2007).
Thus, the education ills that Brown v. Board of Education and the education standards movement sought to address are still with us. The tracking system that was put in place at the beginning of the 20th century—during the Industrial Revolution is still pervasive in the 21st century—a century defined by the knowledge-based technological revolution.

Students Know

In our experience, students are well aware of the teaching and learning disparities that exist in their classes and schools. Recently, students in an Alexandria, Virginia, high school collaborated with professors from George Mason University and the City University of New York to survey their classmates regarding the quality of their education. The survey respondents realized that their school contained two tracks: an exclusive track, in which a small group of students are actively prepared for academic success, and a mainstream, unprivileged track, in which the majority of the students are not expected to excel and receive little support or opportunity to pursue their academic goals. Perhaps even more disconcerting is that the tracks are racially identifiable. (Tamara, 2007, p. i)
Students who wanted to enhance their academic achievement saw barriers to doing so. A substantial number of students of color wanted to take advanced placement courses but reported that guidance counselors and other adults in the school did not support their aspirations. Similar studies have been conducted in New Jersey, New York, California, Delaware, Illinois, and Colorado.
These students, who were effectively denied access to rigorous course content, were expected to meet the same state standards as their classmates. More important, these same students will increasingly define the future of the United States in a multicultural, multilingual, knowledge-based global society. By 2010, the United States' student population is expected to grow by three million; 80 percent of these students will come from minority or low-income backgrounds (Couturier & Cunningham, 2006). If students from low-income and minority backgrounds are struggling within the current education paradigm, shouldn't we change that paradigm to better serve this growing group?

Heading in the Right Direction

To achieve the goal of high-quality education for all, we must seriously examine the tracking and ability-grouping paradigm that has defined our education system for almost a century—especially the pervasive inequalities, whether intentional or unintentional, that are linked to it. Of course, we should still address the diverse learning styles, needs, and interests of our students. However, we need to transform the system to guarantee that all students are given equal opportunities to develop to their fullest potential. To have any hope of closing the achievement gap, we must first close the opportunity gap.
Two programs provide examples of the direction that schools need to take. One is the Young Scholars program implemented by the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia several years ago. Realizing that their K–8 gifted programs included few minority and low-income students, district leaders implemented the Young Scholars Program to identify gifted students from these groups and provide support to enrich their academic skills so that they could become part of the county's gifted and talented program (PAACT Faculty Project, 2006). Students in the program attend daily 1.5-hour classes that offer challenging and creative opportunities for exploratory learning as well as positive development of the individual. These classes, along with flexible grouping, summer school, and after-school programs, raise the expectations of identified students and prepare them for more challenging courses.
In 2000, six elementary schools piloted the program; today, more than 58 schools are involved, and more than 12,000 students have participated. To date, almost 900 of the Young Scholars students have been chosen for high school gifted and talented programs (Fairfax County Public Schools, 2007).
Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland has also made efforts to open access to advanced courses for all high school students. Recognizing that achievement of this goal is a pipeline issue, the school system set benchmarks for achievement from kindergarten through high school. The initial round of reforms included expanding kindergarten to an all-day program, especially in areas with many poor and minority students, and providing free prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds in areas of the county that have high socioeconomic needs. In addition, the district developed a more uniform and rigorous curriculum for all students; implemented more regular assessments to monitor progress; reduced class size to provide more individualized instruction; expanded counseling services with a focus on preparation to attend college; and placed more emphasis on professional development for teachers, counselors, and other staff.
As a result of these efforts, the district has already seen an impressive improvement in reading and math scores among all students, but especially among minority and low-income children. It has also seen a significant increase in the number of minority students taking and passing advanced placement exams.
In both Virginia and Maryland, the goal is to ensure that all students are cognitively and developmentally prepared to succeed in school. Both programs have been highly successful, and both school districts have seen a solid increase in the number of minority and poor students excelling academically in their schools.
  • Continue efforts to detrack the curriculum at all levels. State education agencies must provide leadership to local school systems in creating a rigorous curriculum—aligned with clearly articulated standards at all grade levels and in all subject areas—for all students.
  • Develop strategies that allow for more cooperative learning among different groups of students, enabling them to learn from one another. Place more emphasis on inter-disciplinary, interactive learning—for example, by using block scheduling to teach English, science, and technology in an interdisciplinary way.
  • Provide professional development and support for teachers and counselors to enable them to teach and mentor students more effectively regardless of students' race, gender, language status, or socioeconomic status (Alvearez & Mehan, 2006). Build time into the school week for grade-level or subject-area teachers to meet in teams to plan lessons, strengthen teaching skills, and address cultural issues.
  • Assign counselors to all schools at a ratio of no more than one counselor per 175 students. Ensure that all counselors (and teachers) are culturally sensitive and that some counselors are bilingual.
  • Ensure that every student is taught by a professionally prepared, certified, highly qualified, caring teacher, and provide ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers.
  • Equip every classroom with state-of-the-art instructional materials and ensure that all students are taught to be technologically proficient.
  • Encourage schools to cultivate greater parental involvement.
  • Provide universal, free, high-quality preschool for every child beginning at age three.
  • Finally, guarantee that school districts have the financial resources necessary to transform the education system.

