SOLUTION: UCB Teachers Responsibilities Towards Students Growth Discussion

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Educational Psychologist
ISSN: 0046-1520 (Print) 1532-6985 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hedp20
Tracking in Secondary Schools: A Contextual
Jeannie Oakes
To cite this article: Jeannie Oakes (1987) Tracking in Secondary Schools: A Contextual
Perspective, Educational Psychologist, 22:2, 129-153, DOI: 10.1207/s15326985ep2202_3
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep2202_3
Published online: 08 Jun 2010.
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Copyright o 1987, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Tracking in Secondary Schools:
A Contextual Perspective
Jeannie Oakes
The Rand Corporation
Tracking is nearly ubiquitous in secondary schools despite evidence suggesting
its general ineffectiveness and likely negative effects on students in low tracks.
Here it is argued that consideration of two contexts in which tracking is
embedded is required for understanding how tracking works and why it persists. The schooling context (tracking’s consequences for school and classroom
practice) permits understanding of how tracking’s educational effects may occur. The societal context (the beliefs, values, and circumstances that originally
influenced the institution of tracking and may continue to shape current practice) provides an understanding of why tracking, and not some other approach,
was adopted as the means for managing student diversity. It also provides insight into how race and class were historically confounded with tracking and
may continue to influence practice. Analyses of these contexts suggest that
tracking profoundly influences the day-to-day conduct of schools and reflects
assumptions about how schools should respond to student diversity. This contextual view of tracking permits an understanding of why tracking is not easily
For at least 60 years, schools have practiced tracking and ability grouping,
and researchers have attempted to determine whether it “works.” Does
tracking enhance schools ability to educate their diverse student populations? Researchers typically oppose tracking because the bulk of the
empirical literature finds it to be generally ineffective (see, e.g., reviews
by Esposito, 1973; Noland, 1985; Persell, 1977; Rosenbaum, 1980a). Desegregation litigation has focused attention on the contribution of tracking to
unequal schooling for poor and minority children (Oakes, 1983b); and several courts, ruling on the schooling rights of the educationally handicapped
to “mainstreamed” education, have cited negative effects of tracking (see,
Requests for reprints should be sent to Jeannie Oakes, The Rand Corporation, 1700 Main
Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401.
e.g., Mills v. Board of Education, 1972; Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1971). Several recent
educational reform proposals and schooling reports have criticized the negative consequences of tracking (Achievement Council, 1985; Goodlad, 1984;
National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983; Powell, Farrar, &
Cohen, 1985); some advocate abandoning the practice (Adler, 1981 ;
Berman, 1985; Goodlad, 1984).
Despite empirical evidence, court decisions, and reform proposals,
tracking remains a nearly universal practice in secondary schools. Usually,
tracking is not seriously questioned by practitioners and policymakers; it is
simply “how schools work.” When the issue is raised, practitioners usually
support tracking for its benefits to students, and because it seems to ease the
instructional problems posed by individual differences. Their experience in
managing schools and classrooms has apparently convinced practitioners
that tracking is necessary.
Unfortunately, the tracking literature provides only limited understanding. Until quite recently, two questions have been of primary interest. The
first, “Does tracking work?,” has resulted in numerous studies of tracking’s
effects on students’ cognitive and affective outcomes. The second question,
“What determines track placement?,” has promoted considerable inquiry
into the influence of student characteristics such as race, class, and prior
achievement on track assignments. Seldom has either of these questions led
researchers to investigate tracking practices themselves, how tracking practices affect the distribution of learning experiences, or how, in turn, these
features of tracking may contribute to student outcomes. Thus, although we
have some compelling evidence that tracking works against many (often poor
and minority students) and in favor of few (often privileged whites), we have
little understanding of how tracking produces those outcomes. Moreover,
the research provides little insight into why tracking remains entrenched in
secondary schools despite the lack of empirical support for its effectiveness.
This article explores tracking from a contextual perspective. It argues that
two contexts in which tracking is embedded are particularly important for
understanding how tracking works and why it persists. The first is the schooling context of tracking, that is, tracking’s consequences for school and classroom practice. This schooling context, increasingly of interest to researchers,
permits some understanding of how tracking’s educational effects may occur. The second context is the societal context of tracking, that is, the beliefs,
values, and circumstances that originally influenced the institution of
tracking in comprehensive secondary schools and may continue to shape current practice. This societal context provides a broader understanding of why
tracking, and not some other approach, was adopted as the means for managing student diversity. It also provides insight into how issues of race and
class were historically confounded with tracking and may continue to be in-
fluential. Analysis of these schooling and societal contexts suggests that
tracking profoundly influences the day-to-day conduct of secondary schools
and both reflects and interacts with fundamental assumptions about how
schools should respond to student diversity. This contextual view of tracking
permits a fuller understanding of why tracking is not easily reconsidered or
changed. Before considering tracking’s contexts, however, a brief review of
tracking practices, assumptions, and evidence of effects is in order.
