Ability Tracking

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Ability Tracking Essay, Research Paper


If there is one general consensus among those who analyze America’s system of education, it is that we are lacking somewhere. Whether it’s in our inner-city schools, or rural districts, there is a distinct literacy dilemma that has yet to be resolved in our schools. Not only are we gravely behind other nations in our literacy rate and mathematics abilities, but there is also an increasing void within our schools. A method of segregation known as “ability grouping” has been a commonly used practice throughout the 90’s, and has changed the way in which primary and secondary school students are educated.

The idea behind ability grouping, or tracking, is that “many school practitioners assume that grouping by ability promotes student’s achievement because, it is argued, all students learn best when grouped with students of similar capabilities or levels of achievement.”(Perceptions) There are many arguments for either side, thus begging the question “is ability grouping an efficient way to handle differences in student abilities?”(Education World) Contrary to today’s popular opinion, which naturally runs against the current educational structure of our schools, I believe ability tracking is an effective and worthwhile means of educating our youth, for a variety of reasons. Ability tracking promotes academic achievement, quality instruction, and is a means of student motivation. Unfortunately, those who do not participate willingly in the tracking program can easily become lost or distraught with the system. This having been said, I don’t deny the fact that many improvements can be made to the existing system as a means of expanding and providing opportunities to all those who desire success.

Academic Achievement

In an essay, Anne Wheelock, a prominent education critic writes, “Tracking does not result in the equal and equitable distribution of effective schooling among all students. Instead, tracking allocates the most valuable school experiences — including challenging and meaningful curriculum, engaging instruction, and high teacher expectations — to students who already have the greatest academic, economic, and social advantages…” This having been said, I found my high school experiences to be much different than that.

I attended a primarily middle-class school in Sacramento, CA, with students from every conceivable culture and background. We had several different tracking programs in our school: a special education program for “mentally-disabled” students, the standard curriculum high-school education, an “International Studies” program, and the “International Baccalaureate” program, which is essentially equivalent to any honors or advanced placement education. Given the many facets of my school, I never once got the impression that students were being discriminated against on basis of ability. All students, including my friends, were given ample opportunity to pursue any education they saw fit. Students were never told they couldn’t take a specific class or participate in a program. While I won’t claim that resentment or jealousy towards students in the higher-level programs was nonexistent, I will state that it was almost nonexistent.

In my higher level classes, I was enabled to study in areas not normally offered in a high school learning environment. I completed my first year Calculus course my junior year, and was able to move on to higher levels of math, taught by the chair of the math department at California State University Sacramento, Professor Etterbeek. With this opportunity, I was able to take my education to a new plateau, and it was choices such as this that afforded me a formidable education. These challenges would not otherwise have been available to me in a “non-tracked” or “fully inclusive” learning environment.

Another opportunity was actually a requirement to garner the International Baccalaureate Diploma . One component of the Diploma was the successful completion of the Theory of Knowledge class, which investigated the philosophical nature of knowledge, and the reasons we pursue it. I feel that, had I not been placed in a higher-track learning environment, I would never have been able to participate in this level of curriculum or sophistication. I do not mean to downplay standard education methodology, but there are undeniably some that are able to circumvent and surpass the “standard education” in today’s schools. Undoubtedly, in order to provide students with the necessary options, ability tracking is a viable solution.

According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education “evidence for the effectiveness and consequences of ability grouping for academic achievement is not strong enough to provide conclusive support for any [position].”(Perceptions) Students in tracking programs are not asked to underachieve by any means, simply to achieve the best they can. I didn’t find that I benefited much from having peers in a similar “academic class” to my own, nor would I think it would hinder me to have a variety of students of different academic or social stratas in my midst. Many critics of Ability Grouping claim it is a biased program, intent on promoting education for white upper-middle class Americans, while hindering other racially and economically disadvantaged students by “tracking” them from an early age, and not realizing their full capabilities. I believe this practice can and does happen in today’s schools, as it would happen given any education system. The answer to racial and social bias is simple: we as a society must find a way to look beyond skin color or money in educating our youth. Whether this is a feasible possibility is another paper entirely.

