Magazine Feature

Getting on the Right Track: How One School Stopped Tracking Students

Tracking and ability grouping remain common practices in schools across the country despite research showing these practices contribute to segregated classes and opportunity gaps. In Walla Walla, Washington, a group of educators decided to try something different.
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Illustration by Chris Kindred

It only takes eight minutes to understand how a system that groups students by their predetermined “ability” can limit their potential. In 2002, WNYC’s Radio Rookies project featured New York City student Jaimita Haskell’s story “Tracking.” In it, Haskell described how it made her feel to be placed in mainstream classes while her peers were fast-tracked into advanced courses. 

“I figured, this is where I was put,” she said. “This is where I should be. I’ll just graduate at the top of the bottom.” 

But when a history teacher vouched for her potential, she got a taste of advanced coursework. She saw the newer books. She participated in more vigorous discussion and work. She kept up and believed she could continue to do so. 

It wasn’t long, however, before Haskell was kicked out due to “overcrowding.” 

“I was mentally sick from the roller coaster,” she said. “It brought me to the top, where I could see myself going to a good college. Then … it dropped me to the bottom, where I could see myself going nowhere.” 

It’s been 17 years since Haskell told her story on the radio, but her experience remains common across the United States (and worldwide), where schools continue to track students based on measures of ability like past grades, test scores and whether or not they were placed in gifted programs at a young age. 

After decades of research indicating that tracking contributes to widened opportunity gaps and more segregated classrooms, your school or district may not call what they do “tracking.” The term is taboo. But many schools and districts still engage in tracking—they just use a different name. Students are sorted into gifted and talented programs, selected to join honors classes or guided onto AP tracks—extended opportunities that their classmates may never see. 

As a social studies teacher at Walla Walla High School in Washington state, I was part of an interdisciplinary professional learning community (PLC) focused on increasing our students’ reading and writing scores. We looked at data to inform our methods and, in the process, discovered that our school’s “tiered pathways”—tracking by another name—weren’t working. 

Students who struggled academically or behaviorally in middle school had been funneled into our “foundations” classes. Yet, the freshman failure rates showed that these classes didn’t help them catch up. And they often separated Latinx English language learners and special education students from their peers, placing them on different paths. 

As educators committed to social justice, we didn’t want this to be a story of a bad system. We wanted this to be a story of success. We were enthusiastic about implementing better practices. 

So we did. And I hope our methods—and the results—can serve as inspiration for educators who see tracking in any form in their schools and want to end it to ensure more equitable education for all students. 


What Is Tracking? 

Tracking refers to the practice of ability grouping. Schools sort students into different classes or sets of classes, often with differentiated, usually sequential, curriculum. Tracked students, for example, may follow a path from honors algebra to pre-calculus to AP calculus, or they may take what we might call foundational or mainstream courses instead. Decisions about which students end up on which track may be based on progress reports, tests or even anecdotal evidence.

These practices sometimes begin as early as kindergarten, where pre-first-day screenings sort students into different classes. By the time they’re juniors or seniors in high school, students’ access to college-preparation courses may be determined by whether they have taken honors classes and maintained a certain grade average. 

In theory, tracking allows educators to challenge high-achieving students and devote more attention and resources to students who need help. Proponents argue that students have better access to learning when they are tracked into classes best suited to their abilities.

In practice, students in lower-track courses often have the fewest resources, the least-experienced teachers and the knowledge of their teachers’ lowered expectations. A student like Jaimita Haskell isn’t alone in feeling their fate sealed by tracking.

In practice, tracking often reveals implicit and systemic biases behind grades, standardized tests and teachers’ evaluations of certain students’ potential.

When Haskell’s radio story aired, researchers already had plenty of evidence that tracking doesn’t work. As Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton wrote in their 1999 essay “Access to Knowledge: Challenging the Techniques, Norms, and Politics of Schooling,” “Few students or teachers can defy those identities and expectations. These labeling effects permeate the entire school and social culture.”

In practice, tracking often reveals implicit and systemic biases behind grades, standardized tests and teachers’ evaluations of certain students’ potential. Even 20 years ago, Oakes and Lipton were having to push back against those who saw the disproportionate number of white students in advanced classes as a natural occurrence. 

Ten years ago, in 2009, researcher John Hattie reviewed more than 300 studies on tracking. Synthesizing the data, his conclusion was clear: “Tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative effects on equity outcomes.”

And in 2014, the Department of Education went after extreme cases of tracking as a violation of Brown v. Board of Education and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. 

But the practice has persisted in different forms, including at Walla Walla High School, where I work.


The Old “Wa-Hi Way”

Prior to our de-tracking effort, first-years who entered Walla Walla High (Wa-Hi) were placed into foundations classes in English, social studies, science and math, depending on their standardized test scores and anecdotal reports from middle school teachers. 

The social studies department tracked ninth-grade students only. The science department tracked students in grades 9 and 10. However, the English and math departments tracked students throughout their four years of high school.

The Fall 2008 issue of Northwest Education magazine praised “The Wa-Hi Way” for this use of “tiered pathways” to support all students. Struggling English students were tracked into classes like “Basic English,” while those who struggled with math took morning and afternoon algebra classes. Reading the article, you see how much those educators cared about their students’ success—they dreamed of seeing these same students one day placed in AP classes. 

But despite their teachers’ good intentions, many students who entered Wa-Hi as first-years reading two or more levels below ninth grade didn’t leave foundations classes until they were seniors.

Although we used differentiated strategies, the tiered tracking method was too narrowly focused on placing all students with low test scores in the same general education classrooms, which is neither a best practice nor an approach supported by education research.

