Tracking is the process of differentiating individuals’ school experiences through the grouping of students for instructional purposes based on actual or assumed differences in academic development or interests. In theory, such practices can maximize learning by allowing instruction to be tailored to the needs of each classroom of students. In practice, the quality of instruction often varies dramatically based on the group level, such that low track students receive few learning opportunities while high track students are exposed to a rich and rigorous curriculum. When group placements are related to ascribed characteristics such as social class or ethnicity, tracking contributes to social stratification by perpetuating social inequality in not only individuals’ current learning opportunities but also future educational and occupational attainment.
The terms tracking, ability grouping, and streaming are frequently used as synonyms. When distinctions are made, ability grouping usually refers to sorting of students in a given grade level into groups that progress through a common curriculum but at different speeds. In contrast, tracking usually refers to differences in students’ academic programs, which differ in the topics covered based on the courses taken. Ability grouping is a more frequent practice in primary and elementary schools, while tracking is usually found in secondary schools.
Tracking is a feature of most modern school systems, although the process and extent of stratification and segregation vary dramatically. In the US during the late 1980s, many schools officially eliminated tracking (i.e., detracked)in response to political pressures to increase academic standards while reducing gaps in standardized test scores or educational attainment between genders and racial or ethnic groups. However, consistency in group placement across subjects and years indicates that de facto petuate social stratification in both the economic and health benefits related to higher levels of educational attainment.
Dimensions of Tracking
In sociology, the conceptualization of tracking recognizes that classrooms are the technical core of schools in which students, teachers, and curricular materials combine to create learning environments that vary in quality and quantity of instruction. In addition, students’ academic careers consist of series of classroom experiences spanning grade levels that often provide increasingly divergent educational experiences. While the operationalization of tracking varies, the concept in sociological research consistently refers to some aspect of a student’s overall academic status at a particular point in time or over a relatively short period of time.
When used synonymously with ability grouping, students’ track placement usually refers to their relative status in the academic hierarchy within a classroom or school. Within some elementary school classrooms, tracking occurs when the teacher sorts students into instructional groups based on perceived academic progress or ability. In other elementary schools, students are tracked when they are assigned to classrooms based on similar criteria. These groupings are usually given labels such as low, average, and high or remedial, basic, regular, and advanced to reflect relative rankings within the academic hierarchy. In general, most students are expected eventually to cover the same core topics and master a common set of basic skills, although the speed of progress or degree of mastery may differ. Group labels are used to reflect differences in difficulty of the instructional material to which students are exposed, which should build on their prior academic progress.
When referring to secondary schools, tracking is also operationalized as differences in academic programs traditionally described by schools or students as vocational, general, and college preparatory. While now mostly archaic, these terms are used to characterize the types or difficulty of courses students are expected to take based on whether they are expected to enter the workforce or attend college after high school. Students in the college preparatory track, for example, tend to take more academic courses such as advanced placement English, physics, calculus, and foreign languages. In contrast, vocational students tend to take a large number of courses with direct occupational links, such as business English, drafting, book keeping, and commercial photography. General track students usually take a combination of less difficult academic courses, such as regular English, and elective courses that might also include one or two vocational courses. To the extent that students are being exposed to distinctly different sets of topics or subjects, self-reported or school designated track can be a useful summary indicator of a student’s general academic experiences during high school.
Since the late 1980s, however, sociologists have recognized that the traditional track labels fail to capture the great diversity of students’ academic experiences in American high schools. By 1990, the relationship between sophomores’ self-reported track and level of mathematics course did not align consistently, such that knowing one type of classification increased the ability to predict the other by only 14 per cent (Stevenson et al. 1994). Several efforts have been made to develop finer grained measures of academic programs based on detailed analyses of the courses students take at a given time or overall during high school. These course based indicators of track usually use sophisticated statistical techniques to analyze students’ high school transcripts. For example, Lucas (1999) developed his track indicators by a detailed mapping of course descriptions onto traditional track designations by taking into account both the level of difficulty and timing of when a student took a course. In this approach, for example, geometry is considered elite college track if taken as a freshman but regular college track if taken as a sophomore.
Other approaches to characterizing students’ academic careers based on course taking during high school mostly abandon the concept of academic program. In one approach, clustering procedures are used to statistically identify emergent tracks based on constellations of course enrolments to which traditional labels may or may not be applied (e.g., Friedkin & Thomas 1997). The goal is to identify students who share similar educational experiences and positions within a particular school or a set of schools without using an a priori classification system. Another approach focuses on indicators of students’ progress through a proscribed curriculum by using indicators of whether a student took a given course in a given year and then statistically modeling changes between years to estimate trajectories through a normative sequence of courses (e.g., Schneider et al. 1998). These sequences are likely to be especially clear in high school mathematics due to the hierarchical and standardized nature of the curriculum in which mastery of a basic topic (e.g., functions) is usually required before attempting more advanced topics (e.g., geometry). This approach to characterizing students’ academic status allows close examination of learning opportunity sequences, which are primarily a function of the structure and organization of a subject specific curriculum that link learning opportunities across time, even spanning levels of schooling.
While the comprehensive high school remains an institutionalized feature of American school systems, other countries often track students following a given academic program by placing them in the same school. For example, Germany has a three tiered system of secondary schools in which Gymnasium prepares students for higher education, Realschule prepare students for mid-level occupations or careers, and Hauptschule provides a basic prevocational education. In Japan, students are admitted based on performance on entrance examinations to selective upper secondary schools, which have tight links to prestigious universities. Only a small portion of those students not intending to go to university attend technical upper secondary schools. Thus, tracking results from the sorting of students into secondary schools.
