I have always struggled with the practice in schools of ability tracking students. Gifted, not gifted, honors, non-honors, AP, non-AP, athletic, not-athletic, and other designations I may be missing. I don’t mean to suggest by setting up the polarity between the positive (gifted) and the negative (not gifted), that it is only black and white. There is definitely some gray. Not all schools decide to track according to the extremes of a polarity; however, most schools have some degree of tracking under the guise that it meets the needs of different student groups.
Do we think that schools hold their feet to the fire and have proof, that is real evidence, that tracking works to meet the needs of all students? I seriously doubt it.
Robin Avelar La Salle and Ruth Johnson wrote a piece in the February 7, 2018 issue of Education Week entitled, Are Your Students on Track for Success: Hidden Labels Hold Students Back. While schools and school districts are trying to adapt to new ways of thinking about the value of tracking, we still can open the doors of most schools and find tracking practices guiding how and when students learn. The authors write:
Once labeled, students most likely remained in those groups throughout most or all of their schooling, which undermined their future workforce opportunities. (page 24)
Research has shown that students’ images of themselves are folded into the labels we give them in school. The authors reference the work of Howard Becker on labeling theory, which is described as:
Labeling theory is the theory of how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labeling_theory)
Here are the five questions the authors think school leaders, district leaders, and educators need to wrestle with:
What systems in our schools are creating the academic results students are currently getting?
The authors suggest that we study whether we use multiple indicators to measure whether all students are learning, reaching their full potential?
What are our hunches about those results?
Hunches aren’t sufficient. Schools need to be sure data is being used to rationalize or justify practices that place labels on students. Is there another way to achieve the same end? We have to use data from the entire system to understand reasons for why students achieve or not and what we will do to address the assumptions we make.
What types of decisions do we make about students based on the explicit or implicit labels we give them? (italics are my words)
Title I kids, special education kids, English-language learning kids are labels that could make it hard for students to understand their rightful place in school. How do these labels limit students from participating to their full extent in their educational experience?
What are the results of the programs initiated to support students’ academic needs?
When we track students in one area, like tracking them in honors math, it often impacts their ability to take other courses. Tracking in one area often forces tracking in another area. We need to look at course expectations designed for students who are labeled to see if we are challenging them sufficiently. The authors point out that the failure rate in courses designed for challenged learners is higher than when those students are placed in regular courses. Does that mean when we expect more from students, they challenge themselves to reach higher>
Here the authors write, we have to:
uproot systemic unconscious biases, school and districts must analyze syllabi, textbooks, course requirements, grouping patterns, grading criteria and content coverage for similar courses. (page 25)
Where we find disparities we need to address them so that there is equity in the educational opportunities for all students.