Tracking places students who appear to have similar educational needs and
abilities into separate classes and programs of instruction. Two forms of
tracking predominate, although each is found in a variety of permutations.
One form found at most senior high schools is curriculum tracking. Students
are classified as in one or another track, and are expected to complete sequences of courses designed for college-preparatory students, vocational students, or general track students. Some schools do not have all three of these
tracks, and others have more. For example, in California, differing college
requirements encourage separate tracks for students preparing for entrance
into the more selective University of California system and the somewhat less
selective California State University system. Other schools have separate
tracks for vocational students with a business emphasis and for those
preparing for a trade.
A second form of tracking, widely used at junior highs and middle schools
as well as at senior high schools, is ability grouping, the division of academic
subjects (typically English, mathematics, science, and social studies) into
classes at different “levels” for students of different abilities. Like curriculum
tracking, ability grouping also varies from school to school. At some schools
all academic subjects are tracked; at others, some are not (most often social
studies). Schools also differ in the number of ability groups they form, and
within the same school some subjects may have more levels than others.
Some schools schedule students at the same ability level to stay together for
blocks of subjects. At these schools a single decision about a student’s ability
often governs his or her placement in several subjects. Other schools track
students separately for each subject. At these schools the same student might
be placed in a “high ability” English class and in an “average” math class.
In many senior high schools, curriculum tracking and ability grouping
overlap. These schools have both separate college-preparatory, general, and
vocational programs and ability grouping in academic subjects. So, for example, a student in the college-preparatory track might be taking an “honors” English class, but also be in a “regular” section of college-preparatory
math or science (Oakes, 1985). More likely than not, the student in the voca-
tional curriculum track will be in one of the lower ability tracks, so the distinction between the two types of tracking becomes more difficult to assess.
But tracking is not likely to proceed as neatly as the descriptions imply. The
inflexibility and idiosyncrasies of developing the “master schedule” can create unplanned tracking, generate further variations among tracking systems,
and may affect the courses taken by individual students as well. In some
schools, for example, such elective subjects as art and home economics become low-track classes because college-preparatory students rarely have time
to take them. In other schools, certain required classes, such as drivers’ training, health, or physical education, intended to be heterogeneous, become
tracked when students’other track requirements keep them together for most
or all of the day (Oakes, 1985).
Despite these variations, tracking has common and predictable characteristics:
1. Students’ academic performance is judged, and these judgments are the
basis of group placements.
2. Classes and tracks are labeled in terms of the performance levels of the
students in them (e.g., advanced, average, remedial) or according to
students’ expected post-secondary destination (e.g., college-preparatory, vocational).
3. The groups that are formed are not merely a collection of different but
equally valued instructional groups, they form a hierarchy in schools
with the most academic or advanced tracks seen as the “top.” For evidence, we have only to look at how teachers jockey for assignment to
the top tracks (Findley, 1984).
4. The curriculum and instruction in various tracks are tailored to the perceived needs and abilities of the students assigned to them.
5. Based on their track assignments, students at various track levels experience school differently.
First, and clearly most important, school practitioners generally assume
that tracking promotes students’ achievement, that all students will learn best
when they are grouped with other students of similar capabilities or prior levels of achievement. Fundamental views of human capabilities appear to underlie this assumption, including the belief that students’ capacities to master
school work are so disparate that they require different and separate schooling experiences. Grouping is seen as the only appropriate means to accommodate these differences. A second assumption underlying tracking is that slow
or less capable students will suffer emotional as well as educational damage
from daily contact with brighter peers. Lowered self-concepts and negative
attitudes toward learning are widely considered to be consequences of mixedability grouping for slower learners. Also widely held is the assumption that
group placements can be made both accurately and fairly. Finally, most
teachers and administrators contend that homogeneous grouping greatly
eases the teaching task. This assumption stems from the view that when
tracks or ability groups are formed, the range of student differences is narrowed sufficiently to permit whole-class instruction (i.e., lessons organized
around a common set of learning objectives, a single teaching strategy, common learning tasks, and universally applied criteria for success and rewards).
Effects on Student Outcomes
Tracking’s effects on student outcomes have been widely investigated. Unfortunately, this body of work is plagued with studies of varying quality and
conflicting conclusions. The bulk of the evidence, however, does not support
widely held beliefs that tracking generally increases students’ learning or that
it enhances students’ attitudes about themselves and schooling.
Taken together, the literature on tracking’s effects on student outcomes
appears to support the following more specific conclusions.