Classroom Instruction

Some critics argue that the quality of instruction can vary too much across tracks, thus being disadvantageous to students in lower tracks. Although this may be true to a certain extent, I don’t believe that the gap between teaching quality is that great so as to hinder learning in lower tracks. While I was in high school, several of the teachers I had for higher level courses also taught their standard-level counterparts. This is not to say there were slight variances in teaching practices between tracks, but I believe the teachers I had treasured their position in society to educate youth, rather high or low tracked.

One argument against tracking is that the quality and ability of the teachers themselves may vary among different tracks. Sometimes, teachers prefer not to teach high tracks because they find it threatening to work with students who challenge their authority or who are of high social status (Oaks) Still other critics of education adhere to the notion that “teachers themselves may be tracked, with those judged to be the most competent, most experienced, or otherwise most highly regarded at the school assigned to the top tracks”(Oaks).

The fallacy in the logic that teachers themselves may be tracked unearths a great quandary in the educational world. If this is true, and teachers are tracked in a similar manner in which students are, wouldn’t it also be true that when we absolve of this tracking system these same teachers will be teaching the same students who would’ve been placed in higher tracks? Where does one draw the line? Society needs to understand that irrespective of the program the United States ends up adopting, human flaw and ineptitude is an inherent weakness in any learning environment.

Student Motivation

Without question, one object of ability tracking has been successful: motivation for students success. Students who are tracked feel as though they can succeed more readily. In an article written by Harvard Professor Thomas Loveless, he states that “little research indicates that tracking harms students’ self-esteem. In fact, the evidence tilts slightly toward the conclusion that low ability students’ self-concept is strengthened from ability grouping and tracking, although the effect is insignificant. The public labeling of low track students may cause embarrassment, but the public display of academic deficiencies undoubtedly has a similar effect in heterogeneous classrooms. There, a low ability student’s performance is compared daily to that of high-achieving classmates.” Although many parents and teachers are worried that ability grouping or tracking adversely affects students, this is simply not the case.

Without tracking, we inhibit the abilities and possibilities for the gifted and talented students to succeed. “In one recent national study of five content areas, elementary schol teachers eliminated an average if 35 to 50 percent of the regular school curriculum for gifted and talented students after tests at the start of the school year showed that these students had already master the content” (perceptions). Just as it is important to not neglect the needs of our underprivileged children, we must also take into the account the needs of the gifted and talented students in our society.


There are many possible solutions to America’s education crisis, however, the most logical and effective choice has yet to be chosen. There are many avenues our country can take in the pursuit of enabling all of America the opportunity to pursue a quality education, but ultimately, education lies in the hands of the students and teachers. I believe school districts, and even schools themselves must be given the choice between a “tracked” or fully inclusive learning environment. They must take in various socioeconomic factors in determining the best choice. This power should not lie in the hands of the centralized federal government.


In today’s society of economic prosperity and free will, it is important that we encourage our youth to succeed by any means possible. The answer to this, from and educator’s perspective, still lies with ability grouping, contrary to the post-modern belief of many proponents of “de-tracking” our schools. Granted there are many flaws (as there would be in any education system), but once we work through those flaws, such as social and racial prejudice, ability grouping will take our society to new heights. We are on the right track.


“Tracking”, http://www.edweek.org/context/topics/tracking.htm, Copyright 2000, Editorial Projects in Education

Chen-Lin C. Kulik and James A. Kulik, “Effects of Ability Grouping on Secondary School Students: A Meta-Analysis of Evaluation Findings,” American Educational Research Journal, 19 (1982)

Jeannie Oakes, Kevin Welner, and Susan Yonezawa, “Mandating Equity: A Case Study of Court-Ordered Detracking in San Jose Schools.” From the California Policy Seminar Brief Series, March 1998, Available online at: http://www.ucop.edu/cps/oaks.html.

Tom Loveless, “The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate”, The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. http://www.edexcellence.net/library/track.html

Heidi Schweingruber “The Perception of Ability Differences in U.S. Education”, http://www.ed.gov/pups/Research5/United States/perception.html

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