Analysis: Plans to Catch Students Up After School Shutdowns Risk Creating New Forms of Academic Tracking. This Will Do Them Even More Harm

The American public education system had significant disparities even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to transition to remote learning through platforms like Zoom. These inequalities in student internet access, district resources, and home support are now posing even greater challenges for vulnerable students, such as low-income children, students of color, English language learners, and those with disabilities. These educational disparities, similar to disparities in other areas, are widening the gap between privileged and underprivileged students.

As school districts prepare for the upcoming fall semester, many educational leaders are rightly concerned about addressing this divide. However, some well-meaning proposals to assist disadvantaged students may inadvertently hinder academic growth and perpetuate segregation.

One such proposal suggests implementing "half-grades" for struggling students or holding back large groups of children. While these ideas aim to provide targeted support, they could create new forms of academic tracking that separate students into different classes based on perceived ability levels. Additionally, emerging public safety guidelines may impose constraints on how schools group students, which could further impact the educational models adopted. For instance, a mayor’s advisory group in Washington, D.C. has recommended reducing class sizes to fewer than 10 students for younger children. In older grades, students would take all subjects with the same classmates while teachers rotate classrooms. The question arises as to how schools will assign students to these groups based on academic levels. What would this mean for an eighth-grader who is proficient in algebra but struggles with reading? Or for a third-grader who had high test scores prior to the pandemic but experienced significant declines after school closures?

Grouping students based on their achievement levels, also known as academic tracking, may appear to be an efficient way of tailoring instruction. However, extensive research shows that this approach is detrimental to students. Any method used to sort students by academic ability is influenced by various other factors, including family resources, access to test preparation, parental advocacy, and the implicit biases of staff and teachers. These limitations become even more pronounced when educators rely on online tools to assess academic progress at home. When students eventually return to physical classrooms, it will be challenging to determine whether assessments accurately reflect their true academic abilities or their social-emotional needs.

Implementing academic tracking has long-term negative consequences for students placed in lower tracks, as their achievement tends to diminish over time compared to their peers who started with similar achievement but were placed in higher-level courses. Grouping all struggling students together in one class does not effectively support their catch-up progress. While teachers may perceive some temporary benefits from managing a narrower range of skill levels in a class, academic tracking creates an expectation that this range will remain narrow. However, even within a tracked class, students learn at different paces, and the curriculum and teacher expectations often result in missed opportunities for students in lower tracks to access more challenging content. Maintaining the same small class groupings throughout the entire year condemns some students to persistently low learning trajectories based on unjustifiably low expectations.

During a time when calls for racial justice are resonating across the nation, public schools must contribute to dismantling institutional and individual racism by ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education and by fostering meaningful relationships among students from diverse backgrounds. Unfortunately, academic tracking tends to yield classrooms that are disproportionately populated by students of certain racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even after 66 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, segregation remains persistent, both between and within schools. In many schools, you can easily identify the honors class by simply observing the racial makeup, consisting mostly of white and Asian students. Under the new safety protocols necessitated by the coronavirus, students will likely interact with smaller peer groups initially, and if academic tracking is prevalent, they may not have any classmates from different backgrounds at all.

An American principal working in Africa is applying lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic to tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19. Educators in the United States can also learn valuable insights from his experiences.

Recently, PDK released a comprehensive guide that is rooted in evidence to assist school and district leaders in assessing student proficiency. This will enable them to make necessary adjustments within classrooms, allocate resources effectively, and provide appropriate support where needed. As part of the superintendent’s team, system leaders such as principal supervisors, chief academic officers, and equity officers must consistently monitor data on student class placements and teacher schedules. Furthermore, the superintendent must publicly address the drawbacks of tracking, clearly specify the types of support that children will receive, and establish and enforce district policies that prioritize equity in student grouping. It is likely that training and reinforcement for school staff will be necessary, along with potential adjustments to resources and funding.

While it requires effort, successful de-tracking is highly beneficial. When implemented effectively, it can lead to substantial academic improvement for lower-achieving students while still fostering growth for high-performing students. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our regular schooling systems, and as we rebuild, we need to not only focus on physical health and safety but also consider the academic pathways we establish. If we neglect to do so, we may inadvertently close off opportunities for the students who are most in need.

Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of the report titled "Integrating Classrooms and Reducing Academic Tracking: Strategies for School Leaders and Educators," emphasizes the importance of this issue. Joshua P. Starr, the CEO of PDK International and a former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and Stamford Public Schools in Connecticut, supports and underscores these key points.

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  • arthurmacdonald

    Arthur Macdonald is a 39-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. He has been a teaching assistant for 10 years, and has taught middle and high school students in the Atlanta area for the past 5 years.