To Track or Not to Track in Middle School

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Perhaps the most controversial of all philosophical dilemmas concerning the structuring of people within the middle school is the homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping debate. Homogeneous ability grouping, or tracking as it is commonly called, has been the norm in most levels of schooling for many years. It seems to make sense to test students and put them into classes based on their abilities and achievement levels so curriculum and instruction can be tailored to meet their specific needs. It appears reasonable to expect teachers to teach at their best when presented with groups of students who fall within narrow bands of intelligence and aptitude. What “makes sense” and “appears reasonable” dictates what often prevails in practice, in direct opposition to middle level philosophy.

Turning Points 2000 clearly calls for heterogeneous grouping of students, meaning that students in any given class represent the spectrum of ability levels in the school student population. Still, homogeneous grouping is prevalent in schools that otherwise follow the tenets of middle grades education. The arguments for and against ability grouping/tracking have been the same for decades (Pool & Page, 1995). It seems clear that ongoing research is needed on the topic of homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping.

The case for tracking

The literature available on the topic of tracking indicates that the case for ability grouping is based on the following propositions: tracking helps schools meet the varying needs of students; tracking provides low-achieving students with the attention and slower pace they require; high-achieving students are provided challenges when tracked; tracking is necessary for individualizing instruction; and tracking will prevent low-achievers from hindering the progress of high-achievers. Among the proponents of tracking are some administrators, teachers, and parents (mostly of high-achievers, as you might imagine).

It is easier to plan for instruction of a homogeneous class. Materials and teaching methods can be chosen specifically for the ability level of the students. High-achieving groups can sometimes “teach themselves.” They often seem to thrive regardless of the curriculum and instruction. At the other end of the spectrum, teaching a class of low-achievers has been, and often still is, a matter of drill and practice in a worksheet-rich environment if the teacher is not committed to a type of instruction that is more interesting and challenging to students, and more difficult to plan. Perhaps it’s not the grouping but the quality of instruction that makes a difference.

The case against tracking

The literature available on tracking indicates that the case against it relies on the following propositions: tracking is detrimental to young adolescent peer relationships; it is harmful to the self-esteem of low-achievers; it perpetuates class and racial inequities; the grouping process is often biased; it reinforces inaccurate assumptions about intelligence; and the least experienced teachers are typically assigned to low-achieving classes. Those who oppose tracking again include administrators, teachers, and parents.

In Beyond Tracking (Pool & Page, 1995), author after author refers to the preponderance of research involving many schools and students that has failed to show positive effects of tracking for any subgroup of students, with the possible exception of the students considered to be gifted and talented (3% to 5% of the total student population).

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