Tracking: Can Schools Take Another Route?

By Jeannie Oakes

Few widespread schooling practices are as controversial as ability grouping and tracking. On one side of the issue, many educators and parents assert that when schools group by ability, teachers are better able to target individual needs and students will learn more. Some supporters argue that the most able students, in particular, require separate educational programs if their talents are to be fully developed. Some link tracking to our national security and economic well-being, contending that the top students need special grooming to be leaders in science, government, and business.

Tracking’s advocates are supported, in part, by research findings that students in the highest-level classes— college preparatory tracks, gifted and honors programs, accelerated classes— often benefit academically from these programs.

On the other side, growing numbers of school professionals and parents oppose tracking because they believe it locks most students into classes where they are stereotyped as “less able,” and where they have fewer opportunities to learn. Many express particular concern about tracking’s effects on poor and minority students, who are placed in low-ability groups more often than other students and are less likely to be found in programs for gifted students or in college preparatory tracks. Tracking critics are supported by considerable empirical evidence, court decisions, and reform proposals. These suggest that tracking has no overall positive effects. Students in the lowest groups achieve less than students with compatible ability in higher groups or in heterogeneous classes. And, in some cases, high-ability students achieve just as well in mixed classes.

These opposing opinions and research findings may, at first, appear puzzling and contradictory. But further examination sheds light on both sides of the argument and may help point the way out of the tracking quandary. There is growing evidence that as policymakers and educators become disenchanted with tracking, they may not need to throw out the baby (possible benefits to the top students) with the bathwater (likely disadvantages to the rest). Alternative strategies, while not simple to implement, promise to help schools reach their goal of providing high-quality, relevant education to all students.

Tracking’s Consequences

One fact about tracking is unequivocal: tracking leads to substantial differences in the day-to-day learning experiences students have at school. Moreover, the nature of these differences suggests that students who are placed in high-ability groups have access to far richer schooling experiences than other students. This finding helps explain, at least in part, why it is that tracking sometimes seems to “work” for high-ability students and not for others. It also provides clues about what needs to be changed.

A number of studies have documented what teachers already know—students in different track levels have access to different types of knowledge and intellectual skills. Most obvious, of course, are differences in the number and type of high school classes taken by students in college preparatory and non-college bound tracks.

But even at earlier grades, and within subjects that all students take, substantial content differences exist.

Unequal access to knowledge. For example, in John Goodlad’s national study of schools, reported in the book A Place Called School, students in high-ability English classes were more likely to be taught classic and modern literature, provided instruction in expository writing and library research, and expected to learn vocabulary that would eventually boost their scores on college entrance exams. In these classes critical thinking and problem-solving skills seemed to emerge from the high quality of the course content. Few low-ability classes, on the other hand, were taught these topics and skills. Students in the latter classes learned basic reading skills taught mostly by workbooks, kits, and easy-to-read stories. Learning tasks consisted most often of memorizing and repeating answers back to the teacher. Since so much of importance was omitted from their curriculum, students in these low-ability classes were likely to have little contact with the knowledge and skills that would allow them to move into higher classes or to be successful if they got there.

Of course, these differences are not restricted to English classes. Similar patterns have been observed in secondary math, science, and social studies classes and in ability-grouped elementary classes— fewer topics, a far more restricted range of topics, and less depth of coverage in remedial and “typical” classes. Some of the most dramatic evidence comes from the highly publicized Second International Math Study, which found that America eighth and twelfth graders lag not only behind their Japanese counterparts, but also behind students in most other industrialized countries. In America, in contrast to other countries, only students in top classes were taught many important topics and skills.

The limited exposure of the other American students set boundaries on their achievement. The researchers concluded that the American tracking system, instead of providing appropriate learning opportunities to students of different abilities, appears to restrict what students can achieve by their own efforts.

Uneven classroom opportunities. Perhaps as important as students’ access to subject matter knowledge are critical instructional conditions in their classrooms, that is, the quantity of time spent on learning and the quality of the teaching. In both respects, high-ability classes tend to have better instruction. A number of studies have found that top-track classes spend more class time on learning activities and less on discipline, socializing, or class routines. Higher-ability students are expected to spend more time doing homework. Their teachers tend to be more enthusiastic, to make instructions clearer, and to use strong criticism or ridicule less frequently than teachers of low-ability classes. Classroom tasks are often better organized, and students are given a greater variety of things to do. These differences in learning opportunities point to fundamental and ironic school inequities. Students who need more time to learn appear to get less; those who have the most difficulty learning seem to have fewer of the best teachers.

