Why is Tracking Harmful?

What to Do If Your Child is on the Track to Nowhere

The following is adapted from an article by the National Coalition of Education Activists. The article is part of a packet on tracking entitled, “Maintaining Inequality.”

Tracking is a way of sorting students. Sorting determines the kinds of skills, knowledge and resources available to students. Although it is often known as ability grouping, tracking has very little to do with ability.

Rather, tracking is usually based on achievement as measured by standardized tests or estimates of a child’s ability. Even when tracking is based on the judgement of teachers, students, and/or parents, it rarely accounts for differences in family education or circumstances, past school experiences, and other factors. It fails to fully consider each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential.

Tracking duplicates inequalities of race, class, and sex that exist throughout our society. In doing so it undermines the most basic goal of public education: to help all students reach their potential and prepare them for life as citizens in a democracy.

Tracking assumes students come with fixed academic abilities that don’t change. Most research, however, supports the idea that academic ability develops and is shaped by expectations and community standards.

Tracking does not raise students’ or parents’ expectations. It does not encourage effort. It is not designed to help students progress. Tracking does, however, pigeon-hole students, without developing a plan for moving them forward.

Tracking results in labeling that also has negative effects. As many have observed, there is hardly anyone who isn’t bright enough to understand they aren’t considered very bright. For students in lower tracks, these labels become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tracking’s advocates say grouping permits teachers to give more attention to individual students’ needs, allowing “high” achievers to progress more quickly and “low” achievers to set and meet reasonable goals. However, most studies suggest that when tracked classes do provide more individual attention, it is because classes are smaller and teachers are using a wider variety of strategies, not because the students are at similar “levels.”

There is little proof that tracking benefits students. There is much evidence that students in higher tracks receive certain advantages that should be available to all students, including:

  • Highly qualified, experienced teachers.
  • Additional resources.
  • Access to higher-level skills such as critical thinking, and more intensive writing assignments.
  • Exposure to a wider variety of teaching strategies such as cooperative learning and lively discussions.
  • Constructive, personal criticism as opposed to harsher correction in front of other students.
  • Access to specialized knowledge such as higher mathematics and sciences.
  • Active support from parent groups.

Tracking creates classes teachers don’t want to teach and tends to segregate students based on race and class.

Common Tracking Methods

Teachers and parents sometimes believe tracking is beneficial because it seems to respect differences among students.

However, in the long run tracking is harmful — once a child is in a low track it is almost impossible to get out. Every day children spend in the low track they lose ground to students in more advanced groups.

Every school tracks differently. This article presents the most common forms of tracking with the technical name and an explanation of how it works. Since these practices can be hard to spot and some schools will deny using them, the explanations are followed by a list of questions to help you decide if negative forms of tracking are being used.

Elementary Schools Ability Grouping:

  • Within grade level. Some schools deliberately — through the use of test scores — or through carelessness create tracked classes within grades. For instance, instead of mixing all children in three second grade classes, the better prepared students end up together.

    If your child seems to be with the same children year after year, or if the classes seem to be segregated by race, neighborhood, or the parents’ background, you may want to ask questions. (For ideas, see the list on page 15.)
  • Within classes. Especially in reading and math, students may be divided into groups. Often the groups have names like “tigers,” “panthers,” and “bluebirds” instead of “high,” “middle,” or “low.” Materials are usually different for each group, and while advanced groups get whole books, the lower groups may get worksheets.


If your child is in a lower-level group, insist that there be a plan and a target date for moving him or her into a higher level. Find out what you can do at home to help improve your child’s skills and speed up the process.

Question tracking at PTA and other parent meetings. Even though you may be able to protect your child, others will be harmed if the practices continue. If you are able to convince other parents that tracking is harmful, work together to get your school or the entire system to adopt a plan to end tracking. Contact NCEA for organizing ideas.

Pull-Out Programs:

Man taken out of class for special help as part of Chapter 1, special education, or some other program. Students in pull-outs are often labeled in negative ways. If the program’s benefits truly outweigh this risk, parents and teachers should try to make sure the students do not see pull-outs as negative.

Students should be evaluated before they are placed in pull-outs and clear, short-term goals should be set. At the end of an agreed-upon period, the program should be evaluated to see if the child’s needs are being met and progress is being made.


Encourage the school to use Chapter 1 funds in such a way that extra help is provided within the classroom. Fight for lower class sizes so teachers have time to work with every student.

Middle and High Schools Ability Grouping:

Tracking that began in elementary school is often continued in middle and high schools. Many schools use test scores and teacher recommendations to place students in classes or sections of classes.

Even if your school does not automatically group students by “ability,” you may want to watch out for the following tracking methods:

  • Class names. “General,” “Developmental,” “Basic,” and “Beginning” in course titles often mean lower track. Other times a class will have sections A, B, and C, with the letters standing for the level of difficulty. Section A may be the only one that prepares students to take later classes needed for college.

    Some classes are known as “gatekeepers” or “prerequisites.” They may be required before a student is permitted to take some other class. For instance, a student who wants to take geometry may need to take algebra first. Occasionally schools will offer certain gatekeepers only in the summer or will charge a fee; this is probably illegal and you should complain loudly.
  • Electives. Once a student has signed up for required courses, he or she can usually choose two or three more classes known as “electives.” Sometimes students choose their own electives; other times they are advised by counselors.

    Foreign languages, journalism, photography, music performance, and similar classes are more likely to encourage critical thinking and other higher-level skills than wood shop, basic/general music, or introductory art. The first group of classes are also more likely to be filled with enthusias-ic students who may encourage others to raise their expectations.


See action item under “Steering” below.


Counselors or other school staff may discourage students from taking the most challenging courses. Sometimes they will say the student is not prepared or will not benefit from the class because they are not going to college.


If the school has a list or catalogue of classes, look it over with your child. Talk with your child about what he or she would like to take and what recommendations, if any, the school counselor has made.

Make sure your child is not being kept out of certain classes because of test scores or recommendations. If you are told he or she is not prepared for a certain class, find out how to get prepared. If necessary, especially if the course is a “gatekeeper,” insist that the school provide extra help.

Demand that your child get a strong background in English and math; that means classes that prepare them for college even if they’re not sure they want to go. Don’t accept excuses about scheduling problems from school staff.