Tracking and Ability Grouping in Schools Essay


This paper is about tracking and ability grouping, the practice of grouping students of similar ability or prior achievement together for instruction. This paper is divided into four sections. The first defines terms, sketches the basic features of tracking and ability grouping systems. The second section traces the historical quest for reasonable ways of matching students and curriculum. The third part provides information about the relationship between tracking and ability grouping and academic achievement and the last part describes the movement to eliminate tracking and ability grouping.

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Definition of Tracking and Ability Grouping

Thirty eight years ago, the terms “ability grouping” and “tracking” were used to identify two distinct approaches to grouping students.

Ability grouping referred to the information of small, homogeneous groups within elementary school classrooms, usually for reading instruction. Children of approximately the same level of reading proficiency would be grouped for reading instruction, perhaps into “redbirds” and “bluebirds”.

Tracking referred to a practice in which high schools tested students, typically with both achievement and IQ tests, and used these scores to place their students into separate curricular tracks, or “streams,” as they are called in Europe.

The tracks covered distinctly different curricula, were binding across all academic subjects, and to lead to different destinations upon graduation.

Three tracks were common: 1) a high track, with college-preparatory or honors courses that readied students for admission to top colleges and universities: 2) a general track that served as a catch-full for the huge group of students in the middle, those huge group of students in the middle, those neither gifted nor deficient in their studies or those simply unsure of what they would do after high school, and 3) a low track, consisting of vocational courses and a smattering of low-level academic offerings, such as consumer math, and serving mainly low functioning and indifferent students (Smith-Maddox and Wheelock 1995).

  After graduation, general track students matriculated to second-tier colleges, community colleges, or the workforce. Low track students frequently dropped out, found work or suffered periods of unemployment (Rosenbaum, 1976). Writers now use the terms “tracking” and “ability grouping” interchangeably. One hears, for example, that “tracking begins in kindergarten.” In this report, I adhere to the conventional definitions employed by researchers, using “ability grouping” to refer to the grouping of students by ability within classes, which is primarily an elementary school practice, and “tracking” to refer to the grouping of students by ability between classes, a strategy common in middle and high schools.

History of Tracking and Ability Grouping

By the middle of the 19th century, American schooling was coalescing into local systems stratified by grades and organized around a rational curricular system. The legendary one-room schoolhouse, which in some cases was inhabited by students from two to twenty years of age, experienced a remarkable transformation. To create a more manageable clientele, age restrictions pushed infants and young adults out of the classroom. The curriculum at the time consisted of the books and learning materials that students brought from home. Reformers argued that teaching should instead follow a hierarchical sequence of topics, exposing students to increasingly difficult skills and complex knowledge. In many districts, algebra, for example, and other forms of “higher knowledge” were removed from grammar schools’ jurisdiction and reserved for high schools. (Reese, 1995)

            The 19th century high school served only a silver of the teenage population, less than 80% until the 1890s. Private academies housed the teenage children of the well-to-do, but for the average student, whose family needed the income from his or her work, formal schooling ended at eighth grade. As a rule, public high schools administered entrance examinations, and the upper grades of grammar schools, especially in urban areas, provided preparation for these tests. Once in high school, students found that each year of instruction built on learning from previous years. The academic calendar was further divided into smaller curricular units and carefully presented in a logical sequence.

            As educational historians have noted, the whole system was shaped like a pyramid. Common schools at the bottom educated the broad mass of American children and the number of persisting students steadily narrowed at each succeeding level. (Tyaka & Cuban,1995). In high school, students were tested annually for advancement in grade.

From 1850 on, age-grading gained in popularity, linking grade levels to students’ age, but originally any single grade of the high school could be populated by students of different ages, as long as – and this stipulation bears directly on tracking – the mastery of prior content had been demonstrated. Matching students and curriculum appeared to unfold naturally because each grade level represented an ability group. The curriculum was the master of the high school students’ fate. Pupils who learned it graduated to the next grade level. Those who didn’t stay behind or left school altogether. (Troen, 1975)

Tracking at the Turn of the Century

            By the dawn of the 20th century, educators had started questioning this arrangement. America’s economy was shifting from an agrarian to an industrial base, and the demand for education beyond eighth grade escalated sharply. Students poured into high schools. With immigration also surging, urban schools in particular faced a more numerous and varied clientele.