Other important differences have been noted in the classroom atmosphere. Most teachers realize that for students, feeling comfortable in class is more than just a nice addition to learning.

They also know that when teachers and students trust one another, class time and energy are freed up for teaching and learning. On the other hand, without a positive classroom climate, students spend considerable energy interfering with the teacher’s agenda, and teachers must spend more of their time and energy just trying to maintain control. When classes are tracked, important differences in these climate dimensions appear.

In low-ability classes, for example, teachers seem to be less encouraging and more punitive, placing more emphasis on discipline and behavior and less on academic learning. Compared to teachers in high-ability classes they seem to be more concerned about getting students to follow directions, be on time, and sit quietly.

Students in low-ability classes more often feel excluded from class activities and tend to find their classmates unfriendly. Their classes are more often interrupted by problems and arguing, while students in higher-ability classes seem to be much more involved in their classwork. When they’re not being disruptive, students in low-ability classes are often apathetic. The reason for this may be that because they’re more likely to fail, they risk more by trying.

Where these differences are found, students in lower-ability classes have classroom environments that are less conducive to learning than do their peers in upper-level classes.

What about average kids? The quality of classes for average students usually falls somewhere between the high-and low-class extremes. Some interesting examples of the experiences of average students were found in a recent study of American high schools reported in the book The Shopping Mall High School. The researchers found that the proliferation of classes and special programs for students at the extremes— students with high abilities or with handicaps—had the effect of making students in the middle “unspecial” and guaranteeing that they were taught in quite “unspecial” ways. For example, in average classes, many teachers expected relatively little of students. They established set routines of lecturing and doing worksheets, held time and workload demands (both in class and for homework) to a minimum, accepted and sometimes even encouraged distractions, and rarely asked students to think deeply or critically. When classes are conducted in this way, average students, too, are deprived of the best schools have to offer.

Of course, high quality experiences are possible in classes at all track levels.

Exemplary methods; skilled, dedicated, and even charismatic teachers; abundant resources; and a slew of other tangibles and intangibles can combine to make a “silk purse” out of a class that has every reason to be categorized a “sow’s ear.” It appears, however, that only the most extraordinary average and low-level classes match the curriculum standards, learning opportunities, and classroom climates of even ordinary high-track classes. Since some research suggests that low-track classes are often assigned to new teachers or to those with lower qualifications, it’s not surprising that extraordinarily good low-level and average classes are rarely found.

Taken together, these typical differences begin to suggest why tracking can and often does work well for top students. Start by providing the best teachers and a concentration of the most successful students—and sometimes even the lowest class size. Add special resources, a sense of superior academic “mission,” perhaps a parent support group, and these students will get the best education in town. In fact, studies that control for instructional differences— that provide identical curriculum and instruction to both tracked and mixed groups of students—typically find that high-ability students do equally as well in either setting. The fact that students are tracked seems less important than that they have the other instructional advantages that seem to come along with classes that are highly able. It’s ironic that when other, less able students are offered similar advantages, they also seem to benefit. No wonder we find a “rich get richer and poor get poorer” pattern of outcomes from tracking. It seems that tracking is both a response to significant differences among students and an ongoing contribution to those differences.

The question of why track-level differences in instruction, climate, and student achievement occur is terribly complicated. An immediate, if overly simplistic, answer that tracking supporters sometimes give is that these differences occur because of the vast differences among the students. That is, the higher-quality teaching and learning opportunities often found in upper tracks are only possible when all the students in the class are bright. Lower quality experiences are inevitable when students are less able. On the other side, tracking opponents often hastily blame mean-spiritedness or social and racial prejudice for the differences. Some even suggest a conspiracy afoot in schools to prevent lower-class students from school success and upward mobility. This answer is also far too simple.

