ERIC Identifier: ED433217
Publication Date: 1999-05-00
Author: Haury, David L. - Milbourne, Linda A.
Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Should Students Be Tracked in Math or Science? ERIC Digest.
There seems no simple answer to this straightforward question; the answer
depends on who you ask and what learning outcomes are considered most important.
Studies focusing on student achievement seem to bear different results than
studies focusing on equity issues, and in both cases there are questions about
the educational significance of the findings. Though many researchers and
educators consider the practice outdated, or even harmful to some students, many
parents and teachers strongly endorse tracking. Here we will try to sort out the
issues, and then suggest that the answer to whether children should be tracked
in math or science is neither "yes" nor "no."
First, we differentiate tracking from ability grouping. Within a particular
class, teachers often form reading groups or math groups on the basis of
ability; this is an instructional management practice that enables teachers to
more effectively attend to the individual needs of students. Students can move
from group to group as they progress, and the whole class receives the same
basic instruction. By tracking, we are referring to the practice of separating
students into different courses or course sequences ("tracks") based on their
level of achievement or proficiency as measured by some set of tests or course
grades. This practice has been common in the United States throughout the 20th
century, and even in schools where there is no formal system of tracking, the
higher achieving, college-bound students take different classes-honors classes
or Advanced Placement classes-than other students. By 8th grade, over two-thirds
of U.S. students are grouped into differentiated math courses (Mullis, 1991).
Many educators began questioning the practice of tracking in the 1970s when
studies began to show that minority and low-income students were
over-represented in the lower tracks where they receive less challenging
instruction from less qualified teachers (Oakes, 1990). On the basis of results
from many separate studies, some have argued that students of all ability levels
do no better in tracked classes than in classes of mixed ability (Slavin, 1990).
These findings prompted many schools to abolish tracking.
More recent findings, however, have caused some educators to take a more
cautionary approach. In one nationwide study it was found that scores for
students formerly in the lower tracks did improve when the students were moved
to mixed-ability groupings, but the scores of average and higher-achieving
students decreased somewhat (Argys, Brewer, & Rees, 1996). The reverse
effect had been documented earlier (Gamoran, 1987); tracking boosted achievement
among students in the academic track, but the gains were offset by the losses
experienced by students placed in the lower track. Gamoran also found that the
difference in achievement between students in the upper and lower tracks was
even greater than the difference between those who stayed in school and those
who dropped out. One outcome of tracking, it seems, is a widening of the gap
between high achievers and low achievers.
In attempting to account for the increased gap, Gamoran (1995) found that
questioning patterns differ significantly in honors, regular, and remedial
classes, indicating differences in the way students and teachers interact in
those classrooms. Indeed, teachers in the academic tracks tend to place more
emphasis on reasoning and inquiry skills than do teachers of classes in the
other tracks. Students in the lower tracks also spend more time reading
textbooks and completing worksheets while students in the upper tracks are more
likely to participate in hands-on inquiry and write about their reasoning in
solving mathematics problems. These differences in the learning environments of
remedial, regular, and honors courses may account in part for the findings of
Madigan (1997). In exploring patterns of science course taking, science
proficiency levels, and demographic variables, he found that "the most
consistent pattern seems to be that what science courses students take in high
school is more related to increases in science proficiency level than the number
of science courses" (p.12). Also, math and science courses with higher
proportions of minority students are more often designated as "low-ability"
courses than are courses with lower proportions of minority students (National
Science Foundation, 1996). Among 10th graders in 1990, Black, Hispanic, and
Native American students were less likely than other 10th graders to be in an
academic track (Peng & Hill, 1995) where science and math are emphasized.
When this placement pattern is compared to the expectations of 8th graders and
the distribution of 8th graders in academic math courses, one has to wonder how
early children are deciding whether they are capable of advanced studies and how
much influence the practice of tracking, particularly in math, is having on the
It is this apparent connection between demographic grouping (minorities,
low-income students) and so-called ability grouping that is most troublesome.
There have long been concerns about the underrepresentation of some minority
groups in math and science, so are we exacerbating the problem by continuing an
educational tradition that has, at best, a marginal benefit for a small group of
students? Indeed, Oakes (1990) has said, "while not all students have the
interests or aptitude to become scientists or mathematicians, the disparities
for African-American and Hispanic minorities and the poor are so great that
considerable science and mathematics talent is undoubtedly being lost from these
groups" (p. 2). So, it seems the supposed "ability-grouping" tradition in math
is, in effect, also a sorting process with unsettling social consequences.
