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Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
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5
Tracking

In a typical American elementary or secondary school, the curriculum serves two purposes that often exist in tension with each other. One is to have all students master a common core of knowledge, an objective reflected in the current emphasis on "high standards for all." The other is to provide curricular differentiation—differentiated instruction suited to students' varied needs, interests, and achievement levels (Gamoran and Weinstein, 1998). This second purpose is pursued in many schools through practices variously known as "tracking," "ability grouping," and "homogeneous grouping." Put differently, educators "organize school systems so that students who appear to vary in their educational needs and abilities can be taught separately, either in specialized schools or in the same school in distinct programs, classes, or instructional groups within classrooms" (Oakes et al., 1992:570).

The literature on tracking is voluminous, and the effects of tracking have often been debated in recent years.1 Tracking policies and practices vary from state to state, district to district, and school to school. A comprehensive survey of these practices and their effects on students would have been beyond the committee's resources. We have therefore tried to focus our work on matters directly within our charge.

1  

For a comprehensive survey of the literature, see Oakes et al. (1992).

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

Limitations of Terminology

Although many terms are used to describe practices of curricular differentiation, each has its limitations.

Tracking, the term used by the Congress in defining the committee's mandate, suggests the classic, rigid form of curricular differentiation in which a student's program or "track"—academic, general, or vocational—determines virtually every course that the student will take and at what level of difficulty. In recent decades, formal grouping systems this rigid have become less common in schools (Lucas, in press).

Ability grouping, a term used widely by scholars and practitioners, implies—incorrectly, in our view—that students are being grouped on the basis of "ability," a quality that some view as innate and immutable. As we will see, schools that group students usually do so on the basis of classroom performance and other measures of achievement that reflect acquired knowledge—something that can and does change over time—rather than ability. It is therefore misleading to use the term "ability grouping." Moreover, given the degree of racial and socioeconomic stratification that is often associated with grouping, it may reinforce false stereotypes to imply incorrectly that students in different groups are distinguished by ability. We find it more accurate to say that schools that group students typically try to do so by "skill level" or "achievement level" (Mosteller et al., 1996).

Homogeneous grouping is also a misnomer, based on studies of actual practice. The term "homogeneous" suggests that all the students in a given group are alike, or at least similar, in their achievement levels. Empirical studies cast doubt on this assumption, however. "Grouping's effect on reducing even cognitive diversity may be very small," report Oakes et al. in their comprehensive survey (1992:594). "Other studies document considerable overlap of students' skills and abilities among groups …. Thus the degree to which tracking reduces heterogeneity may be far less than we typically assume." For reasons discussed below, it appears that factors other than student achievement—scheduling constraints, parental interventions, and student choice, in particular—often help to determine who takes which classes. Although these other factors may be entirely legitimate, they often produce groupings that are not very homogeneous. In some circumstances, "it is unclear whether it is possible to organize classes that contain a narrow range of student ability" (Gamoran and Weinstein, 1998:387). At the same time, there is evidence

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

of considerable homogeneity in secondary mathematics classes (Linn, 1998a).

The committee has decided to use in this report the term that the Congress chose—tracking—while recognizing that neither it nor any of the common alternatives is entirely satisfactory as a description of actual practice in most schools. The committee defines tracking as forms of placement whereby individual students are assigned, usually on the basis of perceived achievement or skill level, to separate schools or programs, classes within grade levels, groups within classes (at the elementary level), and courses within subject areas (at the secondary level).

Nature and Extent of Tracking

Tracking takes many forms in American schools. Among them are "exam" schools and "gifted and talented" programs or classes, to which only certain students are admitted usually on the basis of their perceived achievement levels or talents.2 Some scholars and practitioners also see programs for students with mild mental disabilities (mild mental retardation, learning disabilities, and emotional problems) as a form of tracking (Lipsky and Gartner, 1989) because students are often referred for possible placement in such programs on the basis of their perceived abilities or achievement levels. When this is the case, the committee considers such referrals a potential form of tracking, even though actual placement depends on individualized assessments conducted with parental consent.

Although almost all elementary schoolchildren study the same core subjects, "in the United States, differentiation begins early, with most elementary schools employing between-class … grouping for the entire day, between-class grouping for specific subjects, and/or within-class grouping for specific subjects" (Oakes et al., 1992:571). In the last decade, however, there has been an increase in heterogeneous grouping within elementary schools, and new techniques, such as cooperative learning, offer promising ways of grouping children heterogeneously within classrooms (Slavin et al., 1989, 1996).