A more likely and more complex answer is that track-level differences get produced as teachers and students interact in school. On the teacher side, decisions about what and how to teach are conditioned by traditions and by expectations about what is appropriate for students of different backgrounds and abilities. Obviously, teachers are also greatly influenced by what they think will work—perceptions that are influenced by how the students themselves respond in class.

On the student side, day-to-day classroom behaviors are affected by students’ own beliefs about their abilities and their perceptions of their prospects for academic success. Their willingness to make an effort is largely a result of these factors. As students experience success or failure in school, their self-perceptions and attitudes become either more or less conducive to high achievement. Students who expect themselves to be successful respond with effort and achievement. Those who expect to fail are often unwilling to try. In low-track classes, especially in the upper grades, it is difficult to conceive of even the most dedicated and skillful teacher not feeling discouraged by a whole classful of students pulling away from academic achievement. Finally, it is not just the students’ resistance the teacher must overcome. Course titles, written curriculums, expectations of parents and supervisors—all can present additional obstacles to high quality teaching and learning.

Are these negative consequences of tracking inevitable? Is it possible to turn unproductive interactions around? To create “good” tracking and eliminate the “bad” kind? Some contend that if teachers would raise their expectations and become more “effective,” they could create high quality learning environments in average and low-level classes. Perhaps they could. But increasing numbers of educators are concluding that some of the most difficult problems are inherent in the tracking system itself. Students experience lower self-esteem and expect less of themselves when schools publicly identify them as less able. Teachers are required to combat the negative synergy that is produced when the most difficult and discouraged students are concentrated in the same class. Combine these constraints with the fact that poor and minority students—the fastest-growing segments of the school population—have been the most disadvantaged by tracking.

These factors are causing more and more educators to seek alternative ways to meet the individual needs of all students within more heterogeneous settings.

Tracking Alternatives

1. Changing tracking practices is no trivial matter, regardless of how gradual such change might be. One problem lies in the political nature of the tracking question. There are few professionals or parents without strong opinions about it, and often the most vocal and powerful opinions are voiced by those interested in maintaining advantages for the top kids. In multiracial schools— probably because race, class, assessed ability, and track placements are so interrelated— proposals for changing tracking are complicated by the same fears that desegregation raises. In some communities, arguments for more democratic alternatives carry little weight in the face of these other factors. Moreover, before more heterogeneous alternatives can succeed, educators probably need to challenge conventional assumptions about ability and about how individual differences in ability affect school learning.

Creating constructive alternatives to tracking presents technical as well as political problems. Despite promising research findings about heterogeneous grouping, little is likely to be accomplished by simply mixing students up. To be effective, alternatives will probably require fundamental changes. There may be a need for changes in the types of knowledge that children are expected to acquire, in the social organization of schools and classrooms, and in student evaluation. There is little conclusive evidence that specifies exactly how to make mixed-ability classrooms succeed, and no ready-made staff development packages or teaching formulas exist to help schools and teachers move smoothly toward less tracking. Nevertheless, several principles to guide schools’ efforts can be drawn from educational theory and research.

Perhaps the most important and difficult task for those who would change tracking is to confront deeply held beliefs, such as the belief that academic ability is fixed very early and is largely unchangeable or that achievement differences can be largely accounted for by differences in ability.

These views are supported by a long tradition of studying and measuring intelligence—a tradition quickly changing as new theory and research increasingly support alternative views.

Recent work of cognitive psychologists suggests, for example, that academic ability is not unchangeable but developmental— growing throughout childhood. As children interact with their environment, they acquire cognitive abilities. Especially important are studies showing that cognitive abilities can be taught, and that even students who begin school with less developed abilities can learn. Other work suggests that what we conventionally consider “low” ability may not be as limiting as we generally think. The achievement gaps we observe among students of differing abilities are exacerbated by the failure of classrooms to provide all students with the time, opportunities, and resources they need to learn. Benjamin Bloom’s work demonstrating that nearly all students can achieve at high levels when they are taught one-on-one, with instruction tailored to their particular learning requirements, provides a powerful example of what is possible.

While not a “practical” solution for schools, these remarkable achievements support new beliefs that students thought to have low ability can learn far more than we usually expect.

Prevailing beliefs about the limits of ability are critical. Unless teachers and administrators believe and expect all students to learn well, they will be unlikely to create school and classroom conditions where students believe in their own ability and exert the effort it takes to succeed.

