School Stratification

Tracking, or placing students into different classes or strands (i.e., college prep, vocational, remedial, gifted) is not an effective strategy for enhancing student performance.  When studied, tracking was actually found to increase the gap between high and low achievers by lowering the achievement of low-track students and boost the achievement of high-track students (Gamoran, 1987; Kerckhoff, 1986). Gamoran (1987) also found that the gap of achievement between low- and high-track students is greater than the gap between students who drop out of school and those students who graduate.  According to Oakes (1990), low-income students and minority students are overrepresented in the lower tracks, and therefore, have suffered the most from tracking.

There is also the problem of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if teachers know that their students are labeled lower level, they will treat them this way and are less likely to provide challenging materials, ask probing questions, and encourage responses in the classroom.

On a personal level, there was a form of tracking in my own high school.  I found the system to be extremely ineffective.  Every year, you had to have your teacher recommend you to stay in that track (it was either honors, regular, or low).  The low-level students barely tried to do anything in class since they were already thought of as “low”: why would they even try? (I actually heard students say this before.) Also, the teacher recommendation system was flawed.  There were no multiple levels of evaluation for which track you should be placed; there was only your teacher’s evaluation form and your grades in their class, in case the parents complained.  Also, rarely would you hear about anyone switching tracks, which meant the low-level students were not advancing. Overall, I found the tracking system to be extremely ineffective.


Gamoran, A. (1987). The stratification of high school learning opportunities. Sociology of Education, 60, 135-155.

Kerckhoff, A.C. (1986). Effects of ability grouping in British secondary schools. American Sociological Review, 51, 842-858.

3 responses to “Tracking

  1. I agree with your points about why tracking is harmful: it increases the achievement gap between low and high grouped students, perpetuates class and race distinctions, and leads to resignation of both teachers and students in the lower tracks. Rigidity of tracking and the poor placement measures add to the problem. The only students who benefit from tracking systems are those students in higher tracks, who are most likely white, middle or upper middle class.

    There was also a tracking system in my high school, but it was more covert. Neither teachers nor students nor parents (that I knew of) talked about it. I only learned about it when I questioned why there was a number next to each of my classes – 1, 3, 5, or 7 (one being remedial and seven gifted). I don’t know who made the decision to place students in tracks or how frequently it would have been evaluated. I just know that all of my classes had the same number throughout high school.

    I agree with you that tracking is not the answer, and that differentiation is more effective at teaching all students without excluding and penalizing those from different backgrounds. I think once students get to high school, homogenous grouping occurs in the math, sciences, and foreign languages, which is appropriate. Going back to your mention of vocational tracks, I think vocational programs are good and necessary, if students make that choice – they shouldn’t feel tracked or pushed into them.

  2. This is really well researched and articulated, Anne! Good job.

    Your second paragraph brought into my mind the concept of learned helplessness, and this is something that tracking enables. Recently, I tutored a 16 year old boy who was (informally and unofficially) put on “The Football Track” by his parents and coaches, and because he was focusing so much on football his grades suffered. When I gave him positive feedback about his spelling and grammar, he reacted with shock and disbelief– like there was no possible way he could have been good at something other than football.

    Tracking limits our students at such a young age, it gives them no room to grow or explore other options. I totally agree with the points you made in this post.

  3. Interesting about the students in the low track at your school! As I was reading about this subject for my debate, I read about a student that was actually quite gifted but worked very hard to stay in the middle track. He said that was the “safest” place to be… that you were mostly invisible there. That is just terrible to think about! He didn’t want to be identified as a member of the high track just as many students are rightfully uncomfortable about being identified in the low track. I completely agree with you. Tracking is not the way to go!