Tracking also remains typical in American secondary schools (Oakes

2  

An exam school is a public school to which students apply and are accepted based on exemplary test performance and academic record. A gifted and talented class or program provides an accelerated curriculum and requires students to demonstrate advanced achievement and/or test performance to participate.

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

et al., 1992:571), despite opposition from many middle school educators (Lynn and Wheelock, 1997) and despite the demise of formal tracking, under which a student's program of study (college preparatory, general, or vocational) largely determined the courses he or she would take (Lucas, in press). As "formal tracks were abolished … the reality of tracking has been preserved in many schools through a variety of new mechanisms" (Moore and Davenport, 1988:11–12). Within-school grouping continues, although less rigidly than in the past. For example, although many schools retain the familiar three-tiered system, some assign most students to the middle group, with relatively few being placed in higher- or lower-level classes (Gamoran, 1989).

The secondary school schedule also tends to promote tracking. "Because students assigned to a high-level class for one subject tended to be assigned to a similar level in other subjects, the end result was a set of curricular tracks as distinct as in the past. Sometimes students were actually assigned to sets of classes at the same ability level all at once" (Oakes et al., 1992:575).3

Parental intervention also operates to preserve curricular differentiation in public secondary schools. "Middle-class parents intervene to obtain advantageous positions for their children even over and against school personnel…. Middle-class parents are the protectors of the existing in-school stratification system" (Lucas, in press:206). Especially in schools with racially and socioeconomically diverse student populations, these parental influences serve to replace formal tracking with "a more hidden in-school stratification system" (Lucas, in press:205; Meier et al., 1989).

The secondary curriculum is differentiated by subject—students typically have more electives than in elementary school—as well as by track. The degree of differentiation in secondary mathematics, for example, is considerable. It is common to find within a single high school courses ranging from remedial and "business" math to calculus and statistics, arrayed in as many as four distinct tracks (Linn, 1998a:3, citing McKnight et al., 1987). We note with interest that results from the Second International

3  

According to national survey data, 60 to 70 percent of the 10th graders in honors mathematics classes also took honors English, and there was similar overlap of students taking remedial mathematics and remedial English (Gamoran, 1988). We do not know, however, how much of this overlap was due to the school schedule and how much to the correlation of student achievement levels across subjects.

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

Mathematics Study show that the variation in student math performance associated with tracking is far greater in the United States than in most other countries; that is, the difference in average achievement of students in different classes in the same school is far greater in the United States than in most other countries (Linn, 1998a).4 Even in schools that have tried to reduce or eliminate tracking, however, the practice remains nearly universal in the teaching of mathematics, in part because math teachers and parents believe strongly in its effectiveness.

In sum, tracking in various forms has been and remains an important feature of public elementary and secondary education in the United States.

Role of Tests in Tracking Decisions

Tests play a complex role in tracking decisions. On one hand, there is evidence that most within-grade and within-class tracking decisions are not based solely on test scores (Delany, 1991; Selvin et al., 1990; White et al., 1996). Although practice varies considerably, even from school to school, educators consistently report that such decisions are based on multiple sources of information: test scores, teacher and counselor recommendations, grades, and (at secondary levels) student choice (Oakes et al., 1992). Also, as previously noted, parents often play a powerful role.

On the other hand, standardized tests are routinely used in making tracking decisions (Glaser and Silver, 1994; Meisels, 1989). Moreover, they may play an important, even dominant, role in selecting children for exam schools and gifted and talented programs.5 IQ tests play an important part in the special education evaluation process, and their use contributes to the disproportionate placement of minority students into

4  

"The class component of variance accounted for almost half of the total variability in performance in the U.S., whereas the class component accounted for a much smaller fraction of the total variability in most other countries" (Linn, 1998a:3).

5  

The use of traditional IQ tests for such purposes has been criticized, and when IQ test scores are the sole criterion for selection, such use is plainly inconsistent with professional standards. Even when such placement decisions are based on IQ test scores and other criteria, traditional IQ tests have been criticized, both because they measure a fairly narrow range of human qualities (Gardner, 1993; Sternberg, 1990) and because they often serve to exclude minority applicants at significantly higher rates than other available selection standards and procedures for gifted programs (Kornhaber, 1997).