Believing that all students are capable is different from believing that all students are valuable, or lovable, or talented “in their own ways.” While these latter beliefs are important, they are not substitutes for belief in students’ capacity to acquire the intellectually challenging knowledge that is intended for the “best and brightest.”

Curriculum rich with meaning. In classrooms where the curriculum consists of a sequence of topics and skills that require prerequisite knowledge and skill mastery, mixing students who have different skills is difficult. Students do differ from one another, and the most striking differences among them might be in the speed at which they master sequentially presented skills. Unless students are similar in learning “speed,” such a curriculum raises horrendous problems of pacing. Some students are ready to race ahead, but others lag behind. Enrichment for the quicker students often becomes make-work; reteaching becomes a chore; being retaught can be humiliating for the slower students.

Heterogeneous groups of students will probably do best in classrooms where the curriculum content is challenging, complex, related to real life, and—most of all—rich with meaning. When curriculum is organized around the central themes of a subject area rather than around disconnected topics and skills, all students stand the greatest chance of enhancing their intellectual development. Students need not be held back from ideas because of skill differences; rather they can acquire skills as they become ready. Moreover, classroom knowledge that remains connected to its larger context is much easier for students to understand and use. Finally, when students grapple with complex problems, solutions have to be compatible with so many ideas— fit with so many contexts— that two people rarely come up with identical solutions.

While right answers certainly have their place, with a concept-based curriculum there are opportunities for multiple right answers and multiple routes to success.

This approach is far from a compromise in order to do good for those with low ability. A highly prescriptive, skill-based approach to curriculum may do a disservice to students regardless of whether they are in heterogeneous or tracked classes—whether they are slow to learn or highly skilled.

With a concept-based approach to curriculum, however, the range of skill differences among students is likely to diminish greatly as an obstacle to teaching and learning.

Some rules of thumb can help teachers judge whether the lessons they plan are likely to help students of all ability levels succeed. First, lessons will probably be most successful if they require active learning tasks rather than passive ones, and if they have students working together rather than alone. Second, learning tasks are probably most helpful when they are full of complications and when they require multiple abilities—thinking, discussing, writing, visualizing—to accomplish. Third, learning tasks will suit most students if they are modeled on complex and challenging real-world problem solving. These guidelines keep the curriculum from drifting too far into the highly technical and abstract world of “school” knowledge and too far away from “the real thing.”

Interactive classroom organization. Some ways of organizing classroom are more conducive to student learning than others. In the standard classroom, instruction is characterized by:

  • competitive whole-group instruction
  • lecturing as the prevailing teaching strategy
  • common assignments
  • uniform due dates and tests
  • a single set of standards of competence and criteria for grades.

Usually students work alone, silently. They occasionally get a chance to articulate, explain, offer reasons, and try to be convincing about what they are learning. But too often these occasions turn into performances that all listening quickly judge as either right or wrong, smart or dumb. Some students cope successfully in such environments by being quick to figure out “right answers” and gaining the status of being “smart.” But few students, even the quickest ones, can use such classroom routines to explore and make sense of new ideas and experiences. The risks of self-exposure can be too great.

If students of all abilities are to benefit from being taught together, classrooms will probably need to be organized far differently, providing a diversity of tasks and interactions with few “public” comparisons of students’ ability. A vast amount of classroom research has identified many of the necessary academic and social conditions needed for students to work together productively. With cooperative learning strategies, for example, students can exchange ideas and help in small groups.

Frequently they will work at separate but interrelated tasks. Teachers can function like conductors, getting things started and keeping them moving along, providing information and resources, coordinating the buzz of activity taking place. Such classrooms present a variety of paths to success, and when such classes are skillfully orchestrated, any one student’s strengths— or weaknesses—are seldom held up to the class for display, comparison, or embarrassment.

While group work is no panacea, the advantages are considerable. Teachers cannot simply tell students to move their chairs and work together, however. Without the gradual development of students’ skills and the careful design of lessons to take advantage of those skills, group work may not be an improvement over working alone. But when teachers are skillful, there is considerable evidence that even the very best students make stronger intellectual gains while working with students of varying skill levels than when they work alone.