Political opposition to vocational education collapsed, mainly because its main opponent, labor unions, saw the growing number of private schools that offered vocational training as serious threat to the public school system, an institution they counted on to improve their children’s lot in life. Progressive reformers cited an outpouring of studies suggesting that teens leaving school were bored with the high school’s academic emphasis.  The progressives urged a more practical curriculum aimed at children’s interests. Academics debated the virtues of the uniformity and differentiation in the curriculum, and careers were built by championing one side or the other in this debate. (Troen, 1985)

            The 20th century’s comprehensive high school emerged from this cauldron of political, social, economic, and intellectual upheaval, housing within its distinct curricular tracks but promising a common set of educational experience and a single diploma for all graduates. Entrance exams tottered and fell, and high schools gradually accepted all corners. The lines of stratification for students had shifted: from distinctions drawn by the highest grade level one attained, or by whether one even attended high school, to distinctions emanating from the track one belonged to within high school.

            This structure guided the high school’s evolution into a mass institution over the next several decades.  It was not without faults. Social Darwinists and racial segregationist twisted to their own ends the idea that schools should tailor activities more to the characteristics of the students, insisting that children of different races and economic classes needed vastly different forms of education to prepare them for their rightful stations in life (Donelan, Gerald, and Jones, 1994).

Tracking was used as a tool of discrimination, especially during the Depression years, when students who might otherwise have been working poured into high schools by the thousands. Tests measuring IQ and academic achievement lent legitimacy to the task of placing students in tracks – and were used with both humane and pernicious intentions. (Mirel, 1998)

            There were also misguided attempts to fashion the curriculum around students’ personal needs.  In the 1940s, the “life adjustment” movement convinced many districts to forego academically rigorous content for courses on dating, personal grooming, housekeeping, and other practical topics. At its zenith, this reform movement was so blatantly anti-intellectual that 30% of his students wasted their time by taking academic courses. (Rosenbaum, 1976) Modern education promised something for everyone. Sporting a curricular menu packed with academic, quasi-academic, and non-academic electives, by mid-century the high school had become so fragmented that it resembled in one group of researchers’ memorable metaphor, the modern shopping mall. (Powell, 1985)

Sputnik and the Great Society

A flurry of criticism and the Russian launch of sputnik forced reconsideration. Suddenly, Americans fretted that students were not keeping pace with pupils abroad. In the 1960s, programs for gifted youngsters flourished, especially in math and science.  The Great Society heightened concern about racial discrimination, poverty and social inequality, spotlighting students who were badly served by the school system and giving birth to a multitude of programs that offered a helping hand.

All of these programs – gifted education, special education, compensatory education, and bilingual programs – targeted specific categories of students. Categorical programs institutionalized the conviction that any standardized education would shortchange youngsters with extraordinary needs. As categorical programs gained legal backing, their own administrative structures, and their own funding streams, the comprehensive high school grew more internally differentiated. (Ravitch)

The Pendulum Swings Again

            In the latter half of the 20th century differentiation in the form of tracking came under fire. In the books such as James Rosenbaum’s (1976) Making Inequality, Samuel Bowels and Herbert Gintis’s(1976) Schooling in Capitalist America, John Goodlad’s(1984) A Place Called School ,and Jeanne Oakes’s (1985) Keeping Track, critics assailed tacking for reproducing and exacerbating social inequalities (Rosenbaum, 1976). They pointed out that poor, non-English speaking, and minority youngsters were disproportionately assigned to low tracks and wealthier, white students to high tracks-and concluded that this was not a coincidence. Oakes’s book helped ignite a firestorm of anti-tracking activity.