In attempting to place these findings in a broader context, it is worth
considering the general levels of proficiency in mathematics among high school
seniors as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Mullis,
1991). Though students in academic programs, with plans to attend college,
performed significantly higher in mathematical achievement than students in
general and vocational programs, their average was barely above the level
required to successfully understand material introduced by the 7th grade.
Likewise, results from the Third International Science and Mathematics Study
(see online at http://nces.ed.gov/timss) showed U.S. 12th graders scoring below
the international average, and among the lowest of the 21 participating nations.
The mathematics assessment represented a seventh-grade level curriculum for most
participating nations. So, even among the best students in higher-performing
schools, relatively few seem prepared for advanced mathematics, and U.S.
students in general do not perform at an advanced level compared to students of
other nations. These results do not present a very strong case for continuing
One of the problems in attempting to make a decisive stand on the issue of
tracking is the array of conflicting results from individual studies; despite
all the debate over the issue of tracking, there has been no rigorous,
large-scale study to provide a definitive accounting of the costs and benefits
of tracking. Until such a study is conducted, the best we can do is decide what
outcomes are most important to us, and use the most relevant findings to make
local decisions. Some say (Loveless, 1999) that "detracking" is
counterproductive, that it will most hurt those it is intended to help. The gap
between high and low achievers will indeed narrow under mixed-ability grouping,
because the high- and average-track students will likely achieve less, but the
lower track students will not likely achieve more. Also, parents of high-ability
students will likely transfer them out of schools that abolish tracking, or they
will find other means to nurture higher achievement. It also seems that tracking
does not necessarily have the same effects in all math courses (Epstein &
MacIver, 1992); while lower achieving students were found to benefit from
mixed-ability grouping in some math survey courses, tracking seemed to benefit
all students some tracked algebra classes.
So, here is our thinking. U.S. students in general do not leave our schools
particularly well prepared in mathematics; the traditional practices that so
many cherish do not seem to be serving us well. Given the evidence that any
marginal benefits gained from tracking by higher- achieving students come at the
cost of increased barriers to lower-achieving students, the continuation of
tracking seems unwarranted. If you factor in the potential benefit of using
Internet resources (see Q&A article) to help students manage some of their
own learning, higher achieving students would likely be just as well served by
having differentiated assignments within mixed-ability classes. So, should
students be tracked in math and science? For most students, the answer is
clearly no; for the others, tracking has a marginal effect, but there are
alternative instructional strategies that may hold even more promise.
Argys, L. M., Rees, D. I., & Brewer, D. J.
(1996). Detracking America's schools: Equity at zero cost?. "Journal of Policy
Analysis and Management," 15(4), 623-645.
Epstein, J. L., & MacIver, D. J. (1992). "Opportunities to learn: Effects
on eighth graders of curriculum offerings and instructional approaches. (Report
No. 34)." Baltimore: Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools, Johns
Gamoran, A. (1987). The stratification of high school learning opportunities.
"Sociology of Education," 60(3), 135-155.
Gamoran, A. et. al (1995, Winter). An organizational analysis of the effects
of ability grouping. "American Educational Research Journal."
Loveless, T. (1999). Will tracking reform promote social equity? "Educational
Leadership," 56(7), 28-32.
Madigan, T. (1997). "Science proficiency and course taking in high school."
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational
Mullis, I. V. S., et al. (1991). "The State of Mathematics Achievement:
NAEP's 1990 Assessment of the Nation and the Trial Assessment of the States."
Washington, DC: United States Department of Education, Office of Educational
Research and Improvement.
National Science Foundation. (1996). "Women, Minorities, and Persons with
Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1996 (NSF 96-311)." Arlington, VA:
Author. (Available online at http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/nsf96311/start.htm)
Oakes, J. (1990). "Multiplying Inequalities: The Effects of Race, Social
Class, and Tracking on Opportunities to Learn Mathematics and Science." Santa
Monica, CA: Rand Corp. [ED 329 615]
Slavin, R. (1990). Achievement effects of ability grouping in secondary
schools: A best evidence synthesis. "Review of Educational Research," 60,
Burnett, G. (1995). "Alternatives to ability grouping: Still unanswered
questions (ERIC Digest)." New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education.
(Available online at http://eric-web.tc.columbia.edu/digests/dig111.html.
Davenport, L.R. (1993). "The Effects of Homogeneous Groupings in Mathematics
(ERIC Digest EDO-SE-93-6)." Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science,
Mathematics, and Environmental Education. (Available online at
"Grouping Practices" (Available online at
Loveless, T. (1998). The tracking and ability grouping debate, available
online at http://www.edexcellence.net/library/track.html.
Special issue on detracking. (1997). Harvard Education Letter, 13(1),
January/February. (Available online at