Eye on Education: How effective are tracking, ability-grouping … – Fairfield Daily Republic

Stephen Davis: Eye on Education
I wrote in my last column about the challenges of comparing the academic knowledge, skills and abilities of American public school students with their international counterparts in advanced countries.
Among the many factors that help to explain differences in student achievement between nations, one in particular caught my eye – student tracking. Several nations continue to track students according to ability level throughout much of their public school experience.
To better understand tracking practices and their effects, I reviewed several research-based articles on tracking and ability grouping and found that in practice these terms are often conflated. Typically, when students are tracked by ability level they are assigned to different classes or to a particular school, often with substantially different curricula. In contrast, ability grouping occurs within individual classrooms (most commonly reading and math) and is designed to provide developmentally appropriate instruction to students who are either behind grade level performance standards or who are capable of more advanced instruction.

Germany provides an interesting example. It is one of several countries with a long history of tracking students from an early age. While there are variations in tracking practices among the German federal states, the formal characteristics of academic tracking are similar. Starting in the fourth grade, the most intellectually able students are assigned to a school called a “Gymnasium,” with the primary goal of attending a top-ranked German university. Average students are assigned to “Realschules” that prepare students for midlevel white-collar vocations. Finally, the least academically able students are tracked into “Hauptschules,” which are typically aimed at preparing students for the trades and blue-collar jobs.
Tracking was used quite frequently in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to the growing number of immigrant children who often possessed limited English language skills or limited academic preparation in their home countries. The intent was to provide immigrant children with the basic skills needed to become productive workers in an industrial economy.
However, tracking in America has faded over time. Critics, like UCLA professor Jeannie Oaks, argued that “grouping students by ability, no matter how it is done, inevitably separates students by characteristics that are correlated statistically with measures of ability, including race, ethnicity, native language and class.” Moreover, Oakes maintained that teachers can develop different expectations for tracked groups of low and high performing students, which can both foster and amplify biases related to a student’s intellectual potential. In addition, lower track students are more likely to lack confidence as learners, become increasingly disassociated with their school and experience peer group stigma.
But overall, how effective are tracking and ability grouping? A large-scale study by University of Munich researchers found that tracking primary grade students has negative effects on the performance of low-ability students but positive (yet small) effects for high-ability students. Moreover, students who were first tracked in primary school showed no significant achievement gains when compared to students who were first tracked in secondary school.
Similar results in a recent study published in the American Journal of Education found that American “students who are lower grouped for reading instruction, learn substantially less, and higher grouped students learn slightly more compared to students in classrooms that do not practice grouping.”

Nevertheless, assessing the effectiveness of tracking and ability grouping remains an elusive quest. As is so often the case with instructional practices, effective outcomes generally come down to the teacher’s ability to:
• Create and sustain a positive, “can-do,” classroom culture that stimulates critical and creative thinking.
• Carefully and regularly diagnose the learning needs of every student.
• Craft developmentally appropriate classroom activities that include multiple instructional methods to reach students with different learning modalities.
• Hold high expectations for every student.
• Give students opportunities to move in and out of ability groups and/or academic tracks as their academic performance evolves.
• Conduct ongoing formative assessments designed to keep track of student learning development and adjust teaching strategies accordingly.
Stephen Davis is a career educator who writes a column that publishes every other Wednesday in the Daily Republic. Reach him by email at [email protected].
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How effective are schools, colleges and universities at turning out adults ready and able to function in the real world outside the classroom ? My experience shows abject failure at this and has produced several generations of “Educator Induced Cripple Mind Syndrome” sufferers who have no skills or clue how to make a living or support themselves without parental or government assistance. Drop the “uber educator” nonsense and turn effort toward PRACTICAL vocational and personal economic skills used in DOWNTOWN Fairfield… Not UPTOWN Berkeley UC Sather Gate. This columnists intermittent slathering of DR dais staged verbose “Davis Slaw” is a boring and self-promoting diatribe of the phony non-system that employs him as an “edu-doctrinator” turning out bad product and an unsustainable society of leftist education failures.
So, I take it you LIKE tracking, like in Germany?
I believe Google, Facebook, Twitter, the cellular network and 5G have it “all over” on Germany as far as “tracking” is concerned.
Good advice to teachers. They are the key. Good teachers should be recognized and rewarded to give an incentive for all teachers. School principals should be master teachers with administrative and leadership abilities. They should be paid more than district administrators.
Tracking. As a senior citizen, I can well remember what I perceive now as tracking, though I wasn’t fully aware of its purpose it at the time. It may have fallen out of favor in the early 20th Century, but not where I grew up. I benefited, and I didn’t think about any negative effects on those who didn’t. In the US, we value equity more than class or, perhaps efficiency. We still have vestiges of tracking: Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), honors, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate classes in high school, magnet (academy) programs. Is it good compromise between equity and efficiency?
It makes only perfect sense the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall law grad would chime in to support the edu-crat. I stand by my original first comment on this… And my comment to your Deutschland jab.
DW: Of course you would have the biggest socialist/facist on these message boards patting one of his ilk on the back.


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