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

classes for students with mild mental retardation (National Research Council, 1982; Haney, 1993).6 Even when test scores are just one factor among several that influence tracking decisions, they may carry undue weight by appearing to provide a scientific justification and legitimacy for tracking decisions that such decisions would not otherwise have.7

Some standardized test scores can be used appropriately in making tracking decisions, and the following sections of this chapter describe criteria that are relevant in determining whether a particular test use is appropriate. At the same time, research suggests that some other standardized tests commonly employed for tracking are not valid for this purpose. For example, Darling-Hammond (1991) asserts that schools improperly use norm-referenced multiple-choice tests for tracking purposes; she argues that such tests are designed to rank students and not to support instruction, and that linking such test scores to student tracking can seriously limit students' learning.8 Tests that yield criterion-referenced interpretations may be preferable. Similarly, Glaser and Silver (1994) find evidence of negative consequences from the use of selection tests for placement in tracks.9 Meisels (1989) also contends that some standardized tests are used inappropriately for tracking purposes and recommends that other, more appropriate standardized tests be used in making tracking decisions.10 Finally, a recent report prepared for the National

6  

Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) authorizes the use of IQ tests, Congress expressed serious concern about racial disproportions in special education when it reauthorized the IDEA in 1997 (see also Larry P. v. Riles, 1984; PASE v. Hannon , 1980; and Hobsen v. Hansen, 1967).

7  

With regard to between-class and within-class tracking, there appears to be little systematic research on how educators actually weigh test scores with other factors in arriving at placement decisions.

8  

Although it has become common to label tests as "norm-referenced" or "criterion-referenced," these labels are more appropriately applied to the interpretation of scores—from any test—rather than to the test instruments themselves. Norm-referenced interpretations compare an examinee's performance to the performance of others; criterion-referenced interpretations indicate the extent to which an examinee's performance demonstrates mastery of specific skills and knowledge (see also Glaser, 1963; Messick, 1989; Feldt and Brennan, 1989; and National Research Council, 1999).

9  

Glaser and Silver report that using tests to place students in low-track classes often means that students learn less than they are capable of learning and less than they would in other available placements.

10  

Meisels contends that readiness tests, which are sometimes used for tracking, are concerned with the knowledge and skills a child has already acquired, and are not appropriate for use in predicting performance in a future placement or track. He recommends that screening tests be used instead.

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

Education Goals panel calls attention to a troubling use of tests to track young children (Shepard et al., 1998:4):

Recently … there has been an increase in formal assessments and testing [of children up through age 8], the results of which are used to make "high-stakes" decisions such as tracking youngsters into high- and low-ability groups …. In many cases, the instruments developed for one purpose or even one age group of children have been misapplied to other groups. As a result, schools have often identified as "not yet ready" for kindergarten, or "too immature" for group settings, large proportions of youngsters (often boys and non-English speakers) who would benefit enormously from the learning opportunities provided in these settings. In particular, because the alternative treatment is often inadequate, screening out has fostered inequities.

There is some evidence that students' race or socioeconomic status (SES) may influence the weight that educators accord to their test scores, leading to differential treatment in the tracking process. For example, one case study found "that school counselors and teachers respond to comparable achievement scores of Asian and Hispanic students quite differently, with Asians far more likely to be placed in advanced classes than Hispanics with similar scores" (Oakes et al., 1992:577). Similarly, more than one court decision has established that some school officials assign low-scoring white students to high tracks and high-scoring minority students to low tracks (e.g., People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education, 1997; Oakes, 1995). Previously noted research by Lucas (in press) provides powerful evidence that middle- and higher-income parents intervene in tracking decisions, effectively overriding test scores (and other factors that schools may use in tracking decisions) to produce tracks that are highly stratified by SES and race. The importance of social class in tracking decisions is suggested by a study that controlled for prior achievement, social class, and school, using data from the High School and Beyond survey; Gamoran and Mare (1989) concluded that black students were 10 percent more likely than comparable white students to be placed in high-track classes.

The educational consequences of these practices and trends are considered below. It is clear, however, that the role of tests in tracking decisions justifies consideration of their appropriate use.

Psychometrics of Placement

Tracking decisions are basically placement decisions, and tests used for this purpose should meet professional test standards regarding placement

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

(American Educational Research Association et al., 1985, 1998; Joint Committee on Testing Practices, 1988).

