Dr. Moore's recent commentary Tracking Reconsidered

Posted by Dr. Louis Moore on 12/3/2021

Does Tracking Work? Costs and Benefits Reconsidered

To track or not to track.  Like Hamlet, American educators have struggled with an issue that presents us with no easy answers.  Advocates assert that leveled classes can be taught more effectively than non-leveled ones.  Critics draw on research that is critical of the tracking because it limits access to programs and contributes to racial, ethinc, and socio-economic segregation.  


Defined simply, tracking is the practice of leveling students based on perceived deficits or strengths.  The practice has deep roots in American education, the working theory being that homogeneous groups of students are easier to teach and leveling produces better total outcomes for everyone.  Grouping motivated and successful students together, it is assumed, will ensure these students are not “slowed down” by students who are less prepared or motivated.  At the other end of the spectrum, it is assumed that concentrating lower performing students will allow their teachers to focus on skill deficits or other gaps and bring them up to speed for future success.


At RBR, the response to the debate has been to attempt to occupy both positions simultaneously, resulting in a number of inconsistencies.  For example, students are grouped in honors and CP tracks and in all core subjects in grade 10 but only in Geometry in grade 9.  Lower tracks have been eliminated in social studies and English, yet continue in science and math, especially in grades 9 and 10. (Note: With the phasing-out of Exploratory Science, all first-year students now enroll in Biology 9 starting this year.)


In terms of AP and IB participation in grades 10 and 11, we remain committed to open access but require students to “waive” into these classes if they are not recommended. But open access is not the same as full participation and maintaining an academic hierarchy, even if access is open, produces glaring inequities in regard to involvement of all our students in top programs. Despite the best of intentions, RBR remains divided along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines in terms of where students are sorted within the academic pecking order.  


The time has come for fresh thinking on this issue with the intention of scaling up those practices that are working and scaling down those practices that are not.  A logical place to start is with a clear-eyed inventory of successes of which we all should be proud.


Success Stories: Expanded Opportunities and Inclusion for Some


For many years, Red Bank Regional High School has promoted participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.  The most recent DOE School Report Card for RBR indicated that over 65 percent of juniors and seniors take at least one AP or IB course, up from 60.8 percent in 2017-18.  In fact, only a small number of  high schools in New Jersey performed better in this area.  


Success can be measured not only in terms of participation but also in regard to academic achievement, a true reflection of the excellence of the professional staff and the strength of our students. In 2018-19 over 540 AP exams were administered and the average score was a 3, which is the threshold identified by the College Board as qualified for college credit.  Across the board, grade averages in AP and IB courses are consistently higher than other courses, and these courses have remarkably low rates of failure.


Moreover, involvement in these programs is not limited to the academic elite. Strictly speaking, these programs are not tracked by ability.  AP Composition, for example, typically enrolls a large proportion of the junior class, nearly 30 percent.  In 2018-19 over half the students scored between 390-519 on the evidence-based reading and writing section of the PSAT in which a score of 460 represents grade-level proficiency.  Yet the average AP exam score was 3.4 and not a single student failed the course.  Across all subjects, students who disregarded placement recommendations and “waived” into IB and AP programs consistently succeed.  In the 2018-19 school year, 24 out of 27 “waiver” students successfully completed the class and passed with an average grade of 82.  


What’s the takeaway? Deliberate efforts to find just the right level for kids, e.g. assigning them to lower tracks that cover the same material at a slower or less intense pace, is not a magic formula.  In practice these courses have significantly higher rates of student failure and might actually upend the assumption that grouping students with perceived deficits makes them easier to teach and more successful. In contrast, students appear to thrive in many of our most challenging academic programs despite the fact that they begin these courses from varied and diverse starting points.


If tracking does not explain the success of our AP and IB programs, then what does? I’ll start with a simple hypothesis: pedagogy matters. Our most demanding academic programs aspire to meet the needs of all learners through excellent instruction, not by leveling students by their academic starting points. What’s more, these programs succeed because they infuse all three elements of the instructional core: teacher knowledge, content, and student engagement. Content centers on clear and reachable end goals that reflect high standards; mastery is measured by an external authority.  These programs also promote coherence and shared understandings around teaching and learning. By creating a common framework of what is to be learned, both AP and IB programs foster a rich instructional culture, both within schools and beyond. Knowledge is shared and becomes a storehouse of acquired wisdom. 


Participation in AP and IB classes also prompts students to think about their roles in different ways. Students engage deeply with the subject and grow as thinkers, writers, and problem solvers.  Jay Mathews, a leading education writer, made the point: “It goes beyond the test--in fact the test is a kind of proxy for something more important. Participation in higher level classes confers status and promotes agency.”


So what’s wrong? Sounds like all is well. It’s not.


Along with successes, we must acknowledge short-comings and gaps that require urgent attention.  


Last year white students composed 57 percent of the total school population but represented 74 percent of AP and IB enrollment.  Black students, who constitute 5 percent of the total population, represented slightly more than 3 percent enrollment in these programs.  While Latinx students are 35 percent of our total enrollment, they represent only about 19 percent of students in AP and IB classes.  Economically disadvantaged students are also underrepresented.  In 2018-19, 25 percent of RBR students were eligible for free or reduced lunch but they constituted 11 percent enrollment in AP and IB courses. 


What’s next? Some Thoughts on Equity and Tracking


Programming that excludes poor kids, Black kids, and Latinx kids needs to be called out for what it is--oppressive and wrong.  Instead of ranking and sorting, an “all in” approach should be the underlying strategy.  This does not mean that programs with clear skill and content prerequisites, such as AP Calculus or world language courses, can or should become the standard. But it does mean that many courses, especially those that do not have prerequisites, should become the “go to” for the majority of our students. Thankfully we are not alone in taking on this challenge. The College Board is working with partners nationwide to boost student participation and strengthen support for teachers and students in AP courses to meet the needs of diverse learners.  Likewise the Rutgers Writing program is built on a framework where all students can participate and succeed, including ELL, IEP, and students who were not in the “traditional honors track” for language arts. 


The story and the data shared above suggests a correlation between participation in our most challenging programs and student achievement. In striving for equity, we can build on the many strengths present at Red Bank Regional. Meeting students at their starting points, engaging them, finding their strengths and helping them to achieve--this is the essence of the great teaching and learning at RBR.


The combined impact of expert teaching, high standards, and raising student agency delivers great outcomes, not tracking. Formerly exclusive programs like AP and IB are now vastly more inclusive in terms of ability levels of the students they serve. Now is the time to continue this progress and ensure that they are truly inclusive for all our students.