An update on tracking and its alternatives

Despite increased criticism in recent years, reports indicate that the use of tracking is actually becoming more widespread among the nation’s elementary and middle schools. Some schools, however, are attempting to modify their tracking systems in order to eliminate certain detrimental effects.

Tracking is intended to provide students with instruction matched to their ability, achievement level and/or interests. But those opposed to it argue that tracking results in lowering, albeit unintentionally, the expectations and self-esteem levels of those students in lower-level groups.

Too often, they say, lower-level classes cover less material than higher level classes. Consequently, students fall farther behind with increasingly less chance to switch to a better track. Tracking, opponents add, can also inadvertently segregate classes along lines of race, language and socio-economic status.

Rather than eliminating tracking altogether, schools are looking for ways to better accommodate teachers’ need to match instruction to student abilities while avoiding the negative consequences associated with traditional tracking practices. After reviewing the most recent research, J.H. Braddock and J.M. McPartland (Director and Principal Research Scientist, respectively at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students, Johns Hopkins University) recommend that educators:

1. Postpone tracking as late in the grade span as possible.

2. Limit tracking to basic academic subjects in which student skill deficiencies clearly jeopardize whole class instruction.

3. Use better placement criteria. (Instead of class rank or overall report card average, use current and comprehensive tests in individual subjects.)

4. Experiment with new ways to place students. (Offer incentives to students to take challenging courses, such as a pass/fail option or extra credit for students trying a higher level class.)

5. Minimize separate offerings for special needs students (gifted, limited English and special education classes) since these are forms of tracking.

Meeting needs of students in heterogeneous classes

Braddock and McPartland also suggest the following methods by which teachers can meet the needs of a wide range of students in heterogeneous classes:

1. Help those students in danger of failing by providing peer tutoring or coaching within the regular class schedule.

2. Use methods such as cooperative and mastery learning.

3. Expand opportunities for all students, rewarding students for effort and progress regardless of their starting level, and making it possible for students to demonstrate competence in a variety of ways.

Among schools experimenting with modifications to tracking, Braddock and McPartland report that many elementary schools are now using whole class instruction in reading classes and are replacing homogeneous grouping with heterogeneous grouping or cross-age grouping in continuous progress or ungraded primary units.

Middle schools attempting to modify tracking are reducing the number of ability groups. Leaving the top track separate and combining the rest into heterogeneous groups with the same curriculum ensures that no student is stigmatized by being placed in a low group. Several schools report success using completely heterogeneous groupings, while others have established a core curriculum in which all students are placed in heterogeneous classes.

Surprisingly, many defenders of tracking who resisted the idea of eliminating it, report positive experiences with modified tracking. Traditional tracking is clearly in need of reform, state Braddock and McPartland, and they suggest that experimenting with modifications may be the most effective way to make positive changes in the system.

“Alternatives to Tracking” Educational Leadership April 1990 Volume 47, Number 7, p. 76-79.

Published in ERN September/October 1990 Volume 3 Number 4


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