April 26, 2016

Marshall Jean, (773) 368-5521, marshalljean@uchicago.edu
Daniel J. Quinn, (517) 203-2940, dquinn@greatlakescenter.org

Report Showing Benefits of Tracking on High-Achieving Students Has Weaknesses, According to Review

Neglects to consider how tracking affects lower-track classes

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Apr. 26, 2016) — Based on the logic that states with more tracking tend to have more students passing AP exams in high school, a recent report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution claimed that tracking in eighth grade would promote greater equity. An academic review of the report questions the impact of such policies on low-achieving students, and calls attention to the potential for tracking practices to exacerbate existing educational inequalities.

Marshall Jean, a graduate fellow at the University of Chicago, reviewed the 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education — Part II: Tracking and Advanced Placement for the Think Twice think tank review project. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) produced the review with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Common in American high schools, tracking is the practice of grouping students into different classes based on perceived ability or achievement. It may mean students are assigned to different levels of the same course, such as ability-grouping systems; or in leveling systems.

The Brown Center report, authored by Tom Loveless, used state-level data from the NAEP to describe a positive association between tracking in eighth grade and larger percentages of high-scoring AP test takers. Based on the findings, the author claims that tracking is beneficial for high-achieving students.

In his review, Jean acknowledges that the report confirms that tracking is widespread across the U.S. – the average state tracks nearly three-quarters of its math students. Also, he notes that the findings are consistent with prior research that has frequently identified test-score benefits of tracking for high-achieving students.

However, the reviewer cautions that the findings are based on correlational data, which cannot establish a causal relationship or identify what mechanisms work. Additionally, the review identifies a key weakness of the report: it fails to consider the disparate impact of tracking on lower-achieving students.

Ultimately, Jean finds the claim that tracking has the potential for promoting equity to be "dubious." He concludes, "unless tracking systems are implemented carefully and coincide with substantial supports for struggling students, students assigned to low-ranking tracks are likely to be harmed."

Read the review on the web:

Find the report on the web:

Think Twice, a project of the National Education Policy Center, provides the public, policymakers and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. The project is made possible by funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The review can also be found on the NEPC website:


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The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice is to support and disseminate high quality research and reviews of research for the purpose of informing education policy and to develop research-based resources for use by those who advocate for education reform.

Visit the Great Lakes Center website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/