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November 4, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Civil Disagreement: Ability tracking in schools

Civil Disagreement is an occasional feature of the Seattle Times editorial board. Here Bruce Ramsey and Lynne K. Varner offer dramatically different takes on tracking, the practice of grouping schoolchildren by perceived ability.

Bruce RamseyLynne, I see there is still argument about tracking, the practice of dividing up schoolchildren in the same grade into groups of faster and slower learners. I’m for it, for a reason that seems obvious: kids learn at different speeds.

I went through the Edmonds School District in the late 1950s and the 1960s. I think I was always tracked. Even in first grade, in Lynndale Elementary, Mrs. Kinsel had three reading groups, the blue birds, for the faster readers, the brown bears for the medium ones, and another group for the ones who hadn’t got the hang of it yet.

Race wasn’t an issue. We were all Caucasian. Some kids were ahead and others behind. That fact remained constant for my entire time in school.

Some of the opponents of tracking seem to think these differences are the result of differential treatment, and if we could just treat all kids the same they’d all perform the same. My entire experience tells me this is a fantasy. I didn’t believe this as a kid and I don’t believe it now. Kids are different. I was a fast reader and a slow runner, and treatment didn’t have much to do with it. School is supposed to let you reach your potential—and our potentials are different.

Other opponents of tracking might admit differences, but they believe that the most important concern is the students who are behind. If the slow ones benefit by being placed with faster-moving students, they’ll say, then do it. But what if that slows down the faster ones? What if it makes them bored with school? And it will. Do we sacrifice the faster learners in order to narrow a gap? No. You try to reasonably accommodate the students you have.

My support of tracking in theory does not mean I approve of every implementation of it. Any system should evaluate kids from time to time. Some start slow and speed up. Some start fast and peter out. You told me that you were put in a secondary track, took the Scholastic Achievement Test, and scored high. Always there should be such escape valves.


Bruce: Grouping students by ability is one way to turn large classes into smaller learning environments. But historically, the practice has also trapped students, many minorities or from low-income families, into low-level classes. If public education is to do a better, more equitable job this time, tracking has to be fluid. Students should be able to move up and down the academic track based on performance. The best teachers track students in order to more nimbly make instructional decisions, not to consign students to the bottom of the academic heap.

Broadly speaking, academic tracking is making a comeback. As reported by the New York Times, a recent analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress data found that 71 percent of fourth-grade teachers grouped students by reading ability. I hope grouping students can drive resources in a more efficient and focused manner. My fear is the opposite happens and struggling students are given fewer resources and less experienced teachers.

In high school I was placed on a non college-bound track. Teachers and guidance counselors made scheduling choices for me based on factors outside of my control: my home address changed at least a dozen times due to family circumstances. I was a smart, but inconsistent student. I did not have perfect attendance. Thus, those creating my class schedule were left to decide that I needed only enough education to land a job after graduation. Think cashier: secretary if I was lucky. And so I spent high school taking typing classes, business math, shorthand and writing classes where we learned to write the formal letters that our teachers imagined future bosses would dictate to us one day.

Late in my senior year I learned about the SAT. I signed up.  I had no time or money to study. I scored high enough to apply to college late and get in. I dodged a bullet so to speak. Tracking had become a trap. Education researchers and civil rights groups eventually argued successfully to end tracking because while it purported to divide students by achievement, it also divided us by race and class.

Can our public education system equitably carry out a system of sorting students by ability? Schools are headed back in that direction, so we’re all about to find out.

Comments | More in Civil Disagreement, Pro/con


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