The main assumption underlying tracking decisions is that particular students will benefit more from certain experiences, resources, or environments than they would from others, and that this benefit is optimized when they are taught with other students like themselves in achievement level. Because of this assumption, valid placement requires evidence that students are likely to be better off in the setting in which they are placed than they would be in a different available setting. Such evidence, in psychometric terms, shows an aptitude-treatment interaction in terms of outcome measures of learning and well-being. For example, students who get high scores on a placement test of spatial ability should in fact be found to learn more in a physics course in which the problems are expressed in pictures than they would in a physics course in which similar problems were expressed in numbers.

Other assumptions underlying test use for tracking decisions include: that the test taps the knowledge, skills, or other attributes it is interpreted to measure; that the cutscore chosen is an accurate discriminator of the attribute measured in relation to the associated levels of benefit; and that the test scores have comparable meanings and properties for all students. Depending on the context involved, however, it may not be necessary to gather supporting evidence or documentation for all of these assumptions. For example, some of them may be argued to be plausible on their face or already supported by evidence provided by the test developer or in the testing literature. What will always be required, however, is that the sum of the evidence gathered as part of the test validation process is sufficient to make a credible case that the use of the test for placement is appropriate—that is, both valid and fair.11

Validation of Test Use

As previously noted, there is evidence that test scores are routinely used, although rarely as the sole criterion, in making tracking decisions. To the extent that they are used, however, they should be validated by the kinds of information described below (American Educational Research Association et al., 1985; 1998).

11  

The types of evidence required to establish validity are elaborated in Chapter 4.

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×
Educational Outcome

Decisions about a student's placement should be based on predictions about which available setting will produce the most beneficial expected educational outcome (National Research Council, 1982). The standard for using a test in this way should be its accuracy in predicting the likely educational effects of each of several alternative future placements. For example, if a student performs in a particular way on a math test, that performance should help predict whether the student will be better served by being placed in one type or level of math course rather than another (American Educational Research Association et al., 1985: Standards 1.20 to 1.23, 8.10, and 8.11; 1998). This is true not only when the possible placements include alternative math courses, but also when the choice is between placement in a gifted and talented class or a more traditional class, or when the choice is between special education and general education.

For example, as an earlier National Research Council report (1982) notes, one of the main validity claims for the use of IQ tests to place students in classes for the educable mentally retarded (EMR) was the test's predictive power. That committee concluded, however, that this prediction alone was insufficient evidence of the test's educational utility. Additional evidence was required that children with scores in the EMR range would actually learn more effectively in a special education program than in other available placements. Research on tests used for placement in early childhood has come to the same conclusion about the type of evidence required for validation (Shepard et al., 1998).

Similar standards are relevant to tests used for course placement decisions in high school. Kane concluded that, to establish the validity of an algebra test used as a prerequisite for calculus, one had to demonstrate that students with low scores "do substantially better in the calculus course if they take the remedial course before taking the calculus course" (1992:531). This evidence would be required in addition to the usual conceptual and empirical verification that the test, when used for differential placement, is in fact a valid measure of algebra skills. In this instance, the hypothesized consequences could be checked by means of a randomized experiment, comparing the calculus performance of low scorers with and without remediation.

As previously stated, however, a test score is seldom used as the sole criterion for making a tracking or placement decision. Rather, it is more likely to be used in combination with other sources of information about

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

the student. Therefore, the strength of the interaction between test scores and placement outcomes should be considered in the context of the availability of other relevant information and its relative weight.

Relevant Content

In general, a test used to make a placement decision is not being used to certify mastery but rather to predict a student's response to alternative future educational settings. Therefore it is not essential to show that the students have already been taught the skills tested. To the extent possible, however, the content of such tests should be relevant to the experiences to which the student will be exposed (American Educational Research Association et al., 1985: Standards 6.1 and 6.4; 1998).

For example, in the case of a math test used to aid in placing a student in a beginning or advanced algebra course, the validity of score interpretation may be enhanced by ensuring that the test adequately covers the relevant content and thought processes in the knowledge domain it is interpreted to measure (that domain could be algebra but might also be general mathematics). As noted earlier, a number of researchers claim that some kinds of tests commonly used in making tracking decisions do not, in fact, provide information on the extent to which individual students are prepared for the content to which they are likely to be exposed in future placements, and they recommend that the use of such tests for tracking purposes be discontinued (Darling-Hammond, 1991; Glaser and Silver, 1994; Meisels, 1989; Shepard, 1991).

