Data helps reveal the pros and cons of tracking in high school

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School leaders cannot be fully informed about the effects of tracking in high school without the right data, says a recent study in American Secondary Education. If high school educators want to know what effects tracking has on their students, they should devote their school’s data capabilities to this purpose, researchers say.

Which data is important?

School leaders should have ready access to information about:

  • students with high test scores and good grades “stuck” in lower level tracks
  • minority or other categories of students underrepresented in honors courses
  • girls underrepresented in upper level math or science courses
  • students with poor grades and/or test scores being placed in upper level courses.

Educators should also have data on patterns and trends, e.g. diminishing percentages of minority students in lower level tracks.

“Though tracking remains common, the practice has many detractors,” the authors write. “Critics contend tracking exacerbates racial and class segregation and disadvantages those students most in need of exposure to rigorous curriculum and high standards.”

Data-informed decision making requires more than transcripts, annual test scores and listings of students in courses.

How to Analyze High School Tracking

To analyze tracking, educators need to link three data sets:

  • Student educational records— student identification numbers and other personal and demographic information
  • Student academic performance data–student achievement, conduct and attendance, grades, test scores, etc.
  • Course transcript data–course titles, teacher names, course sections and numbers, etc.

These data sets allow educators to monitor enrollment in courses and tracks and mobility among tracks. They help ensure that tracking decisions are not made subjectively.

“If course placement decisions are made carelessly or on criteria unrelated to a students’ prior academic performance, this raises critical questions about fairness and equity,” the authors write.

With the data, school leaders could carry out wide-ranging analyses and reports, such as changes in mobility rates over time, mobility rates for categories of students by race, gender, free-lunch eligibility, ELL status, mobility rates among schools. Educators can also examine questions about the appropriateness of course placements. Of students with A’s in 8th grade English, how many are in Honors English in 9th grade? Are there 8th grade “C” students in Honors English?

“Measuring Conditions and Consequences of Tracking in the High School Curriculum,” by Dough Archbald and Julia Keleher, American Secondary Education, Volume 36, Number 2, Spring 2008.

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