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Sociology and Solutions of Tracking at the Secondary Level of Education in the United States

Sociology SOC-161-701-18SU-N1

Jacquelyn Smith

Chesapeake College
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This paper seeks to examine the practice of tracking in secondary schools, its perceived benefits,

and how it often amplifies pre-existing economic and racial stratification. The homogenous

nature and reasoning behind tracking is provided, with the counterpoint of how it serves little

purpose beyond facilitating resource management. Examples of the stratification present in

tracking are provided at the local level. An exploration of an alternative approach to tracking

through greater student choice and fluidity, and alternative measurements in the form of portfolio

assessment closes this paper.

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Many years ago, I had an opportunity to volunteer to serve food at an end of year

teachers’ luncheon. As I dished up strawberry pretzel salad, I chatted with the teachers. One

young teacher asked me about my children, wondering what grades they were in. She taught in

the grade that my son was currently enrolled, and that my daughter would attend in four years.

She commented that she wasn’t familiar with my son. The teacher behind her in the food line

snorted, and said, “You’ll never have her kids. They’re not on your track.” I must have been

visibly perplexed because she leaned conspiratorially toward me and whispered, “Your kids are

too smart for her classes.” My initial response was pride in being told my children were

intelligent. But that quickly yielded to shock and horror that a teacher would say such a thing out

loud to a parent in front of other parents (whose children might not be on the same “track”). The

younger teacher gave an awkward forced laugh and moved on down the buffet line. Honestly,

until that day, I had not given “tracks” or levels or even ability grouping much thought. I had

been working in schools part time as a substitute teacher and had noted that kids seemed to be

broken out into skill level groups during “centers” at the elementary level and in English and

Math at the middle and high school level. But I had never really considered the impact of those

groups, or how they could be perceived by educators or students. I realized then that some kids

(and teachers) were placed into what seemed to be less respected groups. There was a whole

hierarchy I had never recognized. It was an opportunity for me to check my privilege. When my

daughter was in this same grade, four years later, she made a conscious choice (unbeknownst to

me) to undermine her own grades to get off the highest track. She found the work too stressful

and felt too much pressure to succeed. Instead of telling me this, she sabotaged her grades and I

was informed at the end of the semester that she no longer qualified for the highest math track.
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She was overjoyed, and I realized I hadn’t done my homework as a parent to understand tracking

and how the particular track she was on was impacting her.

Tracking is defined as the sorting of students by their ability level into homogeneous

instructional groups, for the purpose of facilitating instruction aimed at the student’s cognitive

level and their postsecondary goals. This takes place at the school level. In individual

classrooms, similar grouping is called ability grouping. The difference between tracking and

ability grouping is the fluidity with which a student can move from group to group, the size of

the group, and the length of time of the grouping. In tracking theory, the highest-level students

would receive more advanced instructional material, students in the middle would not find

themselves bored or overtaxed, and students in the lowest level would receive additional support

to attempt to catch them up to the average students. The idea is to help each tier of students

increase their ability to perform and maximize their potential. Students move through their day

surrounded by students who share similar academic traits and educational goals. Secondary

schools often provide students with the opportunity to self-select into a track. Options can

include a college-bound track, a diploma track, and a skilled laborer track where students have

access to apprenticeship or certification programs. Until very recently, Caroline County required

their students to choose a “major” as they entered high school. Examples of major selections

were Fine Arts, Math and Science, Education, and Cosmetology. The goal was to provide access

for students to classes that exposed them to professions or educational subjects they were

interested in pursuing outside of high school. Students who changed their majors often found

themselves scrambling to meet the credit requirements of their new major. Several of the major

tracks did not adequately satisfy the requirements students needed to meet for college

admittance, forcing them to take additional classes upon starting college, delaying their college
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graduations and costing students and their families additional money. The majors program was

recently scrapped in Caroline County, and has been replaced with a more general tracking


Literature Review

Tracking, while accepted practice at many schools, is not without controversy. Education

Week (2018) quotes an Education Association Official as saying tracking is, “probably the most

professionally divisive issue in the association”. The stratification of students, especially at the

secondary level, has different meaning and greater impact than it does for elementary students.

Students on the cusp of choosing their life path as adults face greater pressure. According to

Biafora and Ansalone (2008), the majority of public schools in the United States participate in

tracking, “…despite the more than 700 research studies that warn that tracking limits the

educational achievements of students from disadvantaged backgrounds”. (p. 590) So why would

we use tracking in public schools?

