How tracking and ability grouping perpetuate inequality

Do you care about public school education? Do you care about equality? Do you care about students and their learning environments? Do you care about providing equal educational access to all students? Do you care about the issues of inequality present in the educational system? Do you want to learn more about inequalities in education?

If you answered “Yes!” to these questions, then you’re in the right place: a blog dedicated to uprooting, defining, explaining, and tackling the inequalities that minority students experience in the United States throughout their educational experience.

As a college student, education-enthusiast, and future educator, I believe in the power of a strong public school system. Such a system cannot be achieved without recognizing and targeting its current shortcomings. With that said, one major problem that is present in our educational system is the inequalities that minority students face. They aren’t receiving the equal education that they deserve, but by serving as their advocates, we can make a difference and erase such inequalities.

With that said, it’s time to tackle the first inequality: tracking and ability grouping.

What is tracking and ability grouping?

A form of stratification, tracking and ability grouping are ways that students are funneled into groups based on their ability and talents in the classroom. The two differ from one another slightly. While ability grouping is used more at the elementary level and occurs within the classroom, tracking is used more at the secondary level and occurs among classes.

More often than not, ability grouping is present in elementary classrooms when students are divided into different groups based on their reading level. Each group may be given a different name, so the teacher can associate the name with the level. These names tend to shy away from negative connotations, so the students don’t feel inferior or superior based on the level they’re placed into. However, students quickly realize the meaning of the groups they’re placed into.

At the secondary level, students are often funneled into tracks, such as on-grade-level, honors, high potential, or Advanced Placement (AP). With tracking, the level is often associated with the label; students know the meaning of and sense a difference between, for example, on-grade-level and AP.

How does tracking and ability grouping perpetuate inequalities for minority students?

According to an article published by the National Education Association, the level of the track more often than not corresponds to the student’s level of motivation and teacher’s expectations. Because of the different levels of work, expectations, and curriculum taught across tracks and ability groups, moving between each one is especially difficult for students, especially at the secondary level.

While it’s argued that tracking presents teachers with the opportunity to gear their instruction to the needs of the group of students, research sheds on light on the harsh reality. According to an article published by Tom Loveless, research shows that “low-income students and students of color are disproportionately represented in low tracks.” Consider the effects of being placed into a low track the moment you step into secondary school. If there is little room for mobility, then how does this affect the minority students? Simply put, it widens the achievement gap. According to Loveless, “a few high-quality studies indicate that tracking exacerbates achievement differences by depressing the achievement of students in low tracks and boosting the achievement of students in high tracks.”

Let’s take a look at an example

Recognizing the inequalities perpetuated by tracking, Sleepy Hollow High School, located in Sleepy Hollow, New York, took the initiative in 2000 to grant any student the opportunity to take an honors or AP course. According to The Washington Post, the high school has an enrollment of 884 students, 56% of which are economically disadvantaged, and “the school advises every student and his or her family of the benefits of taking college-level work in high school. Armed with good information and teacher recommendations, students are empowered to make the best decision, knowing they have the support they need to succeed.”

Increasing access and giving students the opportunity to enroll in classes that would have only been offered in a higher track ultimately led to a higher demand for the classes. According to the article, “over the last 15 years, Sleepy Hollow increased AP offerings, participation rates, and scores on AP exams.”

In the case of tracking, when given the opportunity and access to the resources and opportunities in higher tracks, demand increases. Students want to learn. Students want to prepare themselves for life after high school, whether it be college or not. Students want equality.

One thought on “How tracking and ability grouping perpetuate inequality

  1. First and foremost, I love how passionate you are about improving the education system. I’ve spoken to you a lot last semester about the issues you want to tackle, and I’m really excited to read your first article where you are talking about the problems you see and the changes that need to be happening – let’s go Taylor! You had my attention from the very beginning; after all, who doesn’t want to ensure a better education for their children (or future children)? I don’t know much about the public education system, despite having gone through it, but your explanation of the overall problem you’re tackling here and the in depth description of how tracking and ability grouping are problematic gave me a solid foundation that let me understand your argument. After reading your explanation of the stratification system used, I could look back on my high school education and clearly see how I was given an unfair advantage – I was passed through the honors classes without ever really being evaluated on my ability, while my classmates were kept in college prep classes without being recognized for their ability. When I think about it, I really had no business being in AP Calc (is there dyslexia for numbers?), but I got a spot there instead of another student who would’ve been able to handle the math better than me. The more I think about your article, the more examples I come up with of how this tracking and ability grouping system is hurting American students. I can’t wait to keep reading your blogs, because your passion for equal education is frankly inspiring – I hope in 10 years to see your name in the New York Times as our new Secretary of Education!

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