The American legacy of ability grouping: Tracking reconsidered

The American legacy of ability grouping: Tracking reconsidered

Mallery, James L

Armed with “scientific” IQ tests and a Progressive drive for social engineering, educators of the 1920s and 1930s set out to “track” students according to their ranked ability (Oakes,1995). Trackingbegan as an effort to prepare students for distinct careers and lives that awaited by placing them in specific educational “tracks,” which essentially amounted to “low,” “average,” and “high” ability groupings (Marsh & Raywid, 1994). The practice of academic tracking of middle- and high-school students began to wane by mid-century, only to regain much of its lost status by 1960.

In 1976 James Rosenbaum’s seminal work Making Inequality instigated a discourse over ability grouping that remains today among the most controversial issues in secondary education. With over 80 percent of public high schools still conducting some form of tracking, it is not surprising that the issue remains highly contested (Marsh & Raywid, 1994; O’Neill, 1992; Raze. 1984; Spencer & Allen, 1988).

Though much of today’s educational literature seems to reflect a detracking consensus, some studies suggest that, when properly controlled, ability grouping can hold merit. This article will walk step-bystep through the current arguments posited by tracking and detracking enthusiasts. We will argue that ability grouping as practiced today in the United States is detrimental to the nation’s educational system, though ironically tracking’s ultimate downfall will likely result for legal reasons beyond its most irredeemable features. Concerns related to the abuses in tracking compared to possible similar abuses in current educational practices will also be addressed.

Perhaps the most pronounced theme of detracking literature today relates to the racially imbalanced and inequitable distribution of tracking levels. One example of this disparity has been presented by Jomills Braddock ( 1990) in his study of the effects of tracking and ability grouping on multiple samples of student groups. His findings indicate that racial and ethnic minorities are distributed disproportionately in middle school and high school tracks and ability groups. As ability grouping is practiced today, white and Asian students are vastly overrepresented in”high”groupings, while African-American and Latino students are similarly overrepresented in the “low” rankings.

Education researcher Jeannie Oakes reports that schools far more often “judge African-American and Latino students to have learning deficits and limited potential” (1995, p. 682) than white students. In fact, Oakes contends, “African-American and Latino students were much less likely than white or Asian students with the same test scores to be placed in accelerated courses.” And while only 56 percent of Latinos scoring above 90 in National Curve Equivalencies were placed in “high” groupings, 93 percent of white and 97 percent of Asian students who scored above 90 were placed in gifted programs (Oakes, 1995, p. 686).

How does such inequitable treatment of students begin? Very often screening processes for “gifted” or “high” programs commence arbitrarily as teachers select students to be sent for testing (Oakes, 1995). Although parental requests for leveled tracking are often available, studies suggest that African-American and Latino parents generally have little access to this knowledge (Oakes, 1995). Compounding the problem, the quality of education in “low” ranked tracks tends to be inferior to others; more low-ranked tracks focus on drill and rote memorization, teachers report (Evans, 1995). Similarly, “higher-order thinking” is often reserved for high-ability classes (Marsh & Raywid,1994). Students more often than not get locked into a fixed ability level that does not change between the 7th and 12th grades (Darling-Hammond,1995; Dickens, 1996; Lake, 1988; Oakes, 1995). In today’s American public high schools it is apparent that in practice tracking is often used as a means of racially segregating student populations irregardless of actual ability or test scores (Kozol, 1991).

Most leading legal experts who deal with tracking issues agree that the racial composition of tracking systems will most likely lead to the downfall of the practice in the United States (Oakes,1995; Weiner & Oakes,1996). Experts in opposition to tracking believe that their most plausible legal approach to dismantle ability groupings is in reference to the denial of equal educational opportunity along racial lines (Dickens, 1996).

Historically, tracking was revived in the mid-20th century as a means to resegregate the nation’s schools following the Supreme Court case Brown versus the Board of Education (1955). The upturn of tracking at mid-century corresponded with the Brown decision as racially motivated educators discovered a new way of legally segregating schools. It was considered “an effort by Southern states to dilute the effects of the Brown decision. . . a response by Northern school systems to the influx of AfricanAmerican students caused by the largescale migrations of African-American families from the South” (Harvard Law Review Association, 1989, p. 323).

Not surprisingly, the use of standardized and IQ tests in schools also skyrocketed following the Brown decision (Harvard Law Review Association, 1989; Meier, Stewert, & England, 1989; Wheelock, 1992). As tracking has been practiced over the past half century, racially driven tracking has deprived many children of their civil right to education, alluded to by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the Brown decision. The denial of equal treatment of education according to race not only runs in opposition to Brown, but it also opposes the Reconstruction Era 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which requires “equal protection under the law.”

Springing from the civil rights arguments upon which anti-tracking legal experts place their hopes, several related psychological concerns have also appeared in the contemporary discourse on tracking. Educational researchers have long known that students perform in relation to teacher expectations, irregardless of their ability levels (Dickens, 1996, Evans, 1995; Finn, 1972). Tracking critics contend, “Students excluded from high-ability classes encounter lower motivation among their peers and develop less motivation themselves; thus they achieve less” (Marsh & Raywid,1994, p. 315). Moreover, critics of tracking point out that there is a huge disparity between middle-school aspirations of some minority groups and their actual opportunities to fulfill their dreams.

