What the Research Tells Us About Detracking

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Cover image courtesy of Orange County Archives

M-A’s motto is “Strength in Diversity.” However, a glance at any Advanced Standing (AS) class on campus tells a different story. Courses are significantly segregated based on race, class, and feeder school. In an effort to combat this, M-A has “detracked” several freshman and sophomore subjects, including Chemistry, freshman English, and Biology by getting rid of their advanced tracks. This is in line with a vast body of research critical of tracking. 

“Tracking” is the practice of separating students into different classes based on their academic abilities. Initially, it took the form of multi-subject grouping following teachers’ recommendation. Now, most schools, including M-A, let students choose different levels in individual subjects. Any student, regardless of test scores or grades, can opt into an AS and AP courses. This system might seem great at first. Students can choose the rigor of the classes they take based on their interests, and teachers can tailor their instruction to their class’s abilities. However, about 80 years ago, researchers began to argue that this system perpetuated inequalities and denied the most vulnerable students an equal education. 

In a tracked system, higher tracks are disproportionately composed of higher-income students with access to better-funded primary schools, giving them a sizable advantage. In contrast, lower tracks are disproportionately composed of low-income students. 

When schools noticed this trend, many responded by reforming tracking: instead of forcing students into isolated groups, they let students have the final say over whether they enroll in advanced courses. However, according to an article published in the American Research Journal, “Choice failed as a mechanism to create [diverse] heterogeneous classes. It left intact the school’s tracked structures and the identities and social relationships that students formed in response to track placements.” The article identified patterns that explain the failure of choice-based systems to promote equality in schools. 

One pattern was “tracked aspirations.” Wealthier students were more likely to take honors classes, whereas low-income students often aimed to just graduate. The authors hypothesized that less wealthy families were less likely to trust that trying hard in school would be rewarded. In contrast, wealthier families expected their children to go to college and uphold family status.

Another was “choosing respect.” Even if a low-income student could take an honors class, they would likely feel isolated from their peers. Racial dynamics only worsen this divide. Black and Latinx students who take honors classes are oftentimes the only non-white and non-Asian people in their class. As the article explained, “These formerly low-track students of color carried into honors classes the double burden of justifying both their own capability and the capability of their race.” 

The article also stated, “Black and Latino students shunned honors courses because they were reluctant to give up the supportive peer networks they had developed among their lower track peers… It requires that students in lower tracks be willing to abandon [their] peer group.”

The lack of diversity in tracked classes is harmful in and of itself. Diversity’s impact on learning is hard to measure only through metrics like test scores. According to the Century Foundation, diverse classrooms “promote creativity, motivation, deeper learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.” These benefits apply to all students. Students from different backgrounds have vastly different perspectives, ideas, and outlooks. Learning about these can help them become more complete, intelligent people and, as the American Psychological Association said, “Students learn most from those who have very different life experiences.”

Some argue that, although tracking hasn’t been implemented perfectly, the concept has some merit and we should resolve its issues rather than do away with it.

A study from the Journal of Labor Economics analyzed the impact that a student’s peers can have on their learning by analyzing all Florida public school students from grades three to ten over a five year period. The study found that low-achieving students learned better with average-achieving peers, not high-achieving ones. Average-achieving students learned best with high-achieving students, and high-achieving students did best with other high-achieving peers. As a result, the authors said, “Some degree of tracking by ability—such as splitting students into two tracks—should be preferred to policies in which all classrooms contain a broad mix of students.”

An international University of Wisconsin-Madison study on detracking stated, “Most studies of tracking have found that high-achieving students tend to perform better when assigned to high-level groups than when taught in mixed-ability settings.” 

Evidence that students perform best when grouped with similarly achieving peers has led some researchers to argue that tracking offers benefits, and that rather than ending it, we should reform it to improve diversity. However, other studies suggest that tracking has inherent pitfalls, and that the very act of placing a student in a lower track sets them up to put in less effort and engage more superficially with the material.

A paper published in the Educational Psychology Review argued, “Curricular tracking might create systemic differences in three areas of adolescents’ social-cognitive development: self-perceptions, goals, and beliefs.” Students in the lower track may consider themselves to be less intelligent, capable, or important than those in the higher track.

“Detracking” doesn’t necessarily mean taking away higher tracks and forcing all students into a slower-paced curriculum. For some, it means pushing all students to a high standard. Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado Boulder, advocates for what he calls “universal acceleration” where all students experience homogenous, fast-paced classes. Students who fall behind should receive early interventions to make sure they stay on track. In accordance with this approach, when M-A detracked freshman English starting in the 2021-2022 school year, teachers based the new class on AS material while offering support classes for struggling students. 

A University of Pennsylvania meta-analysis that covered over four decades of research strongly encouraged detracking. It said, “The findings suggest that the detracking reform had appreciable effects on low-ability student achievement and no effects on average and high-ability student achievement. Therefore, detracking should be encouraged.” 

The consensus among many researchers is, when schools detrack properly, it benefits the underserved, though some academics debate how it impacts the privileged. 

A Harvard paper that analyzed the impact of diversity on education said, “Students who learn in a desegregated way lead desegregated lives. Their multiracial experience had a large impact on their ability to move successfully across racial lines in professional positions as adults.” By implementing a policy that contributes to segregation, “tracking,” schools may be depriving their students of crucial lessons of what students can teach one another. 

Collin is a senior at M-A in his second year of journalism. In addition to helping run the website, he enjoys writing about current events, politics, and issues relevant to the M-A community. He's also a member of M-A's debate team. In his free time, Collin likes to play guitar and hang out with friends.

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