Tracked for Failure/Tracked for Success


In the resolution passed in 1977, NCTE condemned the “transformation of the English language arts curriculum from a holistic concern for language development to sequenced but isolated and often unrelated sets of reading and writing skills”—practices that often occur in lower-tracked classes—and urged “that NCTE actively campaign against testing practices and programs which, masquerading as improved education for all children, actually result in the segregation and tracking of students, thus denying them equal education opportunity.”

Segregation of students based upon the perception of ability denies equity in education by denying students the right to participate in the richest language environment possible. NCTE’s “Strategic Plan” General Objective 7 states: “The Council promotes the institutional, instructional, and community conditions under which literacy best develops”; therefore, the Council promotes the elimination of tracking students in language arts classes.

In 1991 the Council passed the following resolution proposed by the Committee on Tracking and Ability Grouping in the English Language Arts Classrooms, K–12:

RESOLVED, that the National Council of Teachers of English support curricula, programs, and practices that avoid tracking, a system which limits students’ intellectual, linguistic, and/or social development;

that NCTE urge educators and other policymakers to reexamine curricula, programs, and practices which require or encourage tracking of students in English language arts;

that NCTE support teachers in their efforts to retain students in or return students to heterogeneous language arts placement; and

that NCTE expand its efforts to educate the public about the effects of tracking.

Tracked for Failure/Tracked for Success: An Action Packet to Derail the Negative Effects of Ability Grouping is a result of long-held concerns by many members of the National Council of Teachers of English about the effects of tracking and grouping practices in English language arts classrooms, K–12. The working packet is designed to assist teachers, administrators, and other policymakers to initiate discussion and promote informed changes in the use of grouping practices. The publication contains selected published articles, previously unpublished articles, annotated reading lists, and strategies for change.

Professional organizations other than NCTE which endorse efforts to eliminate the negative effects of ability grouping include the following:

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU, and the Children’s Defense Fund all have raised tracking as a second-generation segregation issue. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division has targeted tracking as critical in determining racially mixed schools’ compliance with Title Vl requirements for categorical programs.

In the last half-century, there have been over 700 studies on tracking and ability grouping, more than on any other topic in education. And rarely have educational research and common school district practices been in greater variance. The great preponderance of the evidence on tracking says “Don’t do it.” Still, the great majority of schools use it comprehensively . . .

—Paul S. George

The burden of proof regarding ability grouping plans must be on grouping, not on heterogeneous placement. Grouping plans of all kinds work against democratic, egalitarian norms, and have clear long-term effects on students’ futures in school and beyond. Across-the-board ability grouped class assignment clearly does not meet this burden of proof There is no evidence at any level that such grouping plans are instructionally effective. Students of all ability levels do at least as well in heterogeneous classes as in ability grouped classes. Our efforts must turn toward identifying means of teaching more heterogeneous classes rather than to hanging on to ineffective and socially corrosive ability grouping plans.

The fact that African American, Hispanic, and low socioeconomic students in general wind up so often in low tracks is repugnant on its face. Why would we want to organize our schools in this way if we have no evidence that it helps students learn?

—Robert E. Slavin

In the first few days of school, judgments are made about children in the classroom…. In most school systems in our nation, this decision effectively seals the child’s fate, sometimes for life.

—Daniel Gursky

Track-related differences demonstrate that tracking—however well-intentioned and seemingly objectively implemented—leads to an unequal distribution of school resources, with academically and socially disadvantaged students receiving less.

Educators attempting to build commitment for detracking must confront conventional, if increasingly obsolete, conceptions of intelligence, some of which reflect deep-seated racist and classist attitudes and prejudices. These conceptions play out in school as educators interpret the skills and knowledge that educationally and economically privileged parents pass on to their children as innate intelligence—interpretations that guide decisions about track placements and the learning opportunities afforded to students in different tracks.

. . . it [detracting] asks people to challenge their entrenched views of such matters as human capacities, individual and group differences, how schools and classrooms should be organized, and, ultimately, whether sorting students to prepare them for a differentiated workforce with unequal economic rewards is what schools should do.

—Jeannie Oakes

To bring an end to tracking would not herald paradise in our schools. It would not ensure that all students became eligible to enter elite universities, or even that they achieved up to their own potential. Removing tracking would only ensure equality of access to the knowledge our society values. This alone, however, is worth our best effort. If we care about the quality of our lives, our students’ destiny, and the future of our nation as a whole, we must remove unnecessary limits on what students are taught. We must get U.S. schools off the tracks.

—Ruth Mitchell

This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.