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How “Tracking” Can Actually Help Disadvantaged Students

An intervention that can lead to AP excellence for all students

Star athletes don’t just walk on the basketball court or football field for the first time as seniors in high school. Similarly, successful AP calculus or physics students don’t just walk into advanced math or science for the first time in the 12th grade. Rather, in both sports and academics, early pipelines need to be in place to help students develop their skills fully. And it usually helps both athletes and academic achievers to hone their skills with people around or even above their level—on a similar track.

The new 2016 Brookings Brown Center report on American education was just released, and an important new longitudinal analysis by Tom Loveless on the relationship between tracking and AP achievement four years later provides evidence that educational “tracking,” perhaps counterintuitively, can actually be used as a tool for greater fairness in helping disadvantaged students.

Tracking is traditionally known as the practice of assigning students to different academic classes based on prior achievement. Typically, students are tested to assess the academic level at which they are functioning and then they are assigned to different classes. Despite having many studies supporting its effectiveness, tracking has met with mixed public sentiment and implementation.

In this new study, Loveless examined a cohort of kids who were 8th graders in 2009 and graduated in 2013. He asked whether tracking in 2009 was related to AP outcomes in in 2013, four years later. The analysis is correlational, so Loveless cautions the data don’t allow for causal claims. Even then, using states as the unit of analysis, he found that a higher percentage of students tracked in 8th grade was associated with a higher percentage of AP test takers scoring 3 or better four years later. And this association held up within each ethnic group: Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic.

Loveless concludes that there are “three phenomena” working in concert to actually hinder the achievement of students from disadvantaged backgrounds from getting educational stimulation they need. The first is that because there are test score gaps between ethnic groups, many schools do not use tracking because it can impact representation negatively. Secondly, because schools don’t typically use tracking, even if a student body is composed mostly of underrepresented minorities and representation would not be an issue, tracking is still not provided. Thirdly, achievement gaps might actually widen between groups because tracking and other educational stimulation is more often available to resource rich students.

Basically, tracking can help our most disadvantaged students, but for political reasons it appears to not be systematically implemented. As Loveless explains:

“Tracking has been stigmatized as leading to inequities. This study suggests that we need to take the "pipeline hypothesis" seriously—that development of talent in math, science and other academic subjects is no different than sports. Providing talented youth with curricula appropriate to their needs is associated with AP excellence for all students.”

© 2016 by Jonathan Wai. You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook.