This article discusses ability grouping, also known as tracking or homogenous grouping, in the public schools. Ability grouping has resulted in dividing the all-school program into different tracks and subtracks. Ability grouping emanated from the "efficiency" movement and the principles of scientific management which increasingly dominated American education during the first four decades of the twentieth century. High schools have always grouped students typically in three curriculum tracks: college-preparatory, general education and vocational education. Among the factors that have been used to group students are general intelligence and/or prior achievement scores, aptitude, interests, learning styles and learning speeds. Students receive a differentiated curriculum and differentiated instruction based on their ability-group assignment. A growing consensus based on evidence from educational research is that students perform at higher levels and achieve more in schools that do not practice ability grouping or tracking. Advocates of educational change in the U.S. support the elimination of ability grouping or academic tracking. This article discusses the characteristics of ability grouping or tracking programs, outlines key issues and related questions, examines arguments for and against the practice, and summarizes the evidence and conclusions of educational research.
Ability grouping or tracking is the practice of dividing or segregating students according to their capacity for learning into separate classes for the fastest and slowest learners -- high-, average-, and low-achievers (Cetron & Gayle, 1991; Oakes, 1989). The basic idea behind ability grouping or tracking is that students can be sorted and classified into relatively homogeneous groups with respect to ability levels based on their general intelligence or prior achievement scores and placed into separate classrooms according to this subdivision (Borg, 1987; Hallinan, 1996; Martz, 1992). The homogeneous groups are composed of at least three levels: the smartest and fastest students in advanced classes, the bulk of students in mainstream classes, and the slowest or most academically challenged students in remedial classes. Other criteria or variables besides intelligence and achievement that have been used to construct homogeneous groups are aptitude (e.g., a special skill or talent), interests, learning styles, social maturity, physical development, and life plans (Beane, Toepfer, & Alessi, 1986).
Ability grouping or tracking based on students' intelligence or IQ and achievement is a common and widespread, if not universal, characteristic of public education in the U.S. Almost all, or at least the vast majority, of U.S. public schools track students. It is a pervasive organizational practice in U.S. secondary schools, and practically all large comprehensive high schools in the U.S. have two or three tracks at a minimum (Beane, Toepfer, & Alessi, 1986; Hallinan, 1996; Losen, 1999; Oakes, 1989; Nevi, 1989; Tice, 1994). Key characteristics of ability grouping and tracking programs are summarized in Table 1.
Characteristic Description Curriculum and instruction Tailored to the perceived needs and abilities of students assigned to different curriculum tracks; sequences of courses differ for college-preparatory, general-education and vocational tracks; alternative curricula downgraded and stripped; quality instruction for higher tracks Learning tasks Activities involving critical and creative thinking and problem solving for higher tracks; activities involving memorization and low-level comprehension for lower tracks; students have access and are exposed to different types and levels of knowledge; high-status knowledge generally provided only to higher tracks Groups Form a hierarchy with the most advanced tracks and students perceived as being on top; tracks are not viewed as collections of different but equally-valued groups Classes and tracks Labeled based on the performance levels of students in them (e.g., advanced, average, remedial) or according to students' anticipated postsecondary destinations (e.g., college-preparatory, vocational education); poor and minority students predominately in lowest-track classes Intellectual performance of students Judged by teachers and other educators; judgments used to determine placement in different groups; high expectations held only for higher-track students School experience(s) and educational opportunity Very different for students in various tracks and ability levels; more and better opportunities for higher tracks
This system has become more prevalent as the complexity of education has increased, content has broadened, and students have become more heterogeneous (Nevi, 1989). Other reports such as Vladero (1995) have found that ability grouping or tracking is not a common practice, or as common a practice as has been assumed in U.S. schools. In some states, ability grouping or tracking systems have been eliminated and have been replaced by more efficient teaching methods (Cetron & Gayle, 1991; Schubert, 1986).
"The history of education is the history of tracking" (Nevi, 1989, p. 300).
The so-called "efficiency" movement and the principles of scientific management increasingly captivated public-school officials during the first four decades of the twentieth century (Noll, 1989). One scientific management principle that has been attributed to John Franklin Bobbit (1912) and that was applied to public schooling in the early 1900s was: "Work up the raw material into that finished product for which it is best adapted" (Noll, 1989, p. 288). Scientific management and the "efficiency" movement resulted in a tracking system in schools that ultimately reproduced the divisions of the social class system (Noll, 1989). "The ideal of a unified curriculum gave way to the ideal of differentiating students for predetermined places in the work force" (Stevens & Wood, 1987, p. 160). Students were classified, sorted, ranked, and assigned to various curricula and instructed in ways that ultimately led to a specific type of employment, work or career -- for example, professional or vocational -- suitable for their aptitude (Stevens & Wood, 1987).
Many sophisticated techniques were developed between 1910 and 1945 to measure intelligence, sort talent, and track students (Stevens & Wood, 1987). Testing became a common means used to track students, and the testing and measurement movement of the 1920s revealed that there were large differences in intelligence and achievement among the students in a typical classroom (Gage & Berliner, 1988; Stevens & Wood, 1987). The development of IQ tests provided a means to scientifically measure, classify, and track students (Stevens & Wood, 1987). Standardized achievement tests were applied in creating differentiated educational programs and curricula for different levels of talent (Stevens & Wood, 1987).
Although the foundations of the tracking movement began much earlier, tracking programs based upon homogeneous grouping caught fire and spread in the U.S. during the 1950s and reached their peaks during the 1960s and early 1970s (Beane, Toepfer, & Alessi, 1986). Ability grouping or tracking has continued to influence American education since that time.
Summary of Arguments for
This section will summarize the voluminous educational research literature by examining in turn the major arguments for and against ability grouping or tracking as practiced in U.S. public schools. There are various issues and questions regarding the use of ability grouping or tracking, and these are enumerated in Table 2. The arguments for and against the practice outlined in this section are meant to summarize the prevailing evidence as discussed in the literature, address the key issues cited, and answer the related questions posed in Table 2.
Issue Related Questions Curriculum Should all students have access and be exposed to a common curriculum? Do all students have the right to high-status knowledge? Instructional setting and teaching Is the instructional setting improved for any students? Most students? All students? Is instruction made easier with this approach? Are homogeneous groups less challenging for teachers? Do teachers have the same expectations for all students? Is it wrong if teachers do not expect all students to excel? Learning capacity Are some students more able learners than others? Are intelligence and aptitude fixed, innate, and unalterable or unidimensional? Learning tasks Are tasks for lower tracks limited to memorization and low-level comprehension? Are higher tracks given tasks requiring critical thinking and problem solving? Is there anything inherently wrong with this dichotomy of tasks? Individual needs and differences Is the diversity of student population's best addressed by ability grouping or tracking? Are initial differences among students exaggerated with this approach? Are students' initial differences widened or narrowed? Is there great variability even among students of the same track? Placement and educational opportunity Are poor and minority students...
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