ERIC Number: ED422454
Record Type: RIE
Publication Date: 1998-Aug
The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate. Volume 2, Number 8.
Tracking and ability grouping are common practices that are often harshly criticized. Both practices group students of similar achievement levels for instruction, but they differ in how this task is accomplished. Elementary schools typically use ability grouping in reading instruction, with instruction targeted to the reading level of each group. Middle and high schools use tracking to group students between classes, offering courses in academic subjects that reflect differences in students' prior learning. Critics charge that tracking not only fails to benefit any students, but that it also channels poor and minority students into low tracks and dooms them to an inferior education. Research has indicated that when students are grouped into separate classes and given an identical curriculum, there is no appreciable effect on achievement. However, when the curriculum is adjusted to correspond to ability level, it appears that student achievement is boosted, especially for high ability students receiving an accelerated curriculum. Heterogeneous grouping has not been adopted by enough middle schools and high schools to conclude whether detracking produces achievement gains for anyone, and research to date cannot conclusively demonstrate that one or the other is the better way to organize students. The charge of unfairness more accurately depicts tracking's past than its present. In the past, tracking was rigid and deterministic, but today, schools assign students to tracks for particular subject areas based on proficiency. Most schools assign students based on their choices once prerequisites have been met, and transcript studies show that students may move independently up or down in each subject's hierarchy of courses depending on their performance. One criticism still appears valid. Low tracks often emphasize good behavior and menial skills, while high tracks offer preparation for college. These differences in learning environments particularly depress the academic achievement of poor and minority students. In contrast, Catholic high schools appear to provide low track students with a quality education, and they are remarkably similar in boosting low track students to higher levels. Some principles for future policies are outlined. An appendix compares two meta-analyses of the track system. (Contains 7 tables.) (SLD)
Descriptors: Ability Grouping, Academic Achievement, Disadvantaged Youth, Educational Research, Elementary Secondary Education, Equal Education, Instructional Program Divisions, Minority Groups, Poverty, Student Placement, Tables (Data), Track System (Education)
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 1015 18th Street N.W., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036; toll free telephone: 1-888-TBF-7474; World Wide Web: http://www.edexcellence.net (single copies free).
Publication Type: Information Analyses
Education Level: N/A
Authoring Institution: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Washington, DC.
Note: Foreword by Chester E. Finn, Jr.