From a resource management standpoint, tracking makes a great deal of sense. Rather

than having every class have access to all of the materials that every student in that grade could

possibly need to accommodate their level, students are sorted by the materials they need into

groups that receive only the appropriate materials. This saves money for the school system,

preventing expensive material redundancies. It also solves logistical problems of having a wide

array of materials housed in classrooms that are ill-equipped to house extensive libraries and

material caches. In theory, the teacher best equipped to teach each level is matched with the best

level of students for their teaching style. We are naturally inclined to sort things, including

people. It just seems to make sense to put the high readers with the high readers, and the same
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for the low readers and everyone in between. Link and Howson (2018) state, “some would argue

that tracking allows teachers to meet the needs of a differentiated student population by

challenging highly capable students, and at the same time offering remedial instruction to lower

achieving students.” (p. 3) Schools begin stratifying students by aptitude or ability even at the

elementary level. While sorting students in reading groups or into math centers groups at the

elementary level seems like common sense, the groundwork for formal secondary education

tracking is laid in the elementary school years.

To fully understand how tracking can be negative, let’s look at a student who comes from

a low-income background. This student has either had no preschool experience or has had

experience in a preschool that was aimed at low income families. With less ability to pick and

choose a daycare, it’s unlikely that this program would offer the same level of educational

services that a program attended by students in high-income families would. He is fed, and kept

safe, and allowed to play with other children. The parents of this child, we’ll call him John, were

working four minimum wage jobs to make ends meet and missed the signup window for Pre-K.

They weren’t certain he would qualify anyway, since the school district limits the number of kids

enrolled in Pre-K. So, John stays in daycare until Kindergarten. At this point, John has been

cared for, but not intentionally or purposefully educationally stimulated. He arrives at

Kindergarten already behind the children who attended Pre-K, attended daycare programs with

educational components, or stayed at home with parents who spent time on educational

enrichment. His before and after school care is provided by older siblings who are busy with

their own homework and the chores they do to assist their parents. John works hard in

Kindergarten and first grade, but it’s clear that reading is not coming quickly for him. In second

grade, a stepped reading program is introduced in his school. His reading level is assessed, and
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he’s placed in the lowest group. Despite this targeted reading program, he remains in the lowest

reading group. His teachers begin to place him in a group with other low readers during their

centers activities. By fifth grade, many other students have moved on to thick chapter books, but

John is still reading factoid-style non-fiction books and is well below his grade level. In middle

school, John is placed into a class of low readers for Language Arts. His well-meaning teacher

doesn’t talk to this group about college and academic achievement like she does for her group of

gifted readers. Instead, she talks about how reading and writing skills are important in the

workplace, focusing on what she perceives their likely paths to be. They spend time on email

communication and building resumés. The class has frequent behavioral disruptions, and

students are often out sick, setting classroom progress back regularly. When it’s time for John to

enter high school, he must choose a formal track. In his high school, there are three choices. One

is for college bound students. The idea of college is overwhelming to John. He doesn’t know

much about how one would even begin to pick a college or apply to one. John is pretty sure he’s

not smart enough for college, since the kids in the “smart kid” classes are the ones who seem to

be planning to go. He’s pretty good with his hands, but he doesn’t know which technical skill

he’d want to develop since he missed elective classes that might have exposed him to such skills

because he was at his remedial reading classes, so he passes on the track that teaches skills like

carpentry and automotive repair. He settles for the diploma track, or general education

curriculum. His guidance counselor looks through his transcripts and sees that he’s been a poor

to middling student throughout his school career and doesn’t push him to consider the other

tracks and encourages him to take the lowest level academic classes. John just wants to get

through school at this point.

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Was John really presented with the same opportunities as the students in the high level or

mid-level tracks? Or were the effects of his low-income circumstances perpetuated by the school

system? While formal tracking didn’t begin until he entered high school, it’s clear that he was

being diverted in that direction by his performance as soon as his elementary groups were sorted

by skill level. The anecdote in the introduction about my daughter highlights another issue with

tracking. It’s quite easy for students to descend a track, even after years of consistent

performance. One poor-performing semester moved her down to the middle track. It’s fairly

simple to drop a track but moving up a track is nearly impossible. Students become trapped in

their track and cannot move up. This is partially due to the lack of opportunity to do so. Biafora

and Ansalone (2008) state, “Inasmuch as exposure of learning opportunities and foundational

knowledge across socioeconomic lines may not be equal during developmental years, tracking

only serves to further amplify these gaps over time.” (p. 591) A student like John would not be

exposed to higher level reading material or assessments that would capture his ability to read and

understand that higher level material.

