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Breaking the Chains of Academic Tracking: Unleashing the Potential of 9th-Grade High School Students
Growing research highlights the negative impacts of tracking 9th graders.
Tracking, or ability grouping, refers to the practice of placing students into separate classes or groups based on their perceived academic ability or achievement. This practice has been widely debated and has both supporters and detractors. While some argue that tracking allows for more efficient teaching by catering to students’ individual needs, there is a growing body of research highlighting the negative impacts of tracking in high schools. Here are some key findings:
- Perpetuation of educational inequalities: Tracking can exacerbate existing educational inequalities by segregating students based on their socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. Often, students from low-income families or minority backgrounds are disproportionately placed in lower tracks, limiting their access to rigorous coursework and high-quality teaching (Oakes, 1985; Lucas, 1999).
- Lowered expectations: Students placed in lower tracks can be subjected to lower expectations from teachers, which can negatively impact their motivation, self-esteem, and academic achievement (Oakes, 2005; Hallinan, 1994). These lowered expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading students to underperform and reinforcing the belief that they are less capable.
- Stigmatization: Students in lower tracks can experience stigmatization and develop a negative self-concept, which can hinder their academic progress and social development (Oakes, 1985; Hattie, 2002). This stigmatization can be particularly detrimental during adolescence, a critical period for identity development.
- Limited opportunities for peer learning: Tracking can limit the opportunities for students to learn from their peers with different abilities, backgrounds, and perspectives. Research has shown that heterogeneous grouping can benefit all students, as it encourages collaboration, problem-solving, and a deeper understanding of the material (Slavin, 1990; Webb, Nemer, & Zuniga, 2002).
- Reduced academic achievement: Some research suggests that tracking can negatively impact students’ overall academic achievement, particularly for those placed in lower tracks. Lower-track students may be more likely to drop out of school and less likely to pursue higher education (Gamoran, 1992; Oakes, 1985).
- Rigidity in tracking systems: Once placed in a specific track, students may find it difficult to move between tracks, even if their abilities or interests change. This rigidity can limit students’ opportunities to explore different academic areas and reach their full potential (Lucas, 1999).
It is important to note that the impacts of tracking can vary depending on the specific tracking system implemented, the school context, and how students are placed into tracks. In response to these negative impacts, some schools have moved towards de-tracking or adopting more flexible ability grouping strategies, such as cluster grouping or within-class grouping, which aim to provide more equitable learning opportunities for all students.
Long-term Negative Impacts of Tracking on 9th Graders
Honors classes are a form of tracking or ability grouping, which separates students into different classes based on their perceived academic ability. While honors classes are designed to provide high-achieving students with more challenging coursework, research suggests that this practice can have negative impacts on lower-achieving students, particularly during the critical transition to high school. Here are some research findings that highlight the potential negative effects of honors classes on lower-achieving 9th graders:
- Perpetuation of inequalities: Research has shown that lower-achieving students, who are often placed in non-honors classes, are disproportionately from low-income families and minority backgrounds (Oakes, 1985; Lucas, 1999). The separation of students into honors and non-honors classes can exacerbate existing educational inequalities by limiting access to rigorous coursework and high-quality teaching for these students.
- Lowered expectations and self-esteem: When lower-achieving 9th graders are placed in non-honors classes, they may internalize the belief that they are less capable than their peers in honors classes (Oakes, 2005; Hallinan, 1994). This can lead to lowered expectations from teachers, reduced motivation, and decreased self-esteem, which can negatively impact their academic performance throughout high school.
- Reduced academic achievement: Research has found that students in lower tracks, such as non-honors classes, may have reduced academic achievement compared to their peers in higher tracks (Gamoran, 1992; Oakes, 1985). Lower-achieving 9th graders who start high school in non-honors classes may be more likely to struggle academically, drop out of school, or be less likely to pursue higher education.
- Stigmatization and social isolation: Lower-achieving 9th graders placed in non-honors classes may experience stigmatization and social isolation, as they are separated from their higher-achieving peers (Oakes, 1985; Hattie, 2002). This can be particularly harmful during the transition to high school, which is a crucial period for social and emotional development.
- Limited peer learning opportunities: The separation of students into honors and non-honors classes can limit opportunities for lower-achieving 9th graders to learn from and interact with their higher-achieving peers (Slavin, 1990; Webb, Nemer, & Zuniga, 2002). Research has shown that heterogeneous grouping can benefit all students by promoting collaboration, problem-solving, and a deeper understanding of the material.
- Difficulty in changing tracks: Once students are placed in a specific track, such as non-honors classes, it can be challenging to switch tracks later in high school (Lucas, 1999). This rigidity in the tracking system can hinder lower-achieving 9th graders from exploring different academic areas and reaching their full potential.
Given these potential negative effects of honors classes on lower-achieving 9th graders, some schools have moved towards de-tracking or implementing more flexible ability grouping strategies. These approaches aim to provide more equitable learning opportunities for all students and can help to mitigate some of the negative impacts associated with traditional tracking systems.
