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The Problem of Tracking in Middle Schools

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At a seminar hosted last week by ACT on improving the quality of education for students in middle schools, Nancy M. Doda, a consultant for Teacher to Teacher, expressed a strong dislike of tracking in middle schools. She explained that she'd recently visited a middle school in Long Island where tracking of successful students and unsuccessful students was so evident that it seemed to be a form of "apartheid." She observed students who referred to themselves as being in the "dumb class," she recalled. "What are we doing about that?," she asked members of a panel who were presenting possible solutions for improving education in the middle grades.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, replied that combating tracking, where students are placed in classes according to their level of academic performance, "is about calling it malpractice and acting on it."

But interestingly, Stacey A. Kopnitsky, an assistant principal at Cabin John Middle School, in Montgomery County, Md., schools, replied with an anecdote about how her school made a move to reduce tracking in English-language arts classes. The school decided to do away with a remedial class in English-language arts for the lowest performing students, and mix the students from that class in with students from two other classes of gifted and talented students. So the school blended the lowest-performing and highest-performing students in classes to learn English-language arts together. She said that each class was then taught by a team of two teachers. In one of the classes, one of the teachers who was part of the team was a special education teacher.

Kopnitsky said that test scores show that the change benefited the students who had been in the remedial class. Before the change, all of them scored at the lowest of three possible levels on Maryland's English-language arts test. After the change, most of them scored at the second of the three levels in English-language arts.

So the school is continuing the plan for its second year*, this school year.

By the way, one reason that many schools do have tracking is because parents of high-performing students contend that it ensures their children aren't held back academically.

If you have a story about a school doing away with tracking and what impact that had, share it with us here on the blog.

*Updated

13 Comments

It sounds like our middle school is similar to the Cabin John middle school. The only classes that are leveled are the math classes. I would encourage parents of children in these situations to ask their children "how many minutes do you spend watching other kids learn during language arts on a typical day?" I was shocked when my daughter answered that she only spent 1/8 of the period learning.

In cases like this, aren't the parents of gifted children sometimes in the right? Is it really fair to limit the opportunities of one group for the benefit of another?

In full inclusion classes where high and low achieving students are mixed together it is virtually impossible to imagine a scenario where the high achieving kids are able to live up to their potential. While much is written about the lift for low achieving kids, very it is very seldom that there is any discussion about the limits this puts on gifted children.

Is it fair, even if it may seem useful in a utilitarian way, to limit one group's options so that they may benefit another? If the argument is being made that low achieving kids deserve every opportunity to achieve to their highest potential, why is the same argument not valid for high achieving kids?

That only .026% of education funding goes to gifted and talented specific education is a manifestation of this mindset (by contrast 1.59% or over 50 times that amount goes to drug prevention alone). When a National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented study finds that 1/4th of gifted students do not graduate, the idea that we can sacrifice gifted achievement and opportunity for the benefit of other students seems difficult to justify.

You neglected to mention what the progress of the gifted and talented students in this class was. Did they achieve a year's worth of growth in that year? If so, you have found the solution to one tough problem in education! All students deserve an appropriate education, even gifted students.

Tracking is educational malpractice? That's quite a statement. This is a tough issue to unwind. Effectively differentiating instruction in a mixed ability classroom is the stuff of master teachers, if even that. To suggest that the more capable students are well-served in such a setting demonstrates a kind of willful ignorance. Can the ordinary teacher get peak performance out of every single child in such a setting? In theory, certainly. In practice, I highly doubt it. As a practical matter, the high achievers are presumed to be doing just fine, while the low-level students soak up most of the teacher's time and attention. That neglect of the higher potential students strikes me as an equally valid illustration of educational malpractice. Unless of course we continue to content and comfort ourselves with a good score on standardized tests as a proxy for "well-educated." But let's not kid ourselves that high-potential kids left largely to their own devices are being well-served. If they flourish, it is not because of our efforts, but in spite of our neglect.

Does tracking stigmatize students? Having taught in a CTT classroom as the general ed teacher, I often wondered if those who oppose tracking ever even attended school--or if they were ever children, for that matter. To suggest that mixed ability classrooms eliminates the "stigma" of low-performance is a bit naive. Children know very well who the most able kids in the room are, and they are seldom shy about expressing it. Lower-achieving children too often find other ways to distinguish themselves in such a setting, including acting out and other forms of attention-seeking.

Eliminating tracking and ability grouping is a very good example of how we in education make the perfect the enemy of the good. We may like to pretend that we are not, as Edward Coughlin wrote above, "limit(ing) the opportunities of one group for the benefit of another." But that's precisely what we're doing.

