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

By Halley Potter and Joshua P. Starr | June 17, 2020

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American public education contained vast inequalities before COVID-19 and the scramble to replace whiteboards and desks with Zoom calls and remote learning. Differences in student internet access, district resources and home supports are now further challenging our most vulnerable students: low-income children, students of color, English learners and those with disabilities. In education, as in so many other areas, the gaps are widening between the haves and the have-nots. 

As school districts look toward the fall, many leaders are rightly focused on addressing this divide. Unfortunately, some of the proposals meant to help disadvantaged students could actually close doors to academic growth and further entrench segregation.

Well-intentioned proposals to create “half-grades” for struggling students or to automatically hold back large groups of children risk creating new forms of academic tracking that separate students into different classes based on perceived ability levels. Emerging public-safety guidelines are also adding new constraints around how students will be grouped that could affect the educational models that schools adopt. In Washington, D.C., for example, an advisory group to the mayor has suggested that, for younger kids, class sizes be reduced to fewer than 10 and that in the older grades, students take all subjects with the same classmates while teachers move from classroom to classroom. Will schools try to determine these assignments by academic level? If so, what does this mean for an eighth-grader who is ready for algebra but struggling in reading, or for a third-grader whose pre-pandemic test scores were high but who shows large declines after school closures?

Grouping students based on achievement levels, or academic tracking, may seem like an efficient way of targeting instruction, but decades of research show that this approach harms students. Every method that has been tried for sorting students by academic ability also reflects a host of other factors: family resources, access to test prep and parent advocacy — as well as the implicit biases of staff and teachers. Now, as educators try to measure academic progress using at-home online tools, these limitations could be even greater. When students return to school buildings, it will be hard to know at first how much assessments reflect their real academic abilities versus their social-emotional needs. 

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Once academic tracking is in place, it harms students assigned to lower tracks, who have reduced achievement over time compared with peers who started with similar achievement levels but were assigned to higher-level courses. Grouping all the low-performing students into one class is not an effective way to help struggling kids catch up. While teachers may perceive some temporary benefit from managing a narrower range of skill levels in a class, tracking creates an expectation that this range will stay narrow. But even in a tracked class, students learn at different rates, and curriculum and teacher expectations too often lead to missed opportunities for students in lower tracks to access more challenging content. Keeping the same small class groupings for a full year dooms some students to a persistently low learning trajectory based on unjustified low expectations.

As cries for racial justice sweep the nation, public schools must be part of the solution for dismantling institutional and individual racism by ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality education and facilitating meaningful relationships among students of different backgrounds. The sadly predictable result of academic tracking is almost always classrooms that are skewed by race and class. Sixty-six years after Brown v. Board, segregation between and within schools persists. In too many schools, you can find the honors class simply by looking for all the white and Asian kids. Under new coronavirus safety protocols, students will likely interact with a smaller group of peers to begin with, and if they are tracked, they may not have any classmates from different backgrounds at all. 

The alternative to tracking is not canceling assessments and reverting to one-size-fits-all instruction. Rather, it is implementing ongoing monitoring of student progress and finding ways to adapt lessons and assignments to suit students at different levels. Within a classroom, teachers should constantly be checking in on each child’s progress through a mix of informal meetings, reviews of student work and short quizzes. With this information, teachers should create temporary small groups for targeted instruction that change