Process of Sorting Students
Tracking is of interest to sociologists as the product of schools’ intentional sorting of stu dents into courses or academic programs based on some observed or ascribed characteristic. On the most basic level, the availability of courses is determined by schools’ master schedules, which specify which courses will be offered at what times. The master schedule thus constrains the possible combinations of courses students can take in a given academic year. Within these constraints, assigning students to a selection of courses usually involves processes that consider a mixture of indicators for prior academic performance and individual preferences.
School officials begin the complex process of developing a master schedule for a given academic year in the spring of the prior year. Although they usually use previous years’ schedules as templates, school officials must adjust for changes in staffing and student enrolments in light of available instructional resources (e.g., room space) and state regulations (e.g., curriculum and graduation requirements) (Delany 1991). For example, schools need to ensure they offer enough English or literature courses so that all students can meet most states’ requirement that students complete 4 years of English to earn a high school diploma. However, a school may offer only one section of honors freshman English in order to free up a teacher for an English as a second language course to serve a growing number of immigrant students. When that honors course will be offered also depends on teacher availability and other courses being offered at the same time. Schools frequently make changes to their course schedules well into the academic year, as they continuously balance resource constraints with student demand.
While assignment policies can vary dramatically, most schools use several indicators of prior academic performance (such as grades or achievement test scores) in making course placement decisions. Turner (1960) described placement procedures that utilized performance on standardized assessments as contest mobility systems, in which individuals earn the right of entry into the elite. In contrast, more subjective criteria are used for making placement decisions in sponsored mobility systems, in which individuals with unusual qualities are singled out for special assistance. Sociologists have had heated debates over whether the US has more or less of a contest focused system than either Japan or Great Britain. This debate is the result of most school systems having features of both ideal type mobility systems, with some students earning placement in higher level courses and others being recruited to the academic elite.
Assignment systems, however, are rarely purely meritocratic due to limitations on the availability of seats in a course and pressures from parents and students to change placements with which they disagree. For example, college educated parents may be so insistent that their children be given preference in assignment to the single honors English course being offered that other eligible students are prevented from enrolling in the class once it reaches capacity. Minority and lower class students often lack the social and academic resources to object or over turn undesirable track placements. This may partially account for the historical trend that minority and poor students are less likely to take college preparatory courses than equally talented white students or children of college educated parents.
Academic and Social Consequences
Whether official or de facto, tracking not only strongly influences learning and educational attainment, but also shapes the formation of friendships during high school and later occupational attainment and earnings. Organizational, individual, and societal factors influence the process of stratification of learning opportunities and academic outcomes related to course taking patterns.
Tracking clearly differentiates students’ learning opportunities. In secondary schools, some are given academically challenging experiences preparing them for college, while others are relegated to classes with curriculum so diluted that they are caricatures of regular courses. Students in honors courses, especially in math and English, are generally exposed to higher quality learning environments in which they are expected to think critically and creativity is encouraged. In contrast, regular and basic courses often emphasize orderliness and regurgitation of facts and procedures. Conflict theorists such as Bowles and Gintis (1976) argue that these differences in curriculum reflect students’ social origins and are one of the major mechanisms through which social stratification is perpetuated across generations. Lower track courses basically prepare working class children for menial jobs, while college track courses pre pare the social elite’s children for professional or managerial careers.
The distribution of academic rewards also differs across tracks and courses, with higher grades tending to be awarded in classes attended by students from more advantaged social back grounds. Theoretically, grades reflect how well students meet their teachers’ expectations of learning and behavior in a given course. Thus, differences between courses in the average grade awarded could reflect overall how well students in a given class met their teachers’ expectations. However, grade inflation can result from parents pressuring teachers and schools to award higher grades in college preparatory courses to improve their chances of admission to competitive colleges and universities. Independent of students’ individual achievements, these higher grades awarded in more advanced courses serve as public signals identifying the academic elite in a school.
Track placements also have long term effects on learning opportunities through what Kerckhoff (1993) described as institutional inertia, the consistency of placements across grade levels and schools created by organizational dependence on school records and prior placement decisions. The positional advantages gained from being placed in more advanced courses earlier in their careers helps academically elite students preserve their status even if they encounter difficulties in that or another course. Positional advantages also accrue from accumulation of prerequisites for later courses that signal to schools that a student was exposed to and gained the knowledge and skills thought necessary to progress. For example, taking algebra in middle school is intended to prepare students to take geometry as high school freshmen, although whether they get much exposure to algebra may be questionable. For these reasons, placement in a more basic course constrains access to advanced courses for even students who may later benefit from a more challenging curriculum. Thus, organizational signals concerning students’ intellectual abilities and progress sent by prior course placements have lasting effects on their academic careers. When track mobility occurs, students are usually drop ping down from a higher level course to a lower level one.
Finally, whether through direct intervention of parents or a more criterion based system, students’ social backgrounds influence their sorting into courses such that they tend to take classes with others similar to themselves. This social class segregation within schools may allow formation of micro communities with distinct norms and values relating to academic performance. Social capital developed in classes attended by large numbers of children with college educated parents is likely to create a classroom environment with high levels of academic pressure. Similarly, college educated parents may lobby for allocation of more qualified teachers and greater resources to the courses taken by their children. Thus, regard less of their own backgrounds, students are likely to benefit academically from attending classes with others from more advantaged social backgrounds.
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