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Tracking is the process of grouping 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 course 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 for students’ position in the academic status hierarchy within a classroom or school. When distinctions are made, ability grouping usually refers to sorting of elementary school students in a given grade level into groups that progress through a common curriculum at different speeds. These groups are usually given labels such as low, average, and high or remedial, basic, regular and advanced to reflect expected differences in students’ ability to handle more or less challenging instructional material. In contrast, tracking usually refers to differences in high school students’ academic programs, which consist of courses that differ in topics covered or level of difficulty. Traditionally tracks were given labels such as vocational, general/academic, college preparatory, and elite college preparatory to reflect whether students were expected to enter the workforce or attend college after graduating. Regardless of the terms used, tracks identify students who share similar educational experiences.
Tracking is a feature of modern school systems, although the process and extent of stratification and segregation varies dramatically. Placement procedures that utilized performance on standardized assessments are described 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. In the USA during the late 1980s, many schools officially eliminated tracking (i.e., detracked) in response to political pressure. However, de facto tracking continues as a result of schools’ sorting of students into courses or academic programs within the constraints of the master course schedule. While most schools’ assignment policies appear basically meritocratic, minority and poor students have historically been less likely to be in higher tracks than equally talented white students or children of college educated parents.
Tracking clearly differentiates students’ learning opportunities where some are given mentally challenging experiences that promote learning while others are relegated to classes with curricula so diluted that they are caricatures of regular courses. Critical theorists 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 prepare the social elite’s children for professional or managerial careers.
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. Thus, regardless of their own backgrounds, students are likely to benefit academically from attending classes with others from more advantaged social backgrounds, which perpetuates social stratification in both economic and health benefits related to higher levels of educational attainment.
- Hallinan, M. T. (1994) Tracking: from theory to practice. Sociology of Education 67: 79-84.
- Oakes, (1985) Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
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