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Educational tracking refers to the placement of students into different kinds of educational programs according to a defined criterion of similarity or dissimilarity, such as interest, ability, or achievement. There are various types of tracking in schools, including vocational tracks, college preparatory tracks, honors tracks, and the ability tracks of remedial and gifted and talented. Vocational tracks channel students into classes that develop the skills needed to enter the labor market directly after graduation from secondary school. College preparatory tracks channel students into classes that will prepare them to attend institutions of higher education. College preparatory tracks in American high schools also frequently offer advanced classes that provide opportunities for college credit before graduation. Honors tracks channel students into more rigorous classes for college preparation but also enhance these students’ chances of attending the college of their choice by giving them opportunity to achieve honors distinction and a higher class ranking upon graduation. The ability tracks of remedial and gifted and talented channel students into programs of study designed to accommodate unusually low or high aptitudes, respectively.
Critics of tracking argue that the tracking process restricts the educational exposure of students in the lower tracks. The earlier tracking occurs, the greater the educational restrictions. The placement of students into vocational, college preparatory, or honors tracks usually occurs upon entrance to secondary school. Because these tracks significantly affect chances for higher education, the tracks restrict the range of future occupational choices as early as age twelve or thirteen. For students who are tracked according to ability, the impact on educational exposure and future life opportunities is even greater. Ability tracking into remedial or gifted and talented classes often occurs in the primary school grades. In many ability tracking systems, those in the different tracks are exposed to differential amounts of knowledge. Students in remedial tracks are assumed to be slow learners, so they are exposed to less information within a school year than other students; students in gifted and talented tracks are assumed to be fast learners and so are exposed to more information. The longer students are ability tracked, therefore, the progressively greater are the gaps of knowledge between the tracked students and their peers and the fewer are the chances for remedial students to catch up with their peers. Conversely, the gifted and talented students progressively exceed their peers in knowledge, which increases their scores on standardized achievement tests, thereby enhancing their relative chances in future college placements and college career performance.
A more insidious effect of educational tracking that compounds the problem of differential knowledge is differential development of cognitive abilities by track. College preparatory, honors, and gifted and talented tracks provide greater opportunities to develop the higher-order skills of abstract, critical, and creative thinking. The ability to think and solve problems by abstract principles increases scores on college aptitude tests and contributes to successful performance in college classes. Abstract, critical, and creative thinking also contribute to success in professional careers and to effective decision-making in many areas of life, including consumer and voting choices. Students in remedial tracks, especially, have less opportunity to develop these higher-order thinking skills in a formal educational setting. This not only decreases their chances of college and occupational achievement, it reduces their logical capabilities to make successful life choices.
A profound effect of educational tracking is the labeling of students by track, which produces differential performance expectations and subsequent differences in self-images and behaviors. Children in remedial tracks, especially, are labeled negatively by their school administrators, teachers, peers, and, most significant, themselves. They consequently receive less encouragement to achieve, and their self-esteem is lowered. The latter contributes to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the students expect to fail, so they do not make the effort necessary to succeed.
Another criticism of ability tracking is that it tends to be involuntary. In many societies, such as Japan, the assignment to a vocational or college preparatory track is based on standardized achievement test scores. Honors eligibility is determined by past academic achievement or scores in standardized achievement tests. Ability tracks are determined by students’ performance on tests designed to measure their academic aptitudes.
Educational track placement is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity. Students of higher socioeconomic status are substantially more likely to be placed in college preparatory, honors, and gifted and talented tracks; children of lower socioeconomic status, in vocational and remedial tracks. Black children and, with the exception of Asian minorities, ethnic minorities are more likely to be placed in vocational and remedial tracks. The reasons for these differences are varied. Evidence indicates that school counselors are less likely to encourage lower-class and minority children to choose the college preparatory track. Evidence also suggests that class and minority group differences in cultural and social capital contribute to track placement. Parents of lower income children may be less aware of the importance of and opportunities for their children to pursue a college education. In addition, middle class or upper class students are more likely to be eligible for honors programs because they have parents who are able to help with schoolwork or secure tutors for their children. Perhaps the most pernicious effect of socioeconomic and cultural minority differences, however, is that the purported “ability tests” that determine ability track placement do not actually measure native aptitude but rather cultural exposure or, in the terms of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), cultural capital. Students with less exposure to the majority group culture of the middle or higher classes are likely to score lower on the tests.
The consequences of these educational tracking differences by social class and racial and ethnic minority group status is that lower class and racial and ethnic minority students receive a more restricted education that reduces their level of knowledge, the development of their cognitive potential, and their opportunities to attain a high quality college education. Educational tracking thereby relegates a relatively high proportion of the lower classes and racial and ethnic minorities to lower level occupations. It also creates de facto racial or ethnic segregation within the schools, which in turn breeds false stereotypes and prejudice. Tracking in schools consequently serves to reproduce the socioeconomic and racial and ethnic inequalities that already exist in modern societies.
- Alexander, Karl L., and Doris R. Entwistle. 1996. Educational Tracking during the Early Years: First Grade Placements and Middle School Constraints. In Generating Social Stratification: Toward a New Research Agenda, ed. Alan C. Kerckhoff, 75–106. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Choe, Lena Domyung. 1999. Separate and Still Unequal: Legal Challenges to School Tracking and Ability Grouping in America’s Public Schools. In Race Is—Race Isn’t: Critical Race Theory and Qualitative Studies in Education, ed. Laurence Parker, Donna Deyhle, and Sofia Villenas, 231–250. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin. 2005. How Tracking Undermines Race Equity in Desegregated Schools. In Bringing Equity Back: Research for a New Era in American Educational Policy, eds. Janice Petrovich and Amy Stuart Wells, 49–76. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Rosenbaum, James E. 1976. Making Inequality: The Hidden Curriculum of High School Tracking. New York: Wiley.
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