First, some tracking systems appear to provide a cognitive advantage for
students who are placed in the top tracks. Recent analyses of High School
and Beyond data, for example, provide evidence that membership in the
college preparatory track has a positive influence on student achievement,
even when student background characteristics and prior ability are controlled (Gamoran, 1986; Lee, 1986; Rock, Ekstrom, Goertz, Hilton, &
Pollack, 1985). Further, when students are placed in accelerated courses or
special programs for the gifted and talented, they appear to benefit (see, e.g.,
the review by Kulik & Kulik, 1982). But these positive cognitive effects on
high-ability students are not universally found (see Noland, 1985, for a recent
review). Further, when advantages to students in the high-ability tracks do
accrue, they do not seem to be primarily related to the fact that these tracks
are homogeneously grouped. For example, controlled studies of students
taking similar subjects in heterogeneous and homogeneous groups show that
high-ability students (like other students) rarely benefit from these tracked
settings (see Esposito, 1973; Kulik & Kulik, 1982; Noland, 1985, among
others). Moreover, studies of students learning in small, heterogeneous,
cooperative classroom groups provide evidence that the achievement of highability students can be enhanced in heterogeneous settings (Slavin, 1983;
Webb, 1982).
Second, tracking systems appear to consistently hinder those students not
placed in the top groups. Tracking is most often found to work to the
academic detriment of students who are placed in low-ability classes or noncollege-preparatory groups (see e.g., reviews by Calfee & Brown, 1979;
Esposito, 1973; Findlay & Bryan, 1970; Froman, 1981; Noland, 1985;
Rosenbaum, 1980b). Further, students in vocational tracks do not even appear to be advantaged vocationally by their placements. Graduates of vocational programs may be less employable and earn lower wages than other
high school graduates (Berg, 1971; Berryman, 1980; Grasso & Shea, 1979;
Rubens, 1975; Stern, Hoachlander, Choy, & Benson, 1985). On the other
hand, considerable support can be found for the positive effects on the leastable students of membership in heterogeneous classrooms (Esposito, 1973;
Madden & Slavin, 1983; Noland, 1985; Persell, 1977; Rosenbaum, 1980b;
Slavin, 1983).
Third, the bulk of the research does not appear to support the assumption
that slow students will suffer emotional strains when enrolled in mixedability classes. In fact, the opposite has often been found to result. Rather
than helping students to feel more comfortable about themselves, the
tracking process seems to foster lowered self-esteem, lowered aspirations,
and negative attitudes toward school (Alexander & McDill, 1976; Esposito,
1973; Noland, 1985; Rosenbaum, 1980a). Some studies have concluded that
tracking leads these students to school misbehavior, and eventually to dropping out altogether (Schafer & Olexa, 1971).
Fourth, tracking’s net effect is to widen the initial differences among
students (Calfee & Brown, 1979; Esposito, 1973; Findlay & Bryan, 1970).
Even students who are initially similar in background and aptitude exhibit
increased differences resulting from their placements in higher and
lower tracks. Tracking, therefore, can be seen to affect student outcomes independent of the characteristics that determined the track placement
(Alexander, Cook, & McDill, 1978; Alexander & McDill, 1976). The net effect appears to be cumulative, as studies investigating track mobility have
found that students’ track placements tend to be quite fixed and long-term.
Students placed in low-ability groups in elementary school are likely to continue in these tracks in middle schools and junior highs; they typically are
placed in noncollege-preparatory tracks in senior high school. When mobility between track occurs, it is most often in a downward direction (Oakes,
1985, Rosenbaum, 1980a). Figure 1 illustrates this long-term tracking effect.
How Are Track Assignments Made?
The second topic of considerable investigation has been the determinants of
track placements. To assign students to tracks, schools typically use standardized test scores, teacher and counselor recommendations, prior place-
Hiah Track
as Low

Low Track
Placement in
Low Track
Figure 1
Long-term tracking effects.
ments and grades, and (for some senior high school students) student choice.
Considerable confusion exists in the research literature about which student
characteristics contribute most to track placements. Studies can be found
that conclude that tracking is a meritorious practice- based almost entirely
on ability or prior achievement (Davis & Haller, 1980; Rehberg & Rosenthal,
1978). Others conclude the opposite, that race and class have substantial influence on placements (Alexander & McDill, 1976; Jones, Vanfossen, &
Spade, 1985; Rosenbaum, 1980b). Some analysts suggest that the issues of
class and merit cannot be disentangled. They argue that because race and
class biases are embedded in measures of ability and prior achievement, by
the time students reach secondary schools, track placement according to
these measures cannot be seen as strictly meritorious (see, e.g., Amato, 1980;
Rosenbaum, 1980b). Other work suggests that students from different backgrounds are given different types of information, advice, and counselor
attention, and that race and class-based placements are produced in the advising process (Cicourel & Kitsuse, 1963; Erickson, 1975; Heyns, 1974;
Rosenbaum, 1976).
However, one finding about placements is undisputed: Disproportionate
percentages of poor and minority youngsters (principally black and Hispanic) are placed in tracks for low-ability or noncollege-bound students (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1985b; Rosenbaum, 1980a); further,
minority students are consistently underrepresented in programs for the
gifted and talented (College Entrance Examination Board, 1985). Other evidence indicates that additional …
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