Tracking, in other terms referred to as phasing, setting or streaming, is the practice of sorting and grouping students for instruction depending on an evaluation of their academic ability (Oakes, 2005). An institution that makes use of tracking system is characterized grouping the whole school population in classes in accordance with the overall achievement of students, which is defined as below average, normal or above average. Therefore, students with the same academic achievement are placed in the same class. In the United States, tracking has been a common schooling practice for over a century. It was introduced at a time when school enrollment of immigrant children was significantly increasing in accordance wuth compulsory schooling policies. As a result, tracking was implemented with the main objective of separating immigrant children (who were perceived to have limited capacity for schooling) from native children. Nevertheless, people perceived tracking to be a form of internal segregation. Despite the fact that tracking has been a common schooling practice, it has been criticized on the grounds that it offered inequitable and inadequate education to students placed in lower ability classes, promoting inequality with respect to accessing college-bound curriculum and differentiating students on the basis of class and race. As a reform measure to address negative impacts associated with tracking, detracking lays emphasis on placing students in classes with mixed-ability heterogeneity. There is a contentious debate concerning implications of these schooling systems (tracking and detracking). In this regard, this paper conducts a review of literature aimed at highlighting merits and demerits of tracking.
Merits of Tracking
Those favoring the practice of tracking cite several vital strengths of the practice. According to Bascia and Hargreaves (2000), a crucial advantage associated with tracking is that it enables facilitators to effectively direct lessons based on a particular ability level of learners. Despite the fact that regular instruction tracking does not result in any difference in the academic achievement of average and low ability students, Bascia and Hargreaves (2000), assert that tracking leads to significant academic gains for students who are gifted and placed in tracks that are specially designed for talented and gifted students. Tracking has been established to be effective in meeting the needs of students who are extremely gifted by ensuring that they are fittingly challenged with their intellectual peers and enables gifted students to perceive their abilities in a more realistic manner. Hyland (2006), maintains that tracking has evolved and refined since it is inception and is currently implemented on the subject-by-subject basis instead of a person-by-person basis, which implies that students could be placed in class with the fellow students having the same ability in specific subjects. For instance, a student may be placed in a higher level math class having fellow students who are gifted in math; however, the same student may be placed in a lower English class having students who are at the same level in English.
Another merit of tracking cited by Hyland (2006) concerns the fact that tracking differentiates students based on their ability, the work of the student is only compared to the work of students have the same ability, which prevents the likelihood of reducing their self-esteem that could be caused when works of lower ability students are compared with the works of higher ability students. In addition, the egos of above average students can be inflated when their work is compared to below-average students (Hyland, 2006). Owing to the fact that a positive relationship exists between high academic performance and high self-esteem, from a theoretical perspective, tracking is supposed to facilitate academic achievement; nevertheless, if the student is aware that he/she has been placed in a low ability track, it is likely to result in low self-esteem (Hyland, 2006).
Those favoring the practice of tracking argue that it facilities academic excellence among high ability students. There is empirical support for this assertion; for instance, Bascia and Hargreaves (2000), reported that high ability students placed in tracked classes reported a significantly higher academic achievement that high-ability students placed in non-tracked classes. Another study by Fiedler, Lange, and Winebrenner (2002), suggested that talented and gifted students have a tendency of spending most of their time in school with their similar-ability peers. Fiedler, Lange, and Winebrenner (2002), also reported a moderate improvement with regard to the students’ attitudes towards and perceptions of the subject material for high- , average and low-ability students in a tracked education system. It has also been reported that academic achievement of high ability students reduced when they were placed in the same class with low ability students (Hyland, 2006). Therefore, based on these empirical findings, it can be concluded that tracking can be of significant benefit to high ability students. It has also been argued that tracking fosters participation of low-track students in class owing to the fact it eliminates intimidation that may be caused by high-track students. Fiedler, Lange and Winebrenner (2002) along with Bascia and Hargreaves (2000), consider tracking an effective approach towards resource allocation because it helps in focusing students to particular aspects of the labor market.