In addition to evidence of adequate content coverage, the test should be examined to ensure that it does not contain irrelevant material that could confound or obscure the construct to be measured. For example, a math test should not require an unnecessarily high level of reading proficiency, as this may prevent poor readers from demonstrating their readiness to learn math.

Finally, a low score on the test should not be taken as a lack of readiness with respect to the skills being tested without consideration of alternate explanations for the test taker's performance. Variables such as clinically relevant history, school record, and examiner or test taker differences should be considered in interpreting test scores. Influences associated with socioeconomic status, ethnicity, language, age, gender, or specific disabilities may also be relevant (American Educational Research Association et al., 1985: Standard 6.11; 1998).

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×
Accuracy of Cutscores

Tracking decisions, like those for promotion and graduation, depend to some degree on the setting of cutscores. Cutscores are performance standards dividing acceptable levels of readiness from unacceptable levels. Because setting them is inherently judgmental, their validity depends on the reasonableness of the standard-setting process and of its consequences—not the least of which are passing rates and classification errors, especially if they vary by gender, racial, or language minority group.

For example, consider the reasonableness of the widely used Angoff (1971) method of standard setting. In this procedure, expert judges are asked to estimate the probability that a minimally competent respondent will answer each item correctly. The average estimate for each item provides a kind of minimum passing level for the item. These estimates are summed to determine a passing or cutscore for the test. Modified versions of the Angoff method are typically used to set nonminimum standards, such as the basic, proficient, and advanced levels of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The reasonableness of the procedures depends on many factors, including the expertise of the judges. The judges should be knowledgeable not only about the subject tested but also about the expected performance on each item of persons exhibiting various levels of proficiency in the field.

Other procedures have been developed to improve the reasonableness of the standard-setting process (e.g., Jaeger et al., 1996) and to offset some of the vulnerabilities of the Angoff method (Messick, 1995).12 Several new approaches are being examined to make cutscore judgments by various stakeholders both more reasonable and more defensible. 13

12  

For example, a major weakness of item-level judgmental procedures such as the Angoff method occurs precisely because judgments are made for each item separately. When each item is considered in isolation, item-specific variance looms large compared with construct variance. This tends to distort probability estimates that are supposed to reflect levels of construct competence. This distortion could be reduced by obtaining judgments of the probability of success on sets of items scaled together, because at the scale level construct variance cumulates across items, becoming more salient, whereas item-specific variance does not.

13  

For example, if various points on the scale were benchmarked by exemplary items, along with associated descriptions of the cognitive processes involved in item performance, cutscores could be set directly as points on the scale. This would involve judgments about what level of process complexity (and of associated benchmark exercises) is appropriate for performance at minimal, basic, proficient, or advanced levels. Thus, if

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

The importance of the cutscore may be lessened by the extent to which other information is used in making placement decisions. Whenever cutscores are used, the quality of the standard-setting process should be documented and evaluated—including the qualification of the judges, the method or methods employed, and the degree of consensus reached (American Educational Research Association et al., 1985: Standard 6.9; 1998).

Test Fairness

Chapter 4 discussed the issue of fairness in terms of comparable validity across individuals, groups, and contexts. Test scores should have comparable meanings and properties for all groups of students. Accordingly, in assessing the fairness of test use in tracking, it is important to determine the extent to which the test is measuring the same construct—and hence has similar meaning—for different populations.

The racial and socioeconomic stratification that often accompanies tracking is discussed below. For the present purpose, the important question is whether the use of tests in tracking contributes to negative outcomes for particular groups of students. For example, in the case of a math test used to assign students to a beginning or advanced algebra class, it may be found that the test consistently assigns higher numbers of males than females or whites than blacks to the advanced class—more so than assignments based on other factors, such as grades or recommendations. This disproportion may be due to bias in certain test items that make them easier for males or white students. 14 Alternatively, the reason may

   

the scale is well structured (such as one based on item-response theory) and if it is well described in terms of the cognitive processes required for item performance at different scale levels, then cutscores can be set directly on the scale rather than indirectly by cumulating item judgments. More work is required up front by the test developer in constructing the scale and in developing benchmarks and process descriptions for scale levels, but then the subsequent cutscore judgments by test users become both more informed and more straightforward.