Tracking was blamed for unfairly categorizing students, stigmatizing struggling learners, and consigning them to a fate over which neither they nor their parents had control. The indictment spread from scholarly journals to the popular press. A 1988 article in Better Homes and Gardens asked, “Is Your Child Being Tracked for Failure?” In 1989, Psychology today ran “Tracked to Fail” and U.S News and World Report published “The Label That Sticks” (Allan, 1991). Although the anti-tracking movement’s left –leaning political base conflicted with that of the movement for rigorous academic standards, parental choice, and other grassroots proposals that gained popularity in the late 1980s, it managed to hitch its wagon to growing public demand for excellence in the public schools.

Negative Effects of Tracking and Ability Grouping on Student Achievement Outcomes

In spite of conflicting research findings as to the benefits of ability grouping, the widespread use of the practice continues in our schools.  Wilson and Ribovich (1973) reported a study in which teachers were surveyed to determine their knowledge of which teachers were surveyed to determine their knowledge of ability grouping. Two-third of the teachers surveyed were found to have no knowledge of ability research findings, yet 92% felt that ability grouping was beneficial and 74% practiced it.

Ability grouping has been used in elementary schools, sometimes as early as kindergarten. Decisions to place children in groups at the primary grade level were often made on the basis of a primary teacher’s determination of a child’s ability which might have been made largely on the basis of the child’s family background, language skills, appearance, and ability to follow directions. Yet, research studies indicated that placement decisions in the primary grades had an enormous impact on the child’s academic achievement and adjustment. For example, Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) found that students tended to achieve at the levels teachers expected of them (a self-fulfilling prophesy).

Oakes (1985) in his publication Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality concluded that “It does not appear to be related to either increasing academic achievement or promoting positive attitudes and behaviors. Poor and minority students seem to have suffered most from tracking—and these are the very students on whom so many educational hopes are pinned.”(p. 15)

A research study conducted by Reuman (1989) comparing math achievement levels of sixth-graders found that ability grouping raised high-achievers’ achievement expectations, math grades, and tendency to make comparisons with a classmate who was worse at math.  On the other hand, ability grouping was found to lower low-achievers’ achievement expectations and math grades while raising their tendency to make comparisons with a classmate who was better at math.

Researchers are in almost unanimous agreement on one of the potential hazards of ability grouping, i.e., grouping students by ability had negative effects for low-achievers (loss of self-esteem, lowered aspirations, and negative attitudes toward school).  The names that teachers gave to high, middle, and low-ability groups probably indicated how they felt about the students belonging to one of those groups. Black (1992) reported that names such as “crows’ and “zeros.” Also, it wasn’t long before students realized who teachers were referring to when they bragged about “the good kids” or “the cream of the crop” or when they complained about “dummies, “ “blockhead,” “zombies,” or “the bottom of the barrel.”

It didn’t take long before students were giving themselves the same labels and students in the lower-ability groups loss self-esteem. What were the long-term effects of sorting and labeling students? Black (1993) reported a longitudinal study of junior high school students conducted by a University of Michigan research group which found, once again, that students assigned to low-ability math classes consistently displayed lower self-esteem. Over a period of time, those students had misbahvior problems and were more likely to drop out of school.

Still another negative effect of ability grouping is the “Locked-in” feeling that most low-achievers seemed to have regarding their achievement level, expectations, and aspirations. Rosenbaum (1976) noted that ability grouping usually translated into fixed grouping for most students involved in the process. Rosenbaum observed that whereas a few students from time-to-time level would be placed in a lower-ability level (i.e., moved from high-level to middle-level or from middle l-level to low-level), students almost always stayed at the same level they were originally assigned. This was especially true for those at the lower-level who were probably stuck there for the remainder of their schooling.

Although proponents of ability grouping contend that low-achievers can experience success and improve self-concept when grouped according to ability, Dyson (1967) reported a study relating both achievement and self-concept to ability grouping. He found no significant differences in student self-concept as a result of the level of ability grouping.

Slavin (1987) reviewed research on ability grouping in elementary schools. He found that assigning students to homogeneous classes on the basis of general ability or past achievement does not enhance their achievement.  He concluded that grouping students for reading and mathematics “can be instructionally effective if the level and pace of instruction is adapted to the achievement level of the regrouped class and if the students are not regrouped for more than one or two different subjects (p. 299).”

