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William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Dan Quinn, (517) 203-2940,

New Brief Reiterates Harm from "Ability Grouping" in School, Offers Recommendations

EAST LANSING, Mich. (May 30, 2013) – Despite incontrovertible evidence demonstrating the harms of ability grouping, resistance to the elimination of tracking in schools remains strong.   The latest in a series of two- and three-page briefs summarizing current relevant findings in education policy research reviews the evidence for and against "tracking" students through school – that is, assigning students to particular classes, curricula and courses of study by their perceived ability.

Dr. William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), prepared the brief Moving Beyond Tracking, the final installment of Research-Based Options for Policymaking, a multipart brief that takes up a number of important policies issues and identifies policies supported by research.

Rather than achieving its purported goal – to tailor instruction to the diverse needs of students – tracking has been found repeatedly and over decades to reinforce social stratification, not provide advantages for high achieving students, and is actually harmful to lower achievers.

"Whether known as tracking, sorting, streaming or ability grouping, an expansive body of literature conclusively shows tracking is harmful, inequitable and an unsupportable practice," Mathis says.

Summing up the research, Mathis writes that lower track classes "tend to have watered-down curriculum, less-experienced teachers, lowered expectations, more discipline problems, and less- engaging lessons." He continues: "When high-quality, enriched curriculum is provided to all students, the effect is to benefit both high-achieving and low-achieving students."

Successful examples of non-tracked or heterogeneous grouping can be found in both the U.S. and non-U.S. schools. Research has found that the younger the age at which tracking occurs, the greater the differences among a country's students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) by age 15. Overall performance is not improved.

Evidence notwithstanding, two key groups recurrently call for the use of so called tracking in schools: teachers and parents. "The teachers assigned to high-track classes tend to be more experienced and therefore can exercise more power," Mathis writes. "The parents who are able to secure high-track placement for their children are disproportionately likely to be white, well-educated and politically vocal and therefore able to pressure schools to keep higher-track classes for their children" segregated from lower-income students and minorities of race, class, or both.

Mathis concludes with a series of recommendations drawn from earlier work by Carol Burris, Kevin Welner, and Jennifer Bezoza calling for the elimination of curricular tracking that separates students by race, socio-economic status, or assumptions about their learning ability.

As interim steps toward elimination of tracking:

  • States should require schools and districts to identify and describe their tracks and placement policies.
  • States as well as non-governmental groups should work to connect educators and communities with researchers able to advance best practices in serving diverse populations.
  • Districts and schools should provide sustained professional development so teachers are prepared to successfully instruct all learners in heterogeneous classrooms.

Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking is a multipart brief that takes up a number of important policy issues and identifies policies supported by research. Each section focuses on a different issue, and its recommendations to policymakers are based on the latest scholarship.

Find William Mathis's brief on the web:

The brief was produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

This brief is also found on the NEPC website:

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