Background: Ability tracking in K–12 education has been the subject of much research over the past decades, with proponents arguing that it allows for better instructional targeting and opponents countering that it has the potential to increase inequality. Despite the large volume or research on the topic, however, there is little consensus on the actual impact of ability tracking on student outcomes.
Objective/Focus of Study: This article expands on the tracking literature by exploring the impacts on high-achieving students of a type of tracking that has previously been ignored in research—de facto tracking that occurs at the school-level as the result of residential segregation and other factors. High-achieving students represent an important population that may be particularly affected by this type of tracking. To explore whether attending a low-achieving school impacts high-achieving students, two primary outcomes are examined—middle school standardized exam performance and the grade in which high-achieving students take Algebra I.
Research Design: I employ a secondary analysis of data taken from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s statewide longitudinal data system, following a cohort of 6,151 initially high-performing Missouri students from the time of their first statewide standardized exam (grade 3) through their entry into high school (grade 9). The research design incorporates regression analysis using a rich set of student and school control variables and value-added modeling methods.
Findings: Two key findings emerge from the analysis. First, attending a low-achieving school does not affect the standardized exam performance of initially high-performing students once school quality (as measured by value-added) is accounted for. Second, high-performing students who attend low-achieving schools are more likely to take Algebra I later relative to their counterparts who attend higher-achieving schools.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Since de facto school-level tracking appears to have little effect on test scores through grade 8, policy at the elementary level should focus on improving overall school quality, rather than issues of student placement in schools. However, as high performers move into the middle and upper grades, transfer and distance learning policies that encourage high-performing students in low-achieving schools to take more academically-advanced coursework should be considered. Interventions of this nature have the potential to produce substantial benefits in terms of college readiness.