Amanda Ripley

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Tracking Around the World

10th Jun 2013 posted in Education

A front page story in today's New York Times proclaims that grouping kids by ability is back in fashion in American classrooms. But that's not all; the article also claims that tracking, which refers to putting children in different classes based on their abilities, is also enjoying a resurgence. That would mean that America is moving in the opposite direction from the smartest countries in the world.

These two very boring terms--grouping and tracking--are actually very different things. And one is much more perilous than the other. Groups of kids, if well-managed by a strong teacher, can be fluid; kids can come and go depending on their needs throughout the year. They are all in the same room, and the content is usually the same--but the faster-moving groups go deeper. 

Tracking typically means teaching kids different content in separate classrooms or schools. Statistically speaking, tracking tends to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it is tried. In general, the younger the tracking happens, the worse the entire country does on PISA, a sophisticated test of critical thinking in math, reading and science. There seems to be some kind of ghetto effect: Once kids are labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slows down.

I am not sure if tracking is back in style in the U.S. or not. In fact, I'm not sure it ever went out of style. America has been aggressively--though quietly--tracking kids for a very long time. Tracking in elementary school remains a uniquely American policy. The sorting begins at a very young age, and it comes in the form of magnet schools, honors classes and gifted and talented programs. As kids get older, tracking takes the form of Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States is one of the few countries where schools not only divide younger children by ability, but actually teach different content to the more advanced track. In other countries, including Germany and Singapore, all kids are meant to learn the same core academic material, but some kids go deeper. 

Most higher-performing countries are slowly, haltingly delaying tracking until age 16 or so. When they do so, they see their PISA scores go up. When Poland delayed tracking kids into academic or vocational high schools, their reading scores went from below average for the developed world to above. Kids who would have otherwise been transferred to vocational schools scored about 100 points higher than kids like them who'd taken the same test a few years earlier. The results were breathtaking. The expecations had gone up, and kids had met them. 

Today's Times article only offers evidence for an increase in grouping, not tracking. It seems to conflate the two as if they move in tandem. I'm not sure if that is true. Tracking, an old American tradition, is distinctly unAmerican, especially in the younger years. Now is not the time to go back.