About 64 percent of African-American eighth-graders expect to finish college, but only a quarter are able to enroll in high school college preparatory courses (Maddox & Wheelock, 1995). Data suggest that the detrimental results of lowered expectation play themselves out every year in America’s schools. Those students placed in low tracks are the most likely to drop out of school prior to high school graduation (Children’s Defense Fund, 1988; Maddox & Wheelock, 1995). Linda Darling-Hammond (1995) reports that 85 percent of students attend college from upper-level classes but only 15 percent of the students in the lower-level classes attend college. Critics argue that tracking’s psychological effect, coupled with its static placement procedures, predestines low-ranked children for failure.

Supporters of tracking, while admitting that abuses of the system have repeatedly surfaced in American schools, hold that misuses do not necessarily render all possible tracking scenarios irredeemable. Several studies suggest that students placed at the “top” of tracking hierarchies benefit greatly from their opportunities (Brewer, Rees, & Argys, 1995; Gammon & Mare, 1989; Hoffer,1992). On the other hand, while the effects of tracking for Asian-American and white students might be considered positive, negative implications have surfaced in later years (Braddock, 1990).

Proponents of ability grouping point out that studies dealing with students relegated to the bottom are mixed. The fact that low tracks have received little money and few experienced teachers forces a new question: Have researchers been able to actually test the effectiveness of “low” classes when ideally operated? If low tracks were to receive the funding and teacherservices that they deserve, would lowtracked students see more success? Likewise, critics of tracking who highlight the lack of support services for low-tracked students inadvertently open the possibility that a better funded and administered ability grouping program might function more efficiently (Maddox & Wheelock, 1995). Advocates of tracking suggest that if misuses are corrected, ability grouping might work effectively.

Cross-cultural studies of tracking suggest that America’s unique (and tragic) legacy of racial segregation has tinted its utilization of tracking with inequities that do not exist in more ethnically homogeneous societies. One study conducted in Taiwan indicates that tracking can work when procedural safeguards are strictly enforced. Researcher Montgomery Broaded (1997) found those students with diverse familial and class backgrounds did not face favoritism or discrimination in Taiwan’s tracked schools. Rather, Taiwanese students witnessed much mobility. Broaded identified none of the stagnation of tracking levels found in American schools. Also unlike American schools, Broaded reported that students who tested low were greatly motivated to move up the grouping ranks.

Racial and social inequalities and stereotypes in the United States appear to have produced a distinctive and dysfunctional tracking structure. In a more ethnically homogeneous setting, however, tracking apparently can lack the race- and classbased inequalities present in American ability groupings. This appears to be due to Taiwan’s reliance on standardized testing, its homogeneous ethnic population, and built-in periodic reassessments and reassignments in the tracking system. Broaded’s research suggests that tracking, if divorced from its society’s inequalities and prejudices, might prove to be an effective educational methodology.

Yet even if America’s legacy of racial stereotyping and segregation could be completely detached from its school tracking system-a hypothetical notion that, based on America’s history of intolerance and broken promises, seems quite unlikelywe hold that criticisms concerning the nature of intelligence and standardized tests argue most convincingly that tracking can not be “saved.” Recent research-most notably Howard Gardner’s research on the multiple intelligences-has challenged 70year-old archaic and culturally biased notions of “intelligence” that emphasize narrow veins of verbal and quantitative abilities (Dickens, 1996; Gardner, 1983). Curiously, on this issue detracking enthusiasts have remained largely silent.

This oversight on the part of detracking proponents is not surprising considering the viability of 14th Amendment legal arguments; tracking will die on constitutional grounds, not as a result of novel conceptions of intelligences. Nonetheless, when contemplating how to restructure the post”ability” tracking school, educators should consider alternative possibilities of grouping students (e.g., Braddock, 1990). Students might choose courses that best utilize their kinetic, spatial, verbal, or musical “smarts.” Demonstrating another possibility, some schools have already substituted for traditional “intelligence” tracking with grouping by interest (Marsh & Raywid, 1994).

Amidst the positive aspects of these alternative possibilities an overriding question surfaces: By placing emphasis on a student’s interest or particular intelligence, could we be classifying a student so that he or she never has the opportunity to develop another area of potential? For example, can a student who does well with musical intelligence be overlooked for further developing linguistic intelligence? Without constant vigilance of this possibility on the part of educators, could alternative methods become just another way of tracking and sorting children into stagnant classifications? Could these exciting new ways to help students learn breed stereotypes and prejudices instead of the desired growth for which they are intended?

Tracking can be seen as a descriptive event. That is, it can describe different settings where learning might take place more effectively. The problem quickly arises when tracking moves away from a descriptive mode to a deterministic mode. When this happens, any potential for effective student learning by tracking becomes contaminated through prejudice and bias. Often times the teacher is not even aware of this development. Educators are challenged to increase sensitivity to the realization that subconscious thoughts and actions can alter a child’s future.

If we believe, as tracking using IQs and standardized tests fades away, that inequity in the classrooms will have disappeared forever, we probably have missed a major lesson. The same abuses that are experienced in tracking now could be perpetuated in other areas creeping into our classrooms (e.g., multiple intelligences, interest groups, ingenuous insights). Most certainly these methods should be used in an appropriate manner. It is vital, however, that educators be on guard that the same path not be taken which has previously resulted in inequality among students.

Irregardless of the types of programs that future schools decide to pursue, educators must take wisdom from the lesson of “ability” tracking in the United States: Student stereotyping can quickly lead to racist educational practices; teacher expectations and student aspirations can greatly affect student performance; and traditional standardized intelligence tests can not fairly be used to “track” students and set them on irreversible life paths. An educational innovation can quickly switch from a way to offer a student freedom and growth to a means of controlling a student’s learning. When this occurs, it has implications for the control of the student’s present and future life.

Copyright Caddo Gap Press Fall 1999

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