On the other hand, Kulik and Kulik’s (1982) meta-analysis findings tended to differ with researcher who were critical of ability grouping. The reported small positive effects on achievement for high-ability students and concluded that “the below average students; it is not negative; and “students seemed to like their school subjects more when they studied with peers of similar ability, and some students in grouped classes even developed more positive attitudes about themselves and about school” (p. 420).

Although the courts have ruled in many cases against the practice of racial segregation in schools, few research studies have addressed the issue of how ability grouping affects racial and socio-economic segregation. Coleman (1966) reported a widespread use of ability grouping throughout the nation, indicating that 32% of all black children were assigned to the lowest track or classes compared to 24% of white children.

A research report by Finn (1967) found that a number of studies, concerning the relationship between ability grouping and racial and/or socio-economic status, concluded that this practice often resulted in a self-fulfilling prophesy. Studies indicated that non white and low socio-economic students (who comprise the majority of students in the low groups) often limit their efforts to the teacher’s expectations for the group as a whole. Therefore, students in the low-ability groups were typically not exposed to create and independent learning activities commonly available to students in the high-ability groups. It was suggested that ability grouping discriminates against non-white and low socio-economic students.

Esposito (1973) reported in her review of the literature on ability grouping that studies by kariger (1962), Mehl (1965), Mcportland (1968), and Mayeske (1970) clearly indicated that the practice of homogeneous grouping reinforces and perpetuates the separation of children along racial and socio-economic line.

Black (1993) reported that high-track students (tracking and ability grouping were used interchangeably by Black) often took eighth-grade algebra or high school calculus which were not available to students who attended schools that served large numbers of poor and minority students.

The arguments on both sides of the issue of ability grouping have remained essentially the same since 1900. A report by Weaver (1990) summarized that proponents of ability grouping have argued that grouping was necessary to individualize instruction for students and to accommodate their diverse needs. She found that advocates had been particularly concerned with the negative impact that heterogeneous classes had on high-achievers who would otherwise have benefited from having to compete with other high-achievers in a homogeneous (ability grouped) class setting.

On the other hand, opponents of ability grouping have been concerned with the negative effects of the practice on low-achievers who developed low self esteem, lower aspirations, negative attitudes toward school, and were denied access to high-quality instruction. They were also opposed to the practice on the basis that ability grouping undermine social goals of equity and fairness in our society.

The pro-grouping argument has been primarily concerned with the issue of effectiveness, whereas, the anti-grouping argument has been primarily concerned with the issue of equity. During the past decades research on effective schools has revealed two important criteria: teacher expectations and student expectations. Teachers should have high expectations if they really want their students to be academically successful and to derive and maintain high self-esteem from their educational experiences.

Teachers’ expectations of students are made evident by the manner in which they interact with students in the class. But how students perceive their own ability will ultimately impact on their academic achievement and self-esteem.

The Movement to Eliminate Tracking and Ability Grouping

The movement to eliminate tracking and ability grouping began in 1980s. It was alleged by the opponent of tracking and ability grouping that academically weak children do not get competent teachers, high standard curriculum, low social status and no or less academic role models. Oakes (1985) played a great role to increase the momentum of the movement. She found that there are several disadvantages of tracking and ability grouping for students that are placed in lower tracks. She also found that students that possess low socio-economic status are not tracked to high performing elite colleges. Rather, such colleges are reserved for students from privileged background.

When detrackng movement reached its height, several organizations such as the National Governors Association, The National Council of Teachers of English, The National Education Association and the California Department of Education also favored detracking.

The detracking movement spread in California and Massachusetts in the beginning of 1990s. Tracking was either eliminated or reduced in both the states by the officials.


Tracking and ability grouping is not good for academically weak students. All the students do not get the same education. This thing is bringing frustration in the America’s new generation. So, it is advised that tracking and ability grouping should be eliminated.



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