A number of researchers are of the view that tracking is essentially unfair and ads to inequalities in the society (Ansalone, 2003; Hallam & Ireson, 2005). Critics of tracking practice in education system have argued that tracking acts as a tool for grouping student based on class and race. In addition, research has established that the students placed in different tracks receive different educational quality. Those who criticize tracking practiceopine that social interactions that take place within the classroom, teaching and curriculum are impacted by the tracking practice and in most cases at the disadvantage of students in lower tracks (Ansalone, 2003).
Oakes (2005), argues that tracking is not effectively implemented as it ought to be because of the manner in which the tracks are structured. In theory, tracks are supposed to be homogenous; however, practical applications of tracking are not characterized by the level of homogeneity required for tracking to be effective. Despite the fact that tracks are likely to be more homogenous when compared to de-tracking systems (random assignment of students), some of the advantages associated with tracking cannot be fully realized. Even in instances when tracks are almost fully homogeneous with regard to abilities of students, with the flow of time, it is likely that heterogeneity will develop owing to the fact that different students tend to learn at different rates. There are some systems that have embarked on periodic assessment of students in order to address this limitation (Mickelson, 2003).
Oakes (2005), noted that low-track classes comprise mainly of students from low income backgrounds, most minorities, whereas upper-tracks comprise of mainly students from high income backgrounds. In this regard, Oakes (2005) profiled the composition of low tracks and reported that low-income students, Latino and African Americans form the majority in low-tracks classes; however, it is not an actual reflection of their learning abilities. Therefore, Oakes (2005), concluded that tracking is an indication of how learning institutions foster inequality, which is a structural arrangement characterizing people to embrace their socio-economic statuses as something that is natural and inevitable. Besides the inequality associated with tracking students, empirical evidence supports the claim that the appointment of facilitators in a tracking system is disproportionate, whereby it has been found out that high status and experienced teachers are usually allocated upper-track classes while low status and inexperienced teachers are assigned low-track classes. In addition, evidence suggests that teachers in upper-track classes tend to be more enthusiastic when teaching, are more organized and more effective in offering explanations than the teachers assigned in low-track classes (Mickelson, 2003).
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Scholars and researchers have established significant variations among various tracks. Despite the fact that curricula acceleration and enrichment is perceived to be a significant benefit for talented and gifted learners, the lessons that are taught in classes with lower-ability students are characterized by incomprehensiveness and lack of engagement, which is contrasted with upper-track lessons. This disadvantages lower-ability students with respect to college acceptance since they do not receive the skills and knowledge that higher-ability students receive. In addition, Hallam and Ireson (2005), found out that teachers in upper-track courses utilize course materials and were involved in teaching concepts requiring extensive skills in critical thinking; this is contrasted with teachers teaching lower-track classes who mainly used workbooks and seldom assigned work needing critical thinking. Overall, the curricula in upper-track classes are more in-depth and intensive than curricula in low-track classes.
Tracking has been shown to have an impact on students’ peer groups as well as their attitudes towards other students. Hyland (2006), showed that students show tendency to building friendship with students in the same track rather than students in other tracks. Owing to the fact that minority and low class students dominate low tracks while those of Asian and white origin dominate upper tracks, tracking tends to discourage interaction between students in upper and lower tracks. In addition, tracking has been found to cause stigmatization among students in low-tracks, which negatively affects the academic performance of students. Students, who are aware of their placement in low tracks, suffer from social stigmatization, which is characterized by students losing confidence with respect to their abilities (Mickelson, 2003; Ansalone, 2003). In addition, Mickelson (2003), reported that dropout rate is higher among students in low tracks than their counterparts in upper tracks.
From the review of literature, it is evident that there are inconsistent findings as regards the value of tracking practice. There is empirical evidence indicating that tracking benefits higher-ability students. On the contrary, vast empirical evidence affirms detrimental nature of tracking practice, especially to lower-ability students. Overall, there is overwhelming evidence indicating that tracking is a deleterious practice when compared to evidence affirming the benefits of tracking. Based on this literature review, it can be concluded that tracking is an improper practice in education owing to the inequality it fosters and the detriment it has on low-ability students.