14  

During the stages of test design and development, judgmental review and statistical procedures are employed by many test publishers as a way to detect and eliminate biased items or tasks. Differential item functioning (DIF) analysis (Holland and Wainer, 1993) is one such statistical procedure. It is important to note that DIF procedures are not, by themselves, adequate to detect bias (Cole and Moss, 1989). For example, DIF procedures are not useful if the entire test is biased, because they operate at the item level. DIF

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

lie in inequities in the testing process itself, such as differential access to test preparation materials and different physical conditions on the day of testing. Even if the disproportionate outcome is an accurate representation of the degree to which different groups of students have mastered the skills measured by the test, the use of the test for tracking purposes would be improper if students were subsequently exposed to instruction that differed substantially in quality—resulting in higher proportions of females or minority students failing an end-of-course algebra test that is a prerequisite for high school graduation.15

Although this type of adverse impact is not automatic evidence of test invalidity, such questions should be part of the validity investigation (Messick, 1989). According to Messick, if adverse impact is traceable to construct over- or underrepresentation, it signals a validity problem. If it is not so traceable, it signals a policy problem. For example, if a test designed to assess algebra skills places a heavy emphasis on complicated word problems, English-language learners will be at a disadvantage in demonstrating their knowledge of algebra. If the resulting scores are weighted heavily in placement, some English-language learners are likely to be placed inappropriately in lower-level classes. Although studies of these types of side effects may not often be part of initial test development, the test user should include a well-designed evaluation component to monitor the intended and unintended consequences of tracking on all students and on significant subgroups of students, including minorities, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

Effects of Low-Track Placement

"Decisions about a student's track placement," a previous National Research Council report concluded, "should be based on predictions about what track will produce the most beneficial expected educational

   

procedures are also problematic with performance-type assessments due to the small number of items involved, which makes it difficult to match students. There is a recognized need for the development of more sophisticated techniques for the detection of DIF and/or bias in performance-type items, since these are not immune from fairness concerns (Linn et al., 1991a). Absent such techniques, greater reliance must be placed on judgmental review of items or tasks.

15  

This is not an unlikely scenario. Shepard (1991:282) made a similar observation about the outcome of tests used to make placement decisions: "Two students who are initially indistinguishable from each other except for measurement error will become more like the mean of their respective ability groups."

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

outcome for the student" (National Research Council, 1982). It is beyond the committee's mandate to speculate on what track placements are educationally optimal, as a general matter or for particular students.

Under the committee's definition of appropriate test use (National Research Council, 1982), however, it is inappropriate to use tests to place students in settings that are demonstrably ineffective educationally. As tracking is currently practiced, students assigned to typical low-track classes are worse off than they would be in other placements. The most common reasons for this disadvantage are the failure to provide students in low-track classes with high-quality curriculum and instruction and the failure to convey high expectations for such students' academic performance. Unless these conditions are changed, and there is evidence that students will benefit more from such placements than from others, we recommend that low-track placements be eliminated, whether based on test scores or other information.

This is not to say that grouping students by achievement or skill level is in general a bad practice. Some forms of tracking, such as proficiency-based placement in foreign language classes or other classes for which there is a demonstrated need for prerequisites, may be beneficial. We know, moreover, that researchers have found some schools and programs in which students in low-track classes received beneficial, high-quality instruction. These, however, involved not typical public schools but Catholic schools (Lee, 1985; Valli, 1986; Page and Valli, 1990), alternative schools, dropout programs (Wehlage, 1982), magnet programs (Mitchell and Benson, 1989), and a school that had recently undergone a thorough restructuring of staff and curriculum (Gamoran and Weinstein, 1998). And what made some of these low-track classes educationally beneficial appears to have been such factors as high teacher expectations, small class size, extra resources that permitted individualized instruction, strong intellectual leadership, a rigorous academic curriculum, extra efforts by teachers to promote extensive class discussion, the capacity to choose students and teachers, and "no system of assigning inexperienced or weak teachers to the low-track classes" (Gamoran, 1993:1; Gamoran and Weinstein, 1998).

Unfortunately, however, empirical research demonstrates that there is a very different reality in typical low-track classes. Moreover, there are serious structural and attitudinal barriers to change: "[Trying] to improve the quality of instruction in low tracks … fails to address the problem that tracking and ability grouping constitute not merely differentiation

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

but stratification—that is, an unequal distribution of status—which typically leads to an unequal allocation of resources such as curricular materials [and] teaching competencies" (Gamoran and Weinstein, 1998:387). That minority students and low-SES students are disproportionately assigned to low-track classes is further cause for concern. The following sections describe more fully the research on typical low-track classes.

