Tracking detrimental to remedial students

Teacher with two little boysA research study designed by John M. Peterson, Professor of Mathematics at Brigham Young University, measured the effects of different math programs on remedial 7th graders’ achievement.

Three Utah school districts, which used tracking in their math programs, identified students as “remedial”, “average”, or “accelerated” on the basis of their performance on the California Test of Basic Skills.

Peterson took the students labeled “remedial” by the districts and divided them into classes matched for ability. (To ensure that all classes were roughly equivalent in ability, he used group I.Q. scores from the students’ records.) These classes of remedial students were then assigned to one of three math programs taught in the district.

No new program was instituted in the participating schools and teachers were allowed to choose the type of math class they wished to teach.

One group of remedial students – Group A – spent the year studying concepts and skills which had been previously covered, but which these students had failed to master (6th grade material).

Group B followed the standard 7th grade text, but at a slower pace than the average 7th grade students. Group C spent the entire year in a pre-algebra class designed for the accelerated students. There was no grouping of students within any of these classrooms. Regardless of skill level, all students followed the program outlined for their class.

Pre-algebra students showed biggest gains

The remedial students in the pre-algebra curriculum showed the most improvement in all skill areas despite the fact that they were not specifically taught any skills they lacked. Irrespective of school or teacher, all remedial students placed in pre-algebra classes learned more arithmetic and problem-solving skills than those students placed in classes in which these specific skills were taught.

Essentially, Group C (remedial students in the accelerated class) did not learn all the math concepts and pre-algebra taught in class, but they did become substantially more proficient in the remedial skills which they had lacked.

Observers of these three groups described the pre-algebra classes as the most verbal; students asked questions and were more involved in discussion with the teacher.

This appeared to be due to the fact that the students in the accelerated program enjoyed their classes more than did students in the 6th grade or slow 7th programs. Almost 20% of the remedial students in the pre-algebra classes advanced to the average or accelerated level on the basis of re-testing on the CTBS. No students in the 2 other groups, including those with high I.Q.’s, moved beyond the remedial level.

The author concludes that although ability grouping may help some students, it is detrimental to remedial students. If a student is placed in remedial classes – even by misdiagnosis – it is unlikely that he or she will ever return to the regular class.

Peterson recommends that schools avoid using ability grouping. However, if a school decides to continue tracking students, the same material should be used in all tracks and the classes must move at the same pace through the material, even if remedial students are not mastering all the material. Most importantly, he stressed that remedial tracks, if used, should be taught by the best teachers in smaller classes.


“Remediation, It’s No Remedy” Educational Leadership March 1989 Volume 46, Number 6, pp. 24-25.

Published in ERN September/October 1989 Volume 2 Number 4

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