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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

None dare call it tracking

Trying to narrow the “excellence gap,” educators are considering more challenging classes for lower-income black and Latino students in high-poverty schools, reports Dana Goldstein in the New York Times. It’s not tracking, advocates say. Instead it’s . . .

Well, it looks like tracking to me. And I’m fine with it.

Jonathan Plucker, a Johns Hopkins education professor, sees “a subtle shift” in the last four years from boosting minimum competency to challenging achievers. He advocates placing “high-achieving and high-ability students in advanced classrooms for their strongest subjects, but not for every subject,” writes Goldstein.

The groupings should be more flexible than the rigid “tracking” of students in decades past, the advocates say, with many chances provided for students to gain access along the way. They say that children should be identified based on their abilities relative to their in-school peers, not on a national or state standardized test, to ensure that students from every neighborhood, race and class background have an opportunity.

In the 1980’s and ’90s, when New York City elementary and middle schools had honors classes for high achievers, more black and Latino students tested into elite schools such as Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, write Syed Ali and Margaret M. Chin in The Atlantic.

Mayor Bill de Blasio proposes getting rid of the test to qualify more black and Latino students for the elite schools, they write.

The three highest-status schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech—have black and Latino student populations of 4, 9, and 13 percent, respectively, far below the 70 percent in public schools citywide. . . . Three decades ago, there were sizable numbers of black and Latino students at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech—in 1989, black and Latino students made up about 16 percent, 22 percent, and 67 percent, respectively, of these schools’ attendees.

When black and Latino achievers in segregated schools could go to honors classes with other smart, motivated students, “many of them tested well and then ended up at a specialized high school,” write Ali and Chin.

But tracking was seen as “isolating students of lower ability.”

In the early ’90s, New York City largely did away with its tracks, including those honors programs. (There are still some honors classes offered here and there, but not nearly to the extent that they once were.) As a result, the top students at many of today’s segregated schools aren’t getting the kinds of opportunities that could launch them into a specialized high school. Now, instead of tracking within schools, there is effectively tracking between schools, with parents vying to get their children into “good” elementary and middle schools and keep them out of the bad ones.

Savvy parents get their kids into a school that screens incoming students, taking only those with good grades and test scores. Students whose parents don’t know how to work the system end up in schools where most of their classmates do not have grade-level skills.

North Carolina is trying to get more low-income students into honors and advanced classes, writes a Durham teacher.

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