Teacher Distribution

Numerous studies show that students in most low-track classes have less access to well-qualified, highly motivated teachers than do their peers in other tracks. "[T]eachers often prefer instructing high-ability classes" and principals commonly "use class assignments as a reward for teachers judged more powerful or successful and as a sanction against those deemed weaker or undeserving" (Oakes et al., 1992:583, citing Becker, 1953; Hargreaves, 1967; and McPartland and Crain, 1987). "This process may result in a vicious circle for low tracks: Repeated assignment to the bottom of the school's status hierarchy may demoralize teachers, hindering their improvement and perhaps even reducing their competency over time" (Oakes et al., 1992:583, citing Finley, 1984; Gamoran and Berends, 1987; and Hargreaves, 1967). Although the academic backgrounds of elementary school teachers do not appear to differ much by track taught, there are "significant discrepancies among teachers assigned to various classes in secondary schools" (Oakes, 1990). For example, "[t]eachers of low-ability secondary science and mathematics classes are consistently less experienced, less likely to be certified in math or science, hold fewer degrees in those subjects, have less training in the use of computers, and less often report themselves to be 'master teachers'" (Oakes et al., 1992:583).16

Access to Knowledge

In elementary school, students in low tracks proceed by design at a slower pace than do students in higher tracks. Consequently, students who have been in high-track classes "are likely to have covered considerably

16  

"These differences remain even when qualification differences for teachers among various types of schools (e.g., schools serving various racial and socioeconomic student populations) are controlled" (Oakes et al., 1992:583).

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

more material by the end of elementary school" (Oakes et al., 1992:583). The type of material they have covered is also different; "low reading groups spend relatively more time on decoding activities, whereas more emphasis is placed on the meanings of stories in high groups" (Oakes et al., 1992:583, citing Alpert, 1974; Hiebert, 1983; McDermott, 1987; and Wilcox, 1982).

"In secondary schools, low-track classes consistently offer greater exposure to less demanding topics and skills, whereas high-track classes typically include more complex material and more difficult thinking and problem-solving tasks" (Oakes et al., 1992:583, citing Burgess, 1983, 1984; Hargreaves, 1967; Keddie, 1971; Metz, 1978; Oakes, 1985; Page, 1989; Powell et al., 1985; Sanders et al., 1987; Squires, 1966; and Trimble and Sinclair, 1986). "At both the elementary and secondary levels, teachers of low-ability classes reported giving less emphasis than teachers of other classes to such matters as students' interest in math and science … inquiry skills and problem solving … and to preparing students for further study in those subjects" (Oakes et al., 1992:584. "[H]igh-level classes were more often characterized by authentic assignments, student control over work, and high-order cognitive tasks" (Oakes et al., 1992:584, citing Nystrand and Gamoran, 1988). According to Oakes (1985), low-track classes are characterized by "a dull, isolating curriculum of passive drill and practice with trivial bits of information, whereas the upper-track curriculum encompass[es] imaginative, engaging assignments with 'high-status knowledge' such as Shakespeare or calculus" (Oakes et al., 1992:585, citing Oakes, 1985).

In sum, the research suggests that instruction in low-track classes is far less demanding than in high-track classes (Welner and Oakes, 1996; McKnight et al., 1987) and far less oriented to the higher-order knowledge and thinking skills that are strongly associated with future success (Linn, 1998a).

Equally important, low-track placements do not serve a remedial function, in that they do not help low-track students catch up with students in other tracks. Instead, "numerous studies provide evidence of the increasing disparity between high- and low-track students over time" (Oakes et al., 1992:591, citing Gamoran and Berends, 1987; Murphy and Hallinger, 1989; Gamoran, 1987; Gamoran and Mare, 1989; Hotchkiss and Dorsten, 1987; Lee and Bryk, 1988; and Vanfossen et al., 1987). Track effects are large, moreover; Gamoran (1987) has estimated that "the academic track advantage was larger than the gap between students

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

in school and dropouts" (Oakes et al., 1992:591). Not surprisingly, therefore, mobility between low tracks and higher tracks is limited: "Children in the lowest groups are rarely moved to the highest groups; the disparity … grows greater over time …. [E]ach subsequent assessment of ability is, in part, a product of the assessments that preceded it" (Oakes et al., 1992:596, citing Goodlad and Oakes, 1988).

