The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bottom line on student tracking

Placeholder while article actions load

By Kevin Welner

Readers of an article on ability groupings on the front page of Monday’s New York Times couldn’t help but come away uninformed in at least three different areas.

1. While ostensibly about ability grouping, the practices described in the article appear to be in-class regrouping, or differentiation, within elementary school classrooms. The article does make clear that it’s focused just on elementary schools, but readers will likely be confused when it shifts to a broader discussion of tracking. At the secondary school level (middle and high), tracking is a very different animal – students are placed in a given level or “tracked” classroom based on their perceived abilities.

The elementary school practices described in the article are certainly “grouping” but they have few of the characteristics that dominate actual between-classroom tracking at the secondary levels and sometimes at the elementary level. The article describes practices that are flexible, not rigid; that are temporary, not permanent; that teach the same lessons while varying approaches to challenge all students given their current expertise, rather than substantially watering down the content; and perhaps most importantly, the students in the classrooms described in the article are all assigned to the same – not separate – classrooms with the temporary grouping taking place within the class and varying by lesson.

The article’s readers are never given examples of the types of tracking that dominate in the United States and that researchers have long examined.

2. The article incorrectly states, “Though the issue is one of the most frequently studied by education scholars, there is little consensus about grouping’s effects.” In reality, education scholars have reached an overwhelming consensus about grouping’s effects. This glaring error is on par with, “among climate scientists, there is little consensus about man-made global warming.”

The large, established research base has yielded a consensus that’s described well by researcher John Hattie, who conducted a meta-analysis of more than 300 studies of ability grouping that included all grade levels and areas of curriculum. He concluded that “tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative effects on equity outcomes” (p. 90). Hattie also examined the effects on subgroups of students and concluded that “no one profits” (p. 90), including high achievers, from ability grouping.

There are oodles of authoritative citations about the harms of tracking and the importance of detracking. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) has published several reports bringing together that research (see, e.g., here and here). But don’t take our word for it – take the word of the National Research Council, the nation’s premier independent evaluator of scientific practices. Tracking was criticized in a 1999 NRC report as harming students placed in lower tracks. And a 2004 report from the NRC and the Institute of Medicine recommended, “that both formal and informal tracking by ability be eliminated. Alternative strategies should be used to ensure appropriately challenging instruction for students who vary widely in their skill levels” (p. 219).

The reporter spoke with two researchers: Tom Loveless and Jeannie Oakes. Oakes remains the most prominent scholar of tracking, and she represents the consensus among researchers: tracking is a harmful relic of bygone discriminatory days. Loveless, who is given the most authoritative placement in the article, is by far the most prominent researcher in the United States who voices the dissenting view. The choice of these two experts is therefore reasonable. But the “little consensus” statement is not.

3. The Times then compounds the error by incorrectly explaining the nature of how researchers describe the harms of tracking: “Some studies indicate that grouping can damage students’ self-esteem by consigning them to lower-tier groups; others suggest that it produces the opposite effect by ensuring that more advanced students do not make their less advanced peers feel inadequate. Some studies conclude that grouping improves test scores in students of all levels, others that it helps high-achieving students while harming low-achieving ones, and still others say that it has little effect.”

Setting aside the slapdash “some say”/”others say” format that gives the reader no idea of the actual weight of research, the problem here is that tracking research pays little attention to the “self-esteem” issue described here. Rather, the issue of one of institutionalized expectations. Teachers will refer to their low-track classes as the ‘knucklehead class’ etc., and more established teachers will advise junior colleagues (who are invariably the ones assigned to those lower-track classes) not to worry about actually teaching those kids – ‘just keep them from hurting each other.’

Yes, students do internalize those labels, so there’s an effect on self-esteem, but the overarching issue is one of basic opportunities to learn. If more novice students are not challenged to learn and supported in their efforts, they will fall further behind.

Also troubling is that the article does not include the voices of educators discussing their opposition to tracking. All the included practitioners are quoted instead explaining why grouping is useful in their classrooms. As opposed to the researcher community, the practitioner community does indeed have “little consensus” about tracking. But there are plenty of teachers and principals who could articulately explain how the practice undermines their educational goals.

More interestingly, teachers of untracked classes could discuss the benefits of a reformed approach. Reformers in Finland often credit much of that nation’s educational success to the fact that it doesn’t group students by ability

I should note that even the foundational premise of the article, that the use of tracking dipped and has now undergone a resurgence, may not be true. The NCES data and the Tom Loveless report based on those data leave a lot of room for dispute. But I certainly agree that the practice remains pervasive in schools throughout the United States.