Keeping Schools on Track

Research has documented the inequitable effects of tracking, yet the practice persists. Why do so many reformers sidestep the issue?

By Anne Wheelock

Opposition to tracking and ability grouping is grounded in the recognition that any of a wide range of sorting practices – including more or less permanent assignment to groups within classes, mis-assignment to special education, and grade retention – contribute to and institutionalize unequal opportunities to learn. These practices harm all children, but they particularly hurt low-income students and students of color.

One of the seminal works on tracking is Keeping Track (New Haven: Yale University press, 1985) by Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at the University of California Los Angeles. As Oakes has noted, tracking entrenches “structure inequality” in schools. Further, as she and others have documented, group placements are neither fair nor accurate.

Tracking assumes that students’ abilities – typically as assessed by standardized tests – are static. In fact, what children learn depends largely on the opportunities schools provide for their learning. Yet tracking assures that students placed at lower levels experience instruction and curriculum that allows for only slow progress in learning the most basic of skills. Compared to students in higher-level classes, students in lower tracks move at a slower pace, spend more time reviewing basic skills through worksheet-based instruction, and have less opportunity to produce work that has meaning to audiences outside the classroom. Given such unequal schooling, noted as early as kindergarten and first grade, differences in learning actually increase over the time students spend in school. As learning gaps widen grade by grade, few students, if any, can move out of the lower level to the higher level.

Research has shown that racism and bias play a large part in determining which students gain entry into the more challenging classrooms. In records reviewed for plaintiffs challenging tracking in San Jose, California, Oakes and her colleagues found that a number of students who scored at the highest test score levels had been placed in the lowest groups, while students with low test scores could be found in the top groups. Upon closer examination, the researchers found that in that district, Latino students were at a particular disadvantage.

In fact, seventh-grade Latino students with high test scores were about half as likely as white students to gain entry to accelerated classes. In tenth grade, whites were more than twice as likely to be in the higher classes, and Asians more than four times as likely to be enrolled in college prep math as Latino students with similar test scores. When queried about these patterns, teachers said that the conditions they imagined were characteristic of the Latino students’ homes were not adequate to help the students meet the challenges of the higher-level classes.

National Problem

Unfortunately, patterns of discrimination and resegregation through tracking are not limited to one district here and there. National databases show that poor, African American, and Latino students are most likely to be in “go nowhere” courses, while white and middle class students are disproportionately enrolled in those courses that facilitate access to further educational opportunity.

Tracking also undermines overall achievement in districts where poor, African-American, and Latino students are the majority. In such districts, sorting practices typically produce a dominant district culture that emphasizes low-level remedial learning for entire schools.

Given research findings on the harm of tracking, one might expect the current army of school reformers to support policies and practices that would offer the challenges of the high-track classes to all students in heterogeneous classrooms. But, for a variety of reasons, few reformers in positions of authority have dared to make a case for alternatives to tracking.

Some worry that separate groups for “top track” students are necessary if those students are to make progress. Yet, in reviewing data from the national educational longitudinal study of 1988, Jomills Braddock II and Robert Slavin found that, in fact, high-scoring eighth graders in tracked schools did no better than their counterparts in untracked schools. Moreover, recent data highlight how high-scoring students can benefit dramatically from detracked classes. Reporting on the progress of all students in a literature-based, cooperative learning curriculum, Doug MacIver and his colleagues from Johns Hopkins University report significant gains in reading scores for all students at all levels of proficiency. In addition, the gains in the Philadelphia middle school they studied were actually greatest for high-scoring students in these multi-ability grouped classes.

More difficult to understand are reformers who propose to address the problem of low student achievement through “solutions” that further entrench school labeling and tracking practices. Take, for example, the increasingly popular issue of grade retention, packaged under the slogan “no social promotion.”

Grade retention is the first sorting practice many children encounter. Research has consistently shown that early elementary students, once separated from their age-appropriate peers and told to repeat a class, are more likely by the sixth-grade to end up in special education classes or the lowest-ability groups. Many of these same students are retained a second time in the middle grades or in the ninth-grade, before they drop out of school. Because students retained fall behind, never to catch up, and because poor, African-American and Latino students are disproportionately among the numbers of “repeaters,” grade retention works to reinforce both tracking and low achievement.

Although the U.S. Department of Education does not collect data on grade retention, some state agencies do. A look at those figures shows that staggering numbers of students are retained every year. For example, in the 1994-95 school year (the last year for which data are available in some states), Michigan retained 10,312 students in the high school grades alone; Kentucky retained 15,289 in 4th through 12th-grades, and Texas retained 128,369 for all grades. In 1995-96, Florida retained 96,753 students; Georgia retained 51,044; Tennessee retained 45,498; Wisconsin retained 19,391; Massachusetts retained 18,298; and Arizona retained 17,817.

Sidestepping the Issue

Many reformers are simply absent from discussions of tracking and its alternatives. Claiming that “only results matter,” they maintain neutrality on the means to school improvement, asserting that schools should be “free” to determine for themselves how to produce higher test scores. Although they call for all students to “meet standards,” these reformers refrain from identifying the school routines that ensure unequal learning opportunities and that feed achievement differences which increase as students move from grade to grade.

There are also those reformers that assert that all American students are falling short of expectations, drawing attention away from far more pressing problems of inequality within schools and districts.

Still other reformers, like Harvard University’s Thomas Loveless, writing on the website of the conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation, silence critics of tracking by claiming that research on tracking is “inconclusive.” Loveless proposes establishing a “culture of effort” in tandem with tracked classes. But such a culture cannot coexist with tracking. One reason is that elementary grouping practices and the assumptions supporting them have already undermined students who, by high school, no longer believe in the value of their own efforts. Further, in the later grades, students may seek more challenging settings, only to run into adults, whether department chairpeople or guidance counselors, who claim they value hard work but select only students they believe can “make it” in challenging classes. As Washington Post reporter Jay Matthews describes in his recent book Class Struggle (New York: Times Books, 1998), even students who show initiative and drive have a hard time surmounting the routines and attitudes that exclude “unqualified” students from the most advantageous learning opportunities.

The message of research is clear. Tracking is harmful and alternatives exist. Given a rich curriculum and extra support structured into the school day, students of diverse backgrounds can succeed in heterogeneous settings where it is not just the “stuff” of learning, but also the social aspects of learning, that deepens all students’ learning.

Our children – whether in third-grade, middle school or high school – know that learning depends on opportunity. They also know there are some opportunities that only school can provide. They can see for themselves that schools allocate to some students more resources, attention, and opportunity than to others. They wonder “why?”

This is the true research question that needs to be answered.

Anne Wheelock is the author of Crossing the Tracks: How “Untracking” Can Save America’s Schools (New York: New Press, 1992). She is also the author of Safe To Be Smart: Building a Culture for Standards-Based Reform in the Middle Grades (Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association, 1998).


Braddock, J.H. 2nd, and Slavin, R.E. (1993). “Why Ability Grouping Must End: Achieving Excellence and Equity in American Education,” Journal of Intergroup Relations, Vol. XX, No. 1, Spring: 51-64.

MacIver, D.J., Plank, S.B., and Balfance, R. (ND). “Working Together to Become Proficient Readers: Early Impact of the Talent Development Middle School’s Student Team Literature Program.” Unpublished paper. Baltimore: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, Johns Hopkins University.