It Can Be Done

Although the challenges are real, schools and districts that have made the commitment to detrack schools have shown that it can be done. For example, the Rockville Centre School District on Long Island—where 15 percent of students have a low socioeconomic status, 11 percent are in special education, and 20 percent are minority— determined in 1989 that detracking its academic program would result in improved academic performance for all students. At the time, the district's high school had two to five tracks in each academic area. Students of color and low-income students were over-represented in the lower tracks.
The district began by dismantling its tracking system in the middle school and offering an enriched curriculum for all students in the elementary schools. Complementing these strategies, Rockville Centre made a greater effort to get parents actively involved and offered professional development opportunities for its teachers that helped them better serve their students in the detracked system.
Three years after homogeneous grouping was eliminated, the percentage of low-income students who earned a Regents diploma (the more academically rigorous credential in New York State) increased from 22 percent to 71 percent, and the percentage of minority students earning a Regents diploma surpassed the statewide percentage of white and Asian students who did so (Garrity, 2004).

Honoring the Promise

The significant transformations our society is undergoing must be matched by a vigorous transformation of education. The foundation laid by the U.S. Constitution, Brown v. Board of Education, and the education reform movement that began in the 1980s must inspire educators and our society at large to break down stereotypes of who can learn and how they can learn. In view of the demographic changes in our population and in our schools, now more than ever we must honor our promise to leave no child behind.

Alvearez, D., & Mehan, H. (2006). Whole-school detracking: A strategy for equity and excellence. San Diego: University of California.

Ascher, C. (1992). Successful detracking in middle and senior high schools (ERIC/CUE Digest No. 82). New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education. Available:

Burris, C., & Welner, K. (2005). Closing the achievement gap by detracking. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(8), 594–598.

Couturier, L. K., Cunningham, A. F. (2006). Convergence: Trends threatening to narrow college opportunities in America. Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Fairfax County Public Schools. (2007).Annual report on gifted and talented programs of the Fairfax County Public Schools. Fairfax, VA: Author.

Garrity, D. (2004). Detracking with vigilance.School Administrator, 61(7), 24–27.

Hallinan, M. T. (2004). The detracking movement: Despite the efforts of the educational progressives, tracking remains standard practice. Education Next, 4(4), 72–76.

Lee, J. (2006). Tracking achievement gaps and assessing the impact of NCLB on the gaps. Cambridge, MA: Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

McKerrow, K. (1997). Ability grouping: Protecting relative advantage. Journal for a Just and Caring Education, 3(3), 333–342.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). 2007 Trial Urban District Assessment results. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Available:

Oakes, J., & Guiton, G. (1995). Matchmaking: The dynamics of high school tracking decisions. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 3–33.

Oakes, J., Wells, A. S., Jones, M., & Datnow, A. (1997). Detracking: The social construction of ability, cultural politics, and resistance to reform. Teachers College Record, 98(3), 482–510.

PAACT Faculty Project. (2006). The Young Scholars Project. Fairfax, VA: Fairfax County Public Schools.

Tamara, T. R. (2007). Obstacles to opportunity: Alexandria, Virginia students speak out. Alexandria, VA: Alexandria United Teens, George Mason University.

Westchester Institute for Human Services Research. (2007). Ability grouping. The Balanced View, 6(2). White Plains, NY: Author. Available:

Wheelock, A. (1992). Crossing the tracks. New York: New Press.

Wyner, J. S., Bridgeland, J. M., & DiIulio, J. J. (2007). Achievement trap: How America is failing millions of high-achieving students from lower-income families. Lansdowne, VA: Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

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