Should Students Be Tracked by Ability?

Some activists worry that ability tracking doesn't help all students get an equal education.
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Parents, educators and policymakers debate the benefits and drawbacks of ability tracking. While some say it benefits both gifted and struggling students, others worry it stigmatizes struggling students and interferes with their educational progress. Schools can adopt different approaches to ability tracking; some schools opt to track students within a classroom, by breaking them into groups by ability, while others track students by placing them in different classrooms and programs depending upon their academic success.

1 Stereotypes and Stigma

Students who are tracked according to ability may be stigmatized, particularly if they have developmental delays or other disabilities. A 2010 study by the PCB Foundation, for example, found that ability tracking tends to increase social segregation among students. This can cause stereotypes to proliferate. Under the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, students with disabilities are entitled to the least restrictive environment possible, so placing students with learning difficulties into alternative classrooms could be a violation of this law.

2 Access to Quality Instruction

In a 2013 "New York Times" article, several teachers argued that ability tracking allowed them to provide higher quality instruction. Proponents of tracking believe that the practice makes it easier for teachers to tailor their instruction to student needs and provide both advanced and struggling students with appropriate coursework. According to research compiled by the Principals' Partnership, however, students tracked into lower-ability groups tend to receive low-quality instruction, causing them to fall further behind.

3 Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Some advocates worry that tracking creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a child believes she's not as smart as other kids, she may work less hard, resulting in lower grades. Similarly, children in gifted programs may gain a confidence boost that causes them to try harder. The National Association of School Psychologists argues that tracking can create such self-fulfilling prophecies and therefore opposes the practice.

4 Accuracy of Tracking Mechanisms

Racial minorities are significantly more likely to be tracked into low-performing groups. While proponents of tracking argue that such tracking might ensure these students get more personalized attention, racial disparities give rise to concerns about tracking mechanisms. Teacher assessments are subjective, and organizations such as Fair Test argue that standardized tests can contain racial and cultural biases, resulting in lower scores for students in minority groups and from low-income families.

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.