Ask the grumpies: Tracking

Leah asks:

I assume you prefer tracking students based on ability in K-12 or at least 6-12/7-12. maybe yes? Have you seen any good evidence for that, or is there better evidence for having lumped classes where assignments/projects are differentiated to ability?

We’re not really up on the tracking literature for non-gifted kids.  Our impression is that once you cut off the tails of the distribution, mainstreaming has better outcomes than tracking.  There is good evidence that mainstreaming gifted kids has worse outcomes both for the gifted kids and for the middle of the distribution in cooperative learning environments.  The literature on mainstreaming for learning disabled kids is mixed, but I suspect that mainstreaming is good for kids who are misdiagnosed (generally because they are poor or minority) and for those with specific learning disabilities, and bad for kids who need more than just pull-out programming for their individual kind of disability.  It would be awesome if they could, say, track math classes for kids who have dyscalculia, because math can be taught to kids with dyscalculia, but it has to be taught in a different way than mainstream math is taught.  But it’s hard to do that kind of thing except in a major urban center.

As a teacher, it is much easier to teach to a tracked class, but that’s just personal anecdote.  There’s a lot more work to go into differentiation, and God bless the teachers who are willing and able to put in that effort.  We salute you and wish you smaller class sizes!

Differentiation, when done well, has good outcomes across all ability levels.  Ability clustering within a class (allowing clusters to change as abilities change) also has good outcomes for everybody.  Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom has an excellent literature review of the differentiation and ability clustering literature for all kids, not just gifted kids.

Do any of our grumpy readers have more knowledge about tracking to share with Leah?  Any experiences to share?

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8 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Tracking”

  1. femmefrugality Says:

    Hmmm…I don’t, but I’d have to say it depends on the disability, like you said. And on top of that the individual child. I had a couple of Deaf friends growing up. For one, mainstreaming was the way to go. For another one, she probably would have benefited a lot more in an environment more condusive to her pathological hearing loss/direct instruction in her preferred mode of communication. Which makes the whole process of determining LREs and if the LRE is the right place for the kid all the more muddy.

  2. Leigh Says:

    Hmm I’m confused on what exactly “tracking” is. Is it when you separate gifted, non-gifted, and slower students?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Often that’s what it means, but it can really be any sort of ability-grouping. Definitions vary from say the German system where they’re hard-core about it, sorting people into college prep and vocational tracks early on, to more lax US systems where kids can change tracks each year or even mid-year.

      • Leigh Says:

        As a former gifted public school student, I am a huge proponent of tracking. My high school had three tracks, starting from the first year: honors, academic, and general. I partially switched to the “academic” track in my senior year and it sucked. My English class had a 50% attendance rate and no one really cared. I would not have chosen my high school if it hadn’t had its amazing honors track.

        I just wish that my elementary schools could have done something similar.

  3. Jacq Says:

    I went to a small school with about 25 kids per class. In grade 3 we were put into separate groups based on IQ test scores – about 5 or 6 of them IIRC. I was in my own “purple” group. It was not a very pleasant experience. Skipping a grade was bad enough, but that was even worse. Tracking in larger schools these days sounds like a much better approach.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That sounds like clustering, not tracking. It’s pretty common, especially when there isn’t tracking. We didn’t have a problem with it growing up, though it was depressing seeing low SES kids start out in the higher ability clusters and eventually end up in remedial ones years later. In terms of academic research, clustering tends to work very well with students of all ability levels (though again, better if gifted kids are in their own cluster rather than grouped with above average). The cons of clustering is that it can be time-intensive for the teacher who has to manage several different groups at the same time, which can be especially difficult in large classes or with behavioral problems. Clustering tended to work best when we had a student teacher also in the room.

      I actually have some pretty fond memories of cluster grouping in 3rd and 4th grade. We were able to work at a much higher level than we’d been used to and learning is fun.

      The alternative to clustering is to teach to either the average or to the lowest ability student in the class. That can get deadly boring, especially if the teacher won’t let you read novels during lectures on things you mastered years ago.

      Clustering is usually based on achievement, not IQ. Which is good in some ways, but can allow kids who are under-performing because they’re bored to fall through the cracks. It can also keep certain demographic groups falling through the cracks if teachers put kids in groups based on their own heuristics rather than using actual achievement.

  4. becca Says:

    I tend to associate ‘tracking’ with ‘legalized segregation’ because of how it played out in the schools I went to.

    On the other hand, I can’t imagine a functional classroom without some level of accommodation for different abilities.


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