Tracking in Schools... A Thing of the Past?

by Jay Hill, 1998

The issue of ability tracking has been a contentious one in recent years due to research showing that minorities are disproportionately represented in the lower tracks. Because these lower tracks have been shown to lead to lower achievement in later years, it is apparent that the tracking system perpetuates the inequities of race, gender, and SES in our society. But why, despite such strong pushes against tracking in general, has mathematics proved so resistant to the detracking movement? It is not something inherent in the field that has maintained the hierarchical structure of the subject. Instead, it is the unspoken, yet primary function of mathematics as a filter that has made the subject the seemingly immutable monolith that it is.

It has been shown time and time again that "lower ability groups contain disproportionate numbers of low socio-economic status students, many of whom are Black and Hispanic" (Reglin, p. 45). Jeannie Oakes points out that "while not all students have the interests or aptitude to become scientists or mathematicians, the disparities for African-American and Hispanic minorities and the poor are so great that considerable science and mathematics talent is undoubtedly being lost from these groups" (p. 2). This remark indicates that tracking is not an ability grouping at all, but instead it is a sorting of people into the categories from which their parents came (i.e.: the poor). If this were not the case and tracking were truly grouping by inherent ability, no "considerable science and mathematics talent" would be lost, for it would have been placed in the advanced tracks from the beginning.

Once tracked into the lower ability group, students are almost always restricted in their access to quality mathematics programs and courses, qualified mathematics teachers, resources, and learning opportunities. In most lower track classes, students remain "unchallenged" and are often subjected to a "highly repetitive" curriculum (Useem, p. 43). Not only that, but lower tracked classes are usually considered a stepping stone for teachers on their way toward gaining the "privilege" of teaching higher tracked courses such as calculus. Hence, many lower tracked classes are forever subjected to inexperienced or unqualified teachers, once again perpetuating the prevailing power structure which favors white, middle and upper-class males.

Mathematics has been and continues to be used as a gateway to success and to higher education, in particular. As stated by Useem, "Since calculus is the 'gateway' course to more than half of all college majors, and since approximately 35 percent of college students (and as many as 60 percent in some large schools) either fail or withdraw from the course, prior high school training in the subject constitutes a significant advantage for a student" (p. 24). By tracking students early in their mathematics careers, schools are closing doors on future opportunities for a large number of students, particularly minorities (including not only racial and ethnic minorities, but women and low SES students as well).

There has been progress made in the area of detracking. Important documents such as the NCTM Standards take a much less hierarchical view of mathematics. Their wide acceptance as guidelines for state and district curricula indicate a certain openness to a new view of mathematics wherein tracking is unnecessary, but even the Standards propose differing requirements for "college intending" and "non-college intending" students. This leaves far too much room for the status quo, because even in a two-tiered system (unless the methods of grouping were completely overhauled), the lower tier would include disproportionate numbers of minorities and traditionally disadvantaged.

If curricula guidelines such as the Standards do not provide enough impetus for detracking, from whence can change come. Teachers can play a major role in the detracking process, or if not in detracking then in a "re-valuing" process. This re-valuing is a difficult measure because it is diametrically opposed to the current system's values. Somehow quality teachers need to discover the prestige in teaching lower tracked classes. This is a prestige that can only be given by and realized by teachers and their peers. It starts with quality teachers offering to take on "lower ability" classes as opposed to "gifted and talented" classes. By reallocating teacher resources, lower tracked students will have a greater opportunity to succeed which will provide a compelling challenge to the argument that they were ever "lower ability" at all. Granted, this is an idealistic solution, but change begins with an ideal.

Teachers are also valuable sources of information, not only on subject matter, but on school logistics, as well. Much of the inequalities in tracking stem from incorrect or a simple lack of information about the effects of early tracking. Students whose parents have achieved high levels of education know from experience the importance of proper tracking. Those students are almost by their very definition part of the privileged class (predominantly white, middle and upper-class students). Those students' parents "especially those who have at least a college degree are considerably more knowledgeable about the meaning and consequences of course choice" (Useem, p. 44) and, thus, by virtue of their education and place in society, are more powerful advocates for their children. Teachers can help empower and encourage both students' and their parents by informing them of their options and the consequences thereof. This will better help students and parents detrack themselves and better integrate the system.

No solution is given here is easy or even probable in the near future, particularly because the power structure depends upon the filtering property of mathematics to help maintain the class structure. If the filter suddenly were to become a pump, the pool of candidates for the elite would increase, diminishing (in some eyes) the power of the elite and, consequently, the power of mathematics as a gateway to the privileged class. There is so much seemingly at stake for so many. For many mathematics teachers, the prestige of the subject is paramount and anything that might seem as watering down the subject could also be seen as watering down the prestige associated with teaching that subject. The white, middle and upper class males, have an obvious stake in keeping the power structure as is, including all its gateways and filters. But, in reality, we are perpetuating a system in which we all lose. By wasting the talents of so many through almost random assignment of students to tracks from district to district, we miss out on the contributions and great potential of those "lower ability" students.


Oakes, J. (1990). Multiplying Inequalities: The effects of race, social class, and tracking on opportunities to learn mathematics and science. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Reglin, G. (1992). Ability grouping: A sorting instrument. Illinois Schools Journal. Fall, pp.43-47.

Useem, E. L. (1990). You're good, but you're not good enough: Tracking students out of advanced mathematics. American Educator, 14 (3), 24-27, 43-46.

If you have any information you think might be helpful or if you have any questions or comments, please email me, Jay Hill.

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