Many schools have abolished the remedial track to provide more challenge for low achievers. Some have no advanced track either. Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools, a Fordham report by Brookings scholar Tom Loveless, finds “tracked schools did better, but there aren’t many of them left.” From Education Gadfly:
Loveless finds that most middle schools have done away entirely with tracking in English language arts, science, and social studies, though this practice endures in math, albeit with fewer tracks than two decades ago. Further, “detracking” — reducing the number of subject-area courses offered in a given grade in a given school — may adversely affect high-achieving youngsters in math. (That’s not the case in English; history and science achievement were not analyzed.)
Middle schools with more tracks have more advanced and proficient math students, while detracked schools have more failing and “needs improvement” students.
Loveless also found that, when schools’ socioeconomic statuses are held constant, each additional track in eighth-grade math (up to three) is associated with a 3 percentage-point rise in students scoring at the advanced level. That means the advantage for a school offering three tracks instead of one is associated with a 6 percentage-point gain in the number of students performing at high levels.
Because math achievement is so low overall, that’s a significant difference.
In the late ’60s, my high school had five levels in English, three in math and two in science. In history and foreign languages, I think only AP courses were Level 1. I loved tracking. The low-level classes may have been a rotten deal for the slower learners, but tracking saved me from terminal boredom.
Update: On Flypaper, Mike Petrilli cites Caroline Hoxby’s research, which finds that students do best in “boutique” classes designed for their needs. A little mixing — average students with above-average students, for example — but too much disparity causes problems.