This is not an indictment of teachers. Education, for many, is a calling more than a

profession as it incredibly difficult and is not a lucrative or even highly respected field

(especially of late). No teacher or administrator deliberately sets out to suppress a student’s

opportunities for success. The system itself is flawed. Through institutional isomorphism, Conley

(2017) tells us “the constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other

units that face the same set of environmental conditions” (p. 183), many school systems have

settled on the same problematic educational model. How do we address this from a sociologist’s


Sociological Analysis
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Parents can pose an obstacle to removing tracking from schools. The perception that their

student’s individual needs are being met in a program that is tailored to their specific ability level

is hard to yield. There is also the matter of prestige. According to Allen Graubard (2004), “they

are really just trying to maintain for their children privileged elite positions. ‘Elite’ is never

defined but seems to mean highly educated, affluent, and somewhat involved with intellectual

culture.” (p. 36) Every parent would like to see their child succeed. There is a perception that the

children who are not at the same level as their student could inhibit their student’s progress.

Time spent helping the slowest learners in the class is viewed as time wasted by many of the

parents of the other children in the class. Instead of teaching the class that they are all on this

educational journey together, they are broken into echelons of similarly abled people. This

stratification does not truly prepare our students for the working world of people with diverse

personalities and abilities they’ll be dealing with as adults. Highly abled students miss out on the

opportunity to hear the questions that other students ask that may force them to examine the

information another way or consider alternative viewpoints. They also miss out on opportunities

to teach others what they have learned or understand, which is proven to cement long-term

learning. Slower learners miss out on the opportunity to borrow from the learning and problem-

solving strategies of the faster learners. And our middle-tracked students lose the opportunity to

gravitate toward the learners that are closest to their ability level, subject to subject. A middle-

tracked student might be excellent at math, but struggle with reading. In heterogenous classes,

they can shine in one and get the support they need in another. Tracking seems to impair the

ability of all young people to grow as students, as people, and as contributing members of our

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In my quest to find data to look at the numbers of students at the varying levels of the

tracking process, I found a lack of transparency. Many school systems don’t wish to disclose this

information, due to the controversial nature. School systems seem far more willing to share the

data about their “high flying” students. For example, it’s fairly easy to find the data on how

many of the high school graduates for years after 1959 have participated in Advanced Placement

Percentage of High School Graduates Participating in AP
3500000 70%
3000000 60%
2500000 50%
2000000 40%
1500000 30%
1000000 20%
500000 10%
0 0%
1959-60 1969-70 1979-80 1989-90 1999-00 2009-10

AP Students High School Graduates % AP Participation


Much of the data that one might plausibly tie to tracking practices is for the upper level

track, or college bound track. However, it is not a safe assumption to make that all college bound

students participate in Advanced Placement classes. When we try to look at the middle or lower

tracks, it becomes even more complicated. To reliably report data, we cannot assume

connections. For example, we can find numbers of the students receiving special education

services in public schools, but we cannot assume that all the lowest tracked students are

receiving special education assistance. With gifted and talented students often lumped into

special education numbers, and with many students in the lower track receiving no additional

supports outside of their tracking placement, it would be reckless and disingenuous to make

those assumptions.
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Local Policy Implications

From my own personal experience, doing my educational field work in Queen Anne’s

County, I can speak a little to the numbers of minority students who reside in the lowest track. In

the five lower tracked classes I observed as part of my field work for Educational Psychology

and Introduction to Special Education, I noted a disproportionately high number of minority

students, and of boys compared to girls. Some of the lower tracked classes with special education

support had 50% minority students compared to 20% in a middle track class observed. The

middle track class was a much more even mix of boys and girls. The pie charts below show the

breakdown of one sample lower track class I observed in the fall of school year 2017-2018.

Minority and Non-Minority Students Male and Female Students in One

in One Observed Lower Track Class Observed Lower Track Class

Minority Students Non-Minority Students Female Students Male Students

Now let’s look at the demographic data provided by The National Center for Education Statistics

on the demographics of Queen Anne’s County Schools and see how it compares.

Minority and Non-Minority Students Male and Female Students in Same

in Same County's High Schools County's High Schools

Minority Non-Minority Students Female Students Male Students

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While this is just one small sample group, it’s clear that this group is not representative of the

demographics of the school system as a whole. So how do we, as sociologists, address this issue?

What solutions are available to us to level the playing field, or at least not exacerbate or

perpetuate pre-existing inequalities?


