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Tracking and Issues of Equal Access

Posted By: Kim Tolley on January 14, 2003
Tracking can be an effective means of providing instruction geared to the ability level of a specific group of students. On the other hand, it can also be a powerful means of restricting equal access to educational opportunity. Who is being tracked, and on what basis are tracking decisions made? Who are the gatekeepers? What recourse do parents and students have when they believe that educators have made a mistake in tracking a student?

Recently, the Los Altos/Mountain View High School District in California implemented an experimental program in its honors classes. Rather than enrolling students in honors classes on the basis of teacher recommendations or other criteria, the district created a system of open enrollment. Initially, the program faced opposition from students already enrolled in honors courses and from teachers worried that their classes would become too academically diverse. However, to everyone's surprise, the program has been successful so far. Greater numbers of under-represented minorities have come forward to enroll in these courses, and -- contrary to the expectations of some critics -- on average, the AP scores of these students have risen significantly. The San Jose Mercury News published a front page story about this program entitled "Open Honors Classes Paying Off" (11 December, 2001).

Not every district is willing to experiment with open enrollment in its honors program, however. This summer, the principal and two teachers at Gilroy High School in Gilroy, California resigned in protest when the district implemented a pilot honors program. The educators opposed the program because they viewed it as the "latest example of so-called academic tracking clashing with equal educational access" (San Jose Mercury News, 9 July 2002).

It is important to recognize that when schools have tracking programs in place, educators do not always track students in ways that meet the needs of all individuals. Sometimes it is easier for teachers to group students of similar intellectual ability who also share the traits and qualities of so-called "model students." It is unusual, in my experience, to find a potentially contrarian, disruptive or easily distracted student in an honors class, regardless of the child's potential. Ironically, however, some highly gifted and creative children exhibit such characteristics.

As a person who is both an educator and a parent, I have experienced the issue from both sides. Having been a classroom teacher for over twelve years, I realize that it is far easier to teach children when they are grouped by ability level. As a teacher, however, I am aware that educators are far from infallible in their assessment of children's ability. From my own experience, I can recall two instances in which a student approached me asking to be placed at a higher level, and three instances in which parents made similar requests. In all five cases, to my surprise, the students succeeded when given more challenging work. As a parent of two easily bored, restless, fidgety individuals with horribly sloppy handwriting, I have witnessed examples of mis-tracking with my own children. In my experience, the parent who attempts to influence the tracking of his or her child faces an enormous uphill battle. More experiments and research with open enrollments would benefit both students and the educational community, in my opinion.
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 Tracking....good or bad? by Christina Rhoades on November 24, 2002
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