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Should Students Be Tracked In Math Or Science?

There seems no simple answer to this straightforward question; the answer depends on who you ask and what learning outcomes are considered most important. Studies focusing on student achievement seem to bear different results than studies focusing on equity issues, and in both cases there are questions about the educational significance of the findings.

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Sunday, October 25, 2015

There seems no simple answer to this straightforward question; the answer depends on who you ask and what learning outcomes are considered most important. Studies focusing on student achievement seem to bear different results than studies focusing on equity issues, and in both cases there are questions about the educational significance of the findings. Though many researchers and educators consider the practice outdated, or even harmful to some students, many parents and teachers strongly endorse tracking. Here we will try to sort out the issues, and then suggest that the answer to whether children should be tracked in math or science is neither “yes” nor “no.”

First, we differentiate tracking from ability grouping. Within a particular class, teachers often form reading groups or math groups on the basis of ability; this is an instructional management practice that enables teachers to more effectively attend to the individual needs of students. Students can move from group to group as they progress, and the whole class receives the same basic instruction. By tracking, we are referring to the practice of separating students into different courses or course sequences (“tracks”) based on their level of achievement or proficiency as measured by some set of tests or course grades. This practice has been common in the United States throughout the 20th century, and even in schools where there is no formal system of tracking, the higher achieving, college-bound students take different classes-honors classes or Advanced Placement classes-than other students. By 8th grade, over two-thirds of U.S. students are grouped into differentiated math courses (Mullis, 1991).

Many educators began questioning the practice of tracking in the 1970s when studies began to show that minority and low-income students were over-represented in the lower tracks where they receive less challenging instruction from less qualified teachers (Oakes, 1990). On the basis of results from many separate studies, some have argued that students of all ability levels do no better in tracked classes than in classes of mixed ability (Slavin, 1990). These findings prompted many schools to abolish tracking.

More recent findings, however, have caused some educators to take a more cautionary approach. In one nationwide study it was found that scores for students formerly in the lower tracks did improve when the students were moved to mixed-ability groupings, but the scores of average and higher-achieving students decreased somewhat (Argys, Brewer, & Rees, 1996). The reverse effect had been documented earlier (Gamoran, 1987); tracking boosted achievement among students in the academic track, but the gains were offset by the losses experienced by students placed in the lower track. Gamoran also found that the difference in achievement between students in the upper and lower tracks was even greater than the difference between those who stayed in school and those who dropped out. One outcome of tracking, it seems, is a widening of the gap between high achievers and low achievers.

In attempting to account for the increased gap, Gamoran (1995) found that questioning patterns differ significantly in honors, regular, and remedial classes, indicating differences in the way students and teachers interact in those classrooms. Indeed, teachers in the academic tracks tend to place more emphasis on reasoning and inquiry skills than do teachers of classes in the other tracks. Students in the lower tracks also spend more time reading textbooks and completing worksheets while students in the upper tracks are more likely to participate in hands-on inquiry and write about their reasoning in solving mathematics problems. These differences in the learning environments of remedial, regular, and honors courses may account in part for the findings of Madigan (1997). In exploring patterns of science course taking, science proficiency levels, and demographic variables, he found that “the most consistent pattern seems to be that what science courses students take in high school is more related to increases in science proficiency level than the number of science courses” (p. 12). Also, math and science courses with higher proportions of minority students are more often designated as “low-ability” courses than are courses with lower proportions of minority students (National Science Foundation, 1996). Among 10th graders in 1990, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students were less likely than other 10th graders to be in an academic track (Peng & Hill, 1995) where science and math are emphasized (See Figure 1). When this placement pattern is compared to the expectations of 8th graders (See Figure 2) and the distribution of 8th graders in academic math courses (See Figure 3), one has to wonder how early children are deciding whether they are capable of advanced studies and how much influence the practice of tracking, particularly in math, is having on the perceptions.

Note. All figures were constructed from data presented in National Science Foundation. (1996). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1996 (NSF 96-311). Arlington, VA: Author. It is this apparent connection between demographic grouping (minorities, low-income students) and so-called ability grouping that is most troublesome. There have long been concerns about the underrepresentation of some minority groups in math and science, so are we exacerbating the problem by continuing an educational tradition that has, at best, a marginal benefit for a small group of students? Indeed, Oakes (1990) has said, “while not all students have the interests or aptitude to become scientists or mathematicians, the disparities for African-American and Hispanic minorities and the poor are so great that considerable science and mathematics talent is undoubtedly being lost from these groups” (p. 2). So, it seems the supposed “ability-grouping” tradition in math is, in effect, also a sorting process with unsettling social consequences.

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