Perspectives on Tracking

“Tracking”, as the education policy community uses it, refers to the placing of students on different “tracks”, usually “high” vs. “low” based on their perceived abilities. Now, this is a rather controversial topic in the world of education policy, so try not to get too inflamed about the whole thing.

Those on the pro side claim that it leads to greater achievement for all, because those on the low track will not have to feel intimidated by those on the high track, while those on the high track will not be held back by those on the low track who require a slower speed of instruction. Those on the anti side reply: at what cost? They believe that by placing the student in a lower track, one immediately limits what s/he will be able to achieve in the future, because s/he will be provided with less opportunities to succeed.

Looking into the issue myself, I was immediately pro-tracking. As an economics major, the outcomes seemed clear enough – students in both tracks in several studies performed better when tracked than in a mixed-group setting. Of course, there were some undesirable side-effects, such as the gap between high and low-achievers widening as the result of the high track improving at a faster rate than the low track. To try to gain a broader understanding of the topic, however, I decided to ask my sister, an elementary education major, her thoughts on tracking. Since early childhood education plays a significant role in achievement later in life, I thought her answer would be especially meaningful. Here’s what she had to say:

“I don’t think that I will use tracking in my classroom because mixed-ability groupings have proven to be very effective. I realize that this may not be realistic, however, because there are risks in mixed-ability groupings such as boredom among some students. It is my goal to create a classroom environment where one student does not feel more “stupid” than other students. However, I do realize that there are some beneficial aspects to tracking.

College is not for all students. It’s the students who want to go to college but don’t get that opportunity due to tracking that is really sad. Students who are placed on a low track in elementary school often carry the belief that they are stupid and cannot succeed in school. Counselors continuously place them in classes that are not beneficial to their future. These students often do not believe that they can succeed in harder classes or do not have the fundamental skills to do so due to low expectations from an early age. I feel that classes should be open to all students. [Tracking] also tends to contribute to the “achievement gap” between white students and minority groups because minority groups tend to be on a low track.”

She also sent me this video:

Interesting stuff.

Further reading for the over-achievers (or as I like to call them, the well-informed):

Pro. Keep in mind that this data was taken in Kenya, in which students in any given classroom are arguably much more heterogeneous than those in American classrooms, so the positive effects of tracking recorded may not hold true in a different setting.



I don’t have the answer to the tracking “problem”, and I don’t think it’s possible to find an answer until we know exactly what is desirable to us as a society. Do we care more about academic success or personal growth? I suppose that remains to be seen.

Have a lovely break, Amherst readers!