Tracking = Segregation?

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In a disturbing article from The Atlantic (“Modern-Day Segregation in Public Schools”), one of the most common practices in schools across America has been branded as a modern form of racial segregation.  Tracking—placing students in classes based on their abilities, test scores, and teacher recommendations—has resulted in many schools’ classrooms becoming racially stratified.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, tracking “perpetuates a modern system of segregation that favors white students and keeps students of color from long-term equal achievement.”  The government’s analysis of tracking’s impact on students could significantly change public education soon as various cases work their way through the courts.

In the school districts used as examples in the article, white and Asian students were represented in advanced classes by significantly larger percentages than they were in the school’s total population.  Conversely, black and Hispanic students were in far fewer advanced classes than their numbers in the general student body.  While there can be many reasons for this that have little to do with race, there were a significant number of black and Hispanic students with the ability to be in the top classes who weren’t recommended or never took the required tests.

The federal government has stepped in to try to improve the situation.  Although lawsuits have been filed against individual school districts, the main approach is to increase awareness so that districts will take steps to rectify the problem, allowing districts to find the best system for their situation rather than having one “solution” for every school in the country.  It is important to figure out something rather than just eliminating tracking as many teachers prefer ability grouping since it allows for more targeted instruction based on student needs.

Among the ways to address this segregation could be requiring all students to take the prerequisite exams for advanced classes or open enrollment for any student who wants to be in an advanced class.  In the former, having every student tested ensures that all talented students can be identified and encouraged to sign up for the top classes.  With the latter, students and their parents can decide for themselves whether or not they want to take on the challenges of more demanding classes.

I taught in school districts that tracked students for all thirty-three years of my career, and I do think it enabled me to serve students better with material most appropriate to their skill sets.  However, there’s no question that both school districts in which I worked tracked more white and Asian kids into the top classes and never did I have any honors classes in which black or Hispanic students numbered in percentages even close to those of the school population overall.  I applaud the government for studying this issue and taking action with a district-by-district approach, trying to assist educational leaders to work on this problem without heavy-handed mandates.  But, schools need to address this problem before Uncle Sam enters the picture.  Every student deserves the same chance to excel, and tracking should not impede anyone’s opportunities.

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