Finally, students in low-track classes would learn more if they received high-quality teaching and a demanding curriculum, as research demonstrates (Slavin et al., 1996; Levin, 1988; Oakes et al., 1992). The weight of the evidence has been recognized by the Congress. In its 1994 amendments to Title I, the Congress expressly found that: "[a]ll children can master challenging content and complex problem-solving skills. Research clearly shows that children, including low-achieving children, can succeed when expectations are high and all children are given the opportunity to learn challenging material" (Title I, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 20 U.S.C. section 6301(c)(1)). Based on this conclusion, other provisions of Title I require that eligible students receive "accelerated," "enriched," and "high-quality" curricula, "effective instructional strategies," "highly qualified instructional staff," and "high-quality" staff development (20 U.S.C. sections 6314(b)(1), 6315(c)(1), and 6320(a)(1)).

As tracking is currently practiced in the United States, students will need to be educated in settings other than typical low-track classes if they are to receive the high-quality curriculum and instruction they need to "master challenging content and complex problem solving skills."

Disproportions Based on Race, National Origin, Language, and SES

Research on patterns of student stratification has found disproportionate percentages of low-SES students and minority students in curricula designed for low-ability and noncollege-bound students (Gamoran and Mare, 1989; Moore and Davenport, 1988; National Center for Educational Statistics, 1985; Oakes, 1990; Braddock, 1990). High School and Beyond survey data from 1982 provide an illustration. "African American students participated in the vocational education track at a rate 34 percent higher than … the rate for white students …. The participation rate in academic programs among African American students was 88 percent of the rate for whites, and, in the general track, the

Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

African American student participation rate was 84 percent of the rate for whites" (Braddock, 1990:2). Similar statistics were found for Hispanic students (Braddock, 1990).

Minority students in racially mixed schools are disproportionately placed in low-track classes (Oakes et al., 1992) and consistently underrepresented in programs for the gifted and talented (Darling-Hammond, 1985). The same holds true for advanced placement classes; in Milwaukee for example, whites make up 24 percent of the total student population but 54 percent of those enrolled in advanced placement courses, whereas black students constitute 61 percent of the student population but only 17 percent of those in advanced placement courses (interview with Lynn Krebs, guidance director, Milwaukee School District).

There is evidence that tests used for tracking contribute to these disproportions: lower test scores by minority students and low-SES students under gird these patterns (Oakes et al., 1992). Tests used for tracking are not unique in this respect: "Gaps between average scores of minority and nonminority individuals show up not just on so-called intelligence or ability tests and general achievement tests. They also show up on competency tests used for grade promotion and high-school graduation [and tests used for other purposes]" (Haney, 1993:50, citing National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, 1990). At the same time, disproportionate placement rates are also due to factors other than test use; placement differences by race and social class seem to occur whether test scores, counselor and teacher recommendations, or student and parent choices are the basis for placement (Oakes et al., 1992).

Whether it is due to test scores or other information, the committee see cause for concern in the fact that minority students and low-SES students are proportionately overrepresented in a classes typically characterized by an exclusive focus on basic skills, low expectations, and less-qualified teachers.

The committee's findings and recommendations about tracking are reported in Chapter 12.

References

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Suggested Citation:"5 Tracking." National Research Council. 1999. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/6336.
×

American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education 1985 Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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1984 It's not a proper subject: It's just Newsom. Pp. 181–200 in Defining the Curriculum, J. Goodson and S. Ball, eds. London: Falmer.


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Legal References

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People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education, 111 F.3d 528 (7th Cir. 1997).

Title I, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 20 U.S.C. section 6301(c)(1).

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Everyone is in favor of "high education standards" and "fair testing" of student achievement, but there is little agreement as to what these terms actually mean. High Stakes looks at how testing affects critical decisions for American students. As more and more tests are introduced into the country's schools, it becomes increasingly important to know how those tests are used--and misused--in assessing children's performance and achievements.

High Stakes focuses on how testing is used in schools to make decisions about tracking and placement, promotion and retention, and awarding or withholding high school diplomas. This book sorts out the controversies that emerge when a test score can open or close gates on a student's educational pathway. The expert panel:

Proposes how to judge the appropriateness of a test. Explores how to make tests reliable, valid, and fair. Puts forward strategies and practices to promote proper test use. Recommends how decisionmakers in education should--and should not--use test results. The book discusses common misuses of testing, their political and social context, what happens when test issues are taken to court, special student populations, social promotion, and more.

High Stakes will be of interest to anyone concerned about the long-term implications for individual students of picking up that Number 2 pencil: policymakers, education administrators, test designers, teachers, and parents.

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