You mention how this helps the low performing student, but not how it impacts the gifted students. Does having a second teacher in the classroom help them too?
Wouldn't having a second teacher in a classroom be expected to raise scores compared to a classroom of 30:1?
Let's presume that the GATE students were being taught by a teacher trained in differentiation techniques and that the special education teacher also had special training. I'd guess that having 2 teachers, both with specialized training, they should be doing better than a control group classroom.
I would need more data before assuming this is THE solution to our problems.

The solution? If so, it is NOT one that can be economically replicated. Two teachers in a classroom? Please! Others who have posted recognize this is not the norm. And should be expected, without a doubt, to raise performance results. And for all you national readers, Maryland's "advanced" assessment is on an ON-GRADE LEVEL assessment test.

Couple this with the other posting today that followed: "Tracking is a Hot Button Issue" by the same author:

"Prompted by reader Jginberg, I just called Stacey A. Kopnitsky, the assistant principal at Cabin John Middle School, to ask her what happened to the performance of the gifted and talented students at her school after they were mixed in English-language arts classes with the low-performing students.

She says that those students scored "advanced," the highest of three levels, on the Maryland state English-language-arts test both before and after the change in policy. "They were maintaining and doing as well as before," she said.

But she also acknowledged that the teachers and administrators in the school didn't look at the test-score data in any more detail than to make sure that the top-performing students were staying within the advanced level. She said they were more focused on the progress of the students with basic skills."

Let me reiterate: gifted students were "maintaining" at an advanced level of on-grade material. And staff didn't look further at their progress. So for this two-teacher classroom experiment, staff didn't even look to determine if the gifted students made annual yearly progress fitting for academically advanced students.

Nice!

And hence the skeptism in Montgomery County Public Schools on gifted education. Not only are we testing scenerios that can't possibly be replicated from an economic standpoint, but we aren't measuring, or even looking at the data, as to how it benefits our most highly able.

My daughter attended Cabin John MS and she disliked having science and social studies classes in heterogeneous groups because they only go as quickly as the slowest student. She liked some of her GT English classes, but she admits they weren't very GT. She said that her younger brother should go to a different school so he could have a more stimulating learning situation. Ms. Kopnitsky is nice, but she doesn't really understand the needs of GT students.

Some of the commenters seem to assume that we all agree on what "gifted and talented" is, or at the very least, assume that there exists such a thing as a "higher potential student." I might even argue that the lowest achieving students are the ones with the highest potential. Yes, pragmatically, resources may be a zero sum game, but we talk about target resources to this group or that group, when instead there is little discussion about targeting resources to support teachers in learning how to differentiate their instruction so that they can meet learners where they are, and teach accordingly.

Also, it seems more than a little absurd to talk about tracking in middle schools without addressing the social contexts of the classrooms and schools themselves. I have frequently seen tracked schools where the "gifted and talented students" were predominately white and middle/upper class. I'd prefer a different definition of gifted, please.

Isn't this just tracking within a classroom rather than in different classrooms? In fact, aren't grades themselves (6th grade, etc.) just another form of tracking, and thus the natural progression would be to go back to the one-room school house?

Doug, I can understand that "gifted" would rub you the wrong way. Maybe it would be better to call it "advanced," because those students need a curriculum that goes beyond the standard level.

When it comes to math, everyone understands that you should be teaching kids based on what they already know and what they are capable of learning -- I don't know why that isn't the case for all the subjects.

I don't see the advantages for advanced learners of differentiated learning within a classroom. I'm not convinced that there are any, and I think its proponents should make a case of the advantages for ALL.


Middle schools should do more than student tracking. Plans need to be made to help with student success. Don't just track the students. Track their success with intervention tracking, custon tracking/mentoring, and interactive plan management. A great accountability tool to use is Plans and Alters for Student Success (PASS Software). Check out www.edinteract.com and see how student data can be used as a tool by using data feedback strategies to improve student achievement and behavior of students.

I teach a self contained GT room for 5th grade. I am able to challenge the students within my daily instruction. Questioning is always higher level thinking. The kids love it and hands are up almost the whole period. In previous years, those questions would be too tough for grade level kids to understand and often get frustrated and quit. I think tracking GT students is not only necessary, I believe we are sacrificing our future by boring these kids with crossword puzzles and 10 extra problems for homework.

I refer readers to HIgh Achieveing Students in an Era of NCLB. You can google it on your computer. Case closed, imho.

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