The American Legacy of Ability Grouping: Tracking Reconsidered

By Mallery, James L.; Mallery, Janet G. | Multicultural Education, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The American Legacy of Ability Grouping: Tracking Reconsidered


Mallery, James L., Mallery, Janet G., Multicultural Education


Armed with "scientific" IQ tests and a Progressive drive for social engineering, educators of the 1920s and 1930s set out to "track" students according to their ranked ability (Oakes,1995). Trackingbegan as an effort to prepare students for distinct careers and lives that awaited by placing them in specific educational "tracks," which essentially amounted to "low," "average," and "high" ability groupings (Marsh & Raywid, 1994). The practice of academic tracking of middle- and high-school students began to wane by mid-century, only to regain much of its lost status by 1960.

In 1976 James Rosenbaum's seminal work Making Inequality instigated a discourse over ability grouping that remains today among the most controversial issues in secondary education. With over 80 percent of public high schools still conducting some form of tracking, it is not surprising that the issue remains highly contested (Marsh & Raywid, 1994; O'Neill, 1992; Raze. 1984; Spencer & Allen, 1988).

Though much of today's educational literature seems to reflect a detracking consensus, some studies suggest that, when properly controlled, ability grouping can hold merit. This article will walk step-bystep through the current arguments posited by tracking and detracking enthusiasts. We will argue that ability grouping as practiced today in the United States is detrimental to the nation's educational system, though ironically tracking's ultimate downfall will likely result for legal reasons beyond its most irredeemable features. Concerns related to the abuses in tracking compared to possible similar abuses in current educational practices will also be addressed.

Perhaps the most pronounced theme of detracking literature today relates to the racially imbalanced and inequitable distribution of tracking levels. One example of this disparity has been presented by Jomills Braddock ( 1990) in his study of the effects of tracking and ability grouping on multiple samples of student groups. His findings indicate that racial and ethnic minorities are distributed disproportionately in middle school and high school tracks and ability groups. As ability grouping is practiced today, white and Asian students are vastly overrepresented in"high"groupings, while African-American and Latino students are similarly overrepresented in the "low" rankings.

Education researcher Jeannie Oakes reports that schools far more often "judge African-American and Latino students to have learning deficits and limited potential" (1995, p. 682) than white students. In fact, Oakes contends, "African-American and Latino students were much less likely than white or Asian students with the same test scores to be placed in accelerated courses." And while only 56 percent of Latinos scoring above 90 in National Curve Equivalencies were placed in "high" groupings, 93 percent of white and 97 percent of Asian students who scored above 90 were placed in gifted programs (Oakes, 1995, p. 686).

How does such inequitable treatment of students begin? Very often screening processes for "gifted" or "high" programs commence arbitrarily as teachers select students to be sent for testing (Oakes, 1995). Although parental requests for leveled tracking are often available, studies suggest that African-American and Latino parents generally have little access to this knowledge (Oakes, 1995). Compounding the problem, the quality of education in "low" ranked tracks tends to be inferior to others; more low-ranked tracks focus on drill and rote memorization, teachers report (Evans, 1995). Similarly, "higher-order thinking" is often reserved for high-ability classes (Marsh & Raywid,1994). Students more often than not get locked into a fixed ability level that does not change between the 7th and 12th grades (Darling-Hammond,1995; Dickens, 1996; Lake, 1988; Oakes, 1995). In today's American public high schools it is apparent that in practice tracking is often used as a means of racially segregating student populations irregardless of actual ability or test scores (Kozol, 1991). …

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