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Carol Burris, (516) 599-0839,
Dan Quinn, (517) 203-2940,

Tracking Students Continues To Be An Unproven Strategy

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Apr. 2, 2013) – The vast majority of research into so-called tracking or ability grouping of students has reached a definite conclusion: it's harmful. Students placed in low-track classes fall further behind. However, a recently released working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that sorting students by ability improves outcomes for low-achieving and high-achieving students alike. A new review finds that several important methodical issues limit the usefulness of the paper.

Dr. Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York, and Katherine Allison, a doctoral student in research and methodology at the University of Colorado Boulder, reviewed the report, Does Sorting Students Improve Scores? An Analysis of Class Composition, for the Think Twice think tank review project. Burris is the co-author of two books on tracking and equity as well as numerous articles regarding these issues in peer-reviewed and popular journals. The review was prepared for the National Education Policy Center with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

According to Burris and Allison, the paper is limited in several important ways. First, the paper assumes that schools in the study tracked students between classes – and this assumption is highly questionable. Second, the reviewers find that there was no criteria by which high- or low-achievers were classified. Finally, while it purports to be based on a measure of learning growth, it's not. The measure is only of relative standing of students on two proficiency tests given in different years.

The reviewers further find "The authors go beyond their data and analyses when they conclude that schools should sort students as a cost-free method to improve student achievement."

In the end, the reviewers find that this working paper should not be used to inform policy regarding tracking or grouping practices. "Evidence-based policy should always be grounded in the complete research base and should focus on high-quality data and analyses."

Find the review on the Great Lakes Center website:

Find Does Sorting Students Improve Scores? An Analysis of Class Composition by Courtney A. Collins and Li Gan on the web:

Think Twice, a project of the National Education Policy Center, provides the public, policy makers 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.

This review is also found on the NEPC website:


The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and 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.

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