Evaluation that supports learning. In many classrooms the evidence of students’ capability is a matter of public record.

Grades and progress are prominently posted: letters, numbers, stars, smiley faces, race horses, and haloes—along with sad faces, zeros, and the ever present blanks.

Performance scores are read aloud or distributed by other students. Even the results of aptitude, achievement, and other types of standardized tests get out when scores are read, carelessly left available, or shared voluntarily by students. Most public displays are well-enough meant: good work shown as a matter of pride, intended to motivate and provide examples for others. But too often they are convenient and irresistible opportunities for comparison.

Similarly, conventional grades and standardized test scores are easily summed up into measures of a student’s overall worth. They become raw materials for a consensus that develops in classrooms about who is a good student and who isn’t.

To be successful, heterogeneous classrooms probably need to lean toward placing students more in charge of their own evaluation—checking their own understanding and asking for and providing feedback. This is what happens naturally when students are engaged in complex tasks and have lots of interaction.

This doesn’t imply that teachers abandon their evaluation responsibilities. For teachers, evaluation might involve more private, individual questions, such as, “What did she learn?” rather that “How did she compare with others?” When evaluations are more formalized, they probably need to be “student-referenced” and criterion-referenced, that is they should compare what a student knows after instruction with what he or she knew before. Grades or points can then be based on improvement or on progress toward a learning goal. Personalized grading of this sort respects the complex interrelationship between evaluation and students’ self-concepts. It helps to put students in charge of their learning and so make them willing to put forth the considerable effort it takes to be a good student.

Where To Begin

While difficult to implement, such changes in curriculum, instruction, and evaluation are not terribly incompatible with elementary schooling. But they do crash head on into the standard practices of middle and high schools, where grouping, teaching, and evaluation policies are firmly grounded in the notions of sorting, standardization, and competition. Additionally, secondary educators are constrained from making changes by the experience of students in earlier grades.

Typically, low-track high school students have been in low-ability groups and remedial programs since elementary school. The gap between them and more successful students has grown wider—not only in achievement but in attitudes toward school and toward their own ability to succeed. By the time students reach secondary school, track-related achievement and attitude differences are often well established. These differences undoubtedly limit the alternatives to tracking that might be attempted.

Consequently, alternatives will be most effective if they begin early. Junior high is probably too late—and first grade is probably not too early.

Nevertheless, the fact that secondary schools face special problems doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can do about tracking. Gradual changes in tracking systems can be initiated, even if some tracking is maintained. For example, instead of being dead ends, low-track classes (for example, “general” mathematics) might become “prep” courses for participation in high-track classes (for example, algebra).

Some one-year college prep courses can be offered in two years for students without the necessary background, or stretched out over the summer. The number of tracks in a particular subject can be reduced, and tracks in a few subjects or grades might be eliminated altogether—in social studies or in all seventh grade courses, for instance. Combined classes composed of more than one track level can be team-taught or multi-graded to permit flexible subgroupings around specific skills. Counselors can recruit students for academic programs, rather than using strict placement criteria for keeping them out.

Slower students can be mainstreamed into regular or more advanced classes, and after-school peer or adult tutoring programs can help them keep up with their classmates.

New criteria might be initiated that ensure racial and ethnic balances in classes at all track levels and in special programs for the gifted. The distinction between vocational and academic programs can be blurred by infusing the curriculum of vocational classes with academic classes with real-life, hands-on learning experiences.

Obviously, the kinds of changes likely to promote high-quality learning for all students in heterogeneous classrooms go far beyond mere fine tuning of current practice. These changes also require fundamental changes in the structure of schooling and teachers’ work. Finally, as with most major reform initiatives, teacher professionalism is central to successful tracking alternatives.

Working with their communities, school staffs can design changes that are compatible with school goals and also politically manageable. But unless teachers have the time and the professional autonomy to deliberate about, develop, and experiment with fundamental changes in school organization and classroom practices, alternatives to tracking are unlikely to be intelligently conceived, enthusiastically endorsed, or successfully implemented.

Jeannie Oakes is a social scientist with the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. Her book, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (Yale University Press, 1985), draws on data from John Goodlad’s A Study of Schooling to analyze the history of tracking and its impact on the nation’s poor and minority students.