What then, does a de-tracked or untracked secondary school look like? One approach is

to allow students to explore different possible outcomes of their secondary education without

marrying them to one track for all four years of high school. Graubard (2004) explains, “There

are ways of transcending this whole dilemma that are consistent with the aims of progressive

education. One is the ‘new vocationalism’ .... Small programs, chosen by students, proceeding

through a wide range of learning situations, including work in the ‘real world,’ avoid the

comprehensive high school format, standard classroom methods, and required, standardized

academic curriculum set by state or federal authorities.” (p. 38) A student could have the

opportunity to take a semester of, say, automotive repair, and then decide if they wanted to

continue or not. If auto repair wasn’t for them, they could move on to high level scholarly

literature classes, or a paralegal internship. Allowing students to move fluidly through the

offerings of the school and its community without locking them in to an outcome at the

beginning would give them the freedom to explore different areas of content that could lead to

different careers. Resistance from family institutions would have to be managed, as you may

have students who come from a family of college professors or lawyers or doctors who choose to

become hairdressers or carpenters. Some parents may feel this is allowing their children to opt

out of their middle-class birthright to adopt a working-class life. Instead, this allows their young

adults to opt in to a career that they will ultimately find more satisfying and less restrictive. A
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student from a low economic background who shows remarkable aptitude for biology could be

exposed to the world of medical research, where they could far better serve our society than as

the laborer they may have ended up if they had been locked into the stratification perpetuated by

the current tracking system. The purpose of high school could be less to prepare a student for a

pre-determined outcome and more to explore where they would best fit into our society as a

working adult.

Equal opportunity to participate in high level math can be a crucial element in a student

being the first generation to go to college in their family. Per the U.S. Department of Education’s

researchers Horn, Nunez, and Bobbitt (2011), “if students took algebra in the eighth grade, they

were more likely to complete advanced-level mathematics courses in high school”. (p. 4) While

the study cited was focused on the connection between first-generation students taking high level

math in 8th grade, which then led to high level math in high school and a greater probability of

college attendance, perhaps allowing all students to opt in to high level math courses could level

the playing field somewhat. One factor to consider is that people have varying degrees of success

with different kinds of mathematics. A student who excels at arithmetic may struggle with

geometry. A student who suffers through arithmetic could be excellent at algebraic thinking.

Allowing all students a crack at different kinds of math could end up elevating their performance

in all forms of mathematics by building their confidence level.

A different model would require a different measurement of success than standardized

tests. Standardized tests have been proven to be a form of stratification in and of themselves.

Alfie Kohn (2000) states, “Research has repeatedly found that the amount of poverty in the

communities where schools are located, along with other variables having nothing to do with

what happens in classrooms, accounts for the great majority of the difference in test scores from
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one area to the next. To that extent, tests are simply not a valid measure of school effectiveness.”

(p. 4) A more effective way to measure student success would be student portfolios, that more

closely align with the measurements students will face once they arrive in the working world.

Deborah Yaffe (2016) tells us what that looks like in practice in Maine’s Regional School Unit

19. “Each year, students build voluminous electronic archives out of which they curate a smaller

set of required assignments, entering links to each item into a spreadsheet that teachers can

access at grading time. Students can access the same links later, for a refresher on past material.”

(p. 48) In this model, classes are no longer just something a student checks off a list of

requirements. It becomes part of their own personal archive of information, to keep as a resource

as they move forward through schooling and beyond. The focus here is on knowledge gained,

not knowledge regurgitated for a test that is merely an indicator of one’s family’s economic


Past performance is an indicator of future success, but it’s not the only indicator. Students

who are given opportunities to grow and be challenged may accept or reject them, but if, as the

United States Department of Education (2018) states, “our mission is to promote student

achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and

ensuring equal access”, then we have a responsibility to allow students to try. We can do this by

creating more room to experiment in our current educational system with the resources and

outstanding educators we already have in place. Measuring student success would have to take a

different form than standardized testing, but this is a small thing in comparison to a society of

more fulfilled and productive adults.

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tracking: Structural considerations of personal beliefs. Education, (4), 588.

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Conley, D. (2017). You may ask yourself: An introduction to thinking like a sociologist. New

York (N.Y.): W.W. Norton.

Graubard, A. (2004). Progressive education and the tracking debate. Radical Teacher, (70). 32.

Horn, Laura, Anne-Marie Nunez, and Larry Bobbitt. “Mapping the Road to College: First-

Generation Students’ Math Track, Planning Strategies, and Context of Support.” National

Center for Education Statistics.

2011. 15 Jan. 2011 .

Link, S., & Howson, A. (2018). Assessing Class: Education. Assessing Class: Education --

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Yaffe, D. (2016). PORTFOLIO PROMISE. District Administration, 52(6), 45.