Teachers who teach higher-achieving tracks or honors classes may still support tracking
While many teachers are aware of the potential negative impacts of tracking on lower-achieving students, there are various reasons why some teachers who teach higher-achieving tracks or honors classes may still support tracking:
- Perceived efficiency: Teachers may believe that tracking allows them to tailor their instruction more effectively to the specific needs and abilities of their students. In higher-achieving tracks or honors classes, teachers can focus on providing more challenging coursework and maintaining a faster pace, which they may see as beneficial for their high-achieving students (Loveless, 1998; Kulik & Kulik, 1982).
- Classroom management: Teachers may feel that tracking simplifies classroom management and helps create a more homogeneous learning environment. With students of similar abilities and motivation levels in the same class, teachers may experience fewer disruptions and find it easier to maintain a cohesive classroom culture (Hallinan, 1994).
- Belief in meritocracy: Some teachers may support tracking because they believe that it is a merit-based system that rewards hard-working and talented students. They may see tracking as a way to provide additional opportunities and resources to students who have demonstrated a high level of academic achievement, even if it comes at the expense of lower-achieving students (Loveless, 1998).
- Parental and societal pressure: Teachers may feel pressure from parents and society to provide advanced learning opportunities for high-achieving students. Parents of high-achieving students often advocate for tracking or honors classes to ensure that their children receive an education that is challenging and engaging (Useem, 1991).
- Lack of awareness or training: Although many teachers are aware of the negative impacts of tracking on lower-achieving students, some may not fully understand the extent of these consequences or may not have received adequate training in alternative teaching strategies. In these cases, teachers may rely on tracking as a familiar and seemingly effective approach to organizing their classrooms (Ansalone, 2001).
- Institutional inertia: In many schools, tracking is an ingrained practice that has been in place for years or even decades. Teachers who have always taught within a tracking system may feel that it is the most effective way to organize their classrooms, and they may be resistant to change due to a lack of exposure to alternative methods (Oakes, 1985).
While these reasons help explain why some teachers who teach higher-achieving tracks or honors classes may support tracking, it is important to recognize that teachers’ perspectives on tracking can be diverse and may change over time. Many educators are increasingly advocating for alternative approaches to ability grouping, such as de-tracking or flexible grouping, to create more equitable and inclusive learning environments for all students.
- Ansalone, G. (2001). Schooling, tracking, and inequality. Journal of Children and Poverty, 7(1), 33-47. https://doi.org/10.1080/10796120120038025
- Gamoran, A. (1992). The variable effects of high school tracking. American Sociological Review, 57(6), 812-828. https://doi.org/10.2307/2096125
- Hallinan, M. T. (1994). Tracking: From theory to practice. Sociology of Education, 67(2), 79-84. https://doi.org/10.2307/2112697
- Hattie, J. (2002). Classroom composition and peer effects. International Journal of Educational Research, 37(5), 449-481. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0883-0355(03)00015-6
- Kulik, C. L. C., & Kulik, J. A. (1982). Effects of ability grouping on secondary school students: A meta-analysis of evaluation findings. American Educational Research Journal, 19(3), 415-428. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312019003415
- Loveless, T. (1998). The tracking wars: State reform meets school policy. Brookings Institution Press.
- Lucas, S. R. (1999). Tracking inequality: Stratification and mobility in American high schools. Teachers College Press.
- Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. Yale University Press.
- Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality (2nd ed.). Yale University Press.
- Slavin, R. E. (1990). Achievement effects of ability grouping in secondary schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 60(3), 471-499. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543060003471
- Useem, E. L. (1991). Student selection into course sequences in mathematics: The impact of parental involvement and school policies. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 1(3), 231-250.
- Webb, N. M., Nemer, K. M., & Zuniga, S. (2002). Short circuits or superconductors? Effects of group composition on high-achieving students’ science assessment performance. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 943-989. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312039004943
These research studies and sources provide a comprehensive overview of the various perspectives, impacts, and implications of tracking and ability grouping in educational settings.
We hope you like the article above. We are conducting research on the impact of tracking and ability grouping in high schools and would greatly appreciate your valuable insights and experiences. As educators who have firsthand experience with the effects of these practices, your perspective is invaluable in helping us understand the real-world implications of tracking systems.
Please take a moment to share your thoughts on the following:
- How is tracking or ability grouping implemented in your high school (e.g., honors classes, general classes, etc.)?
- What positive and/or negative effects have you observed from tracking or ability grouping on your students’ academic achievement, motivation, and social development?
- Have you or your school implemented any alternative strategies to traditional tracking systems, such as de-tracking, flexible grouping, or other inclusive practices? If so, what has been your experience with these approaches?
- As an educator, what do you believe are the most effective strategies to ensure equitable learning opportunities for all students, regardless of their ability or background?
Feel free to share any additional thoughts or experiences that you think would be relevant to our research. Your input will be invaluable in shaping our understanding of tracking and ability grouping practices and their impact on high school students.
Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and experiences. We look forward to read your thoughts on this important topic below