Between-class ability grouping, which is the practice of lumping children together in separate classes according to their talents and ability level, is ineffective according to many research studies. Research findings claim that, “although ability grouping may have slight benefits for students who are assigned to high track classes, these benefits are balanced by losses for students who are assigned to low-tracked classes. Putting students into low-tracked classes is damaging for a few reasons. First, these students are not or are only exposed to a few positive role models. Also, many teachers do not enjoy teaching low tracked classes and have low expectations of their students. Research has also found that lower track classes’ quality of instruction is lower than that of middle or high tracked classes. Tracking therefore unfairly creates unequal opportunities for academic achievement. One of the most harmful effects of tracking is the label a student in a low track is given. Opponents of tracking fear that the labels students are given early on stay with them as they move from grade to grade. It has a stigmatizing effect on those students and reduces their self-esteem. Research shows that tracking is ineffective, however, schools continue to use this practice.
Why would schools continue to use tracking if it is obviously harmful and ineffective? Tracking proponents claim that it is easier to teach relatively homogeneous classes. They also claim, that it is unrealistic to expect everyone to master the same curriculum. They say that students are more comfortable and learn better when they are tracked. They also claim that tracking lets teachers adapt instruction according to the students’ needs. Also, tracking seems to be beneficial for high tracked students and why would parents or teachers want gifted and high achieving students to be slowed down (as they perceive it) in order to accommodate low tracked students? These are the reasons why tracking, although proven ineffective, continues to be used.
There are alternatives to tracking. “Untracking recommendations focus on having students in mixed ability groups and holding them to high standards but providing many ways for them to reach those standards, including extra assistance for students who are having difficulties keeping up”(Slavin, 298). Ability grouping for certain subjects, cooperative learning and project-based learning are alternatives to tracking. An example of an ability group is regrouping. Students that are in mixed ability classes have separate math or reading classes based on their ability and performance level. A regrouping method is the Joplin plan that groups students across grade lines for instruction of a subject. Another alternative to tracking is nongraded programs, also known as cross-age grouping programs. This type of program combines students of different ages in the same class. Another alternative to tracking is within-class ability grouping. This lets teachers divide their students into groups and have each group work at different points and rates. Using small groups enables a teacher to tailor curricula and teaching for the needs of the students. Cooperative learning is another alternative to tracking. Students work in small groups collaboratively on classroom projects. All students learn the same course work together and share responsibility for their group’s success. Cooperative learning emphasizes active interaction between students with varying abilities and backgrounds. It is a beneficial alternative to tracking. Although tracking still remains a widely used method for dealing with student diversity, there are alternatives and hopefully they will be implemented successfully in schools across the nation.