During the 2009–2010 school year, I joined my school’s Response to Intervention (RtI) committee, composed of teachers and administrators. We focused on examining student data on state assessments, attendance and anecdotal data from teachers and administrators to determine which students needed academic interventions as well as social and emotional support. We also brainstormed ways we could help students: finding on-campus mentors for them, re-arranging class schedules if they needed to start school earlier or later, or connecting them to school activities that interested them. Veteran and new teachers worked with students using instructional strategies and best practices, including graphic organizers, small groups, visual aids and other accommodations to help them access texts and materials successfully.

But ultimately, that wasn’t enough. Each year, foundations classes were disproportionately assigned to Latinx and special education students who had IEPs or 504s. 

The “Wa-Hi Way” wasn’t working. 


The Path to De-Tracking

In August 2016, an interdisciplinary PLC formed at our high school to examine and use evidence-based writing strategies with students. Years into the foundations classes, we had the data, anecdotes, progress reports and grades we needed to see that these classes did not provide a good solution. 

Our PLC committee was large—between 10 and 12 educators at any point—and there was strength in those numbers. 

We established goals, including creating a common language and common assessments across all courses. We found that implementing repeated methods across ELA, science and social studies classes—teaching and re-emphasizing skills, like how to cite sources in writing—helped our students remember and connect to good practices. Seeing some results, hoping to push further and facing our district’s restructuring of collaboration time for educators, we applied for and received an Ellison Education Grant to continue our work as a PLC. 

Meeting once a month after school and on release days during the 2017–2018 school year, our PLC double-scored assessments and input and analyzed data. After the first common assessment, we listed trends we noticed in student work, like which students were consistently struggling to make and support written claims. Having the data—and the strength of our numbers—proved essential in building support for what we knew would come next: eliminating foundations classes and de-tracking our students. 

By October 2017, several teachers had suggested to department chairs and other teachers that we eliminate foundations classes at Wa-Hi. That led to an afterschool meeting with our principal about the trends we’d noticed in our classes and ways we could solve these issues. And this began the formal process of de-tracking our students in foundations classes. 

Administrators acknowledged that, although foundations classes at Wa-Hi were created with the best of intentions—helping struggling students receive targeted interventions—the practice was not effective. Our school leadership and RtI committee then took the steps to finally de-track our classes. 

By late spring 2018, an initial version of our school’s master schedule was released; foundations classes were no longer listed in the science, social studies or English departments. ELA support classes were included as additions rather than replacements for core courses. That summer, 14 teachers and an administrator did more work reflecting on differentiation and planning some low-prep and high-prep activities teachers could implement based on education scholar Carol Ann Tomlinson’s research. This allowed us to spread, school-wide, strategies for differentiation that did not result in separation.

During this long process, as a PLC and staff, we learned the importance of starting conversations with colleagues about the equity of the education we’re providing. We learned the power of having student data to underscore the importance of de-tracking and trying methods that are more equitable and supported by research. And we learned that educators have strength when they team up to advocate for their students.


The New “Wa-Hi Way” 

At Walla Walla High School, things have changed. Now, any student can sign up for an AP class. Differentiated curriculum and interventions take different forms, such as “flex periods,” based on the work of educators Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum. All students can sign up for or be assigned by a teacher to attend a shortened class period during the school day for content support or enrichment activities. It looks different depending on which class they’re in. An AP teacher’s class may be reviewing for the exam. A science class may be working on a lab or analyzing results. Some teachers have brought in professionals from the community to meet with students while others use the time to let students get extra support on make-up work. A majority of students have told us they prefer this schedule.

The majority of my colleagues and I prefer it, too. Teachers at Wa-Hi now see what it is like to have inclusive classrooms. We’re seeing how a more diverse range of students in our schedule each day strengthens our teaching and social understanding. We’re seeing a less concentrated set of behavior issues in class. We’re seeing the value of kids having an elbow partner who can help them work through a problem—and in having an elbow partner who can help them learn how to explain a concept.

But the changes at Wa-Hi are most visible in the students’ sense of belonging and potential. It’s easy enough to see, and it’s apparent from first-year through AP classes. De-tracking has made our students feel more supported and more capable of success.

My colleague Lindsey James, who teaches English, once described watching tracked students realize that they had been placed into a foundations English class that was different from one their classmates were taking. She said it was like “a little bit of light went out in their eyes.”

That’s one of the biggest changes: Now, all of our students have a chance to shine.

Higgins is a social studies teacher at Walla Walla High School in Walla Walla, Washington, and serves on the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board. TT Senior Writer Cory Collins contributed reporting to this story.

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    I am a middle school math teacher who is really passionate about detracking. At our school we have "blended classes," which means, for example, that we would have general ed 7th graders in the same math class as advanced 6th graders. Some people don't consider this tracking but I would say it qualifies because the result is lower expectations for, and among, general ed students. To me the solution would be all 6th graders go into the same math class but many people say this is too idealistic and it wouldn't work in practice. So, I don't have a whole lot of support for this idea. I suppose some of my colleagues could get on board but they are not as passionate about it, or they simply think it is a bad idea. Something else that holds me back is my own fear that I don't have enough instructional skills to manage the wide disparity in "math levels." For example, if I had a detracked 6th grade classroom, I would have kids working at a 4th/5th grade level with students who are ready for Algebra 1. I understand the entire "math level" thing needs to get turned around and subverted, but at the same time I need to have a strong plan and a strong curriculum, preferably heavy on Project Based Learning, to make this go. If it doesn't work, the upper-middle class parent community would flip out and it could get ugly. Anyway, those are some fears holding me back. What I plan to do is to start small with my General Ed. Math 6 classes with a Project-Based program that is culturally responsive. Hopefully, I can convince others to get on board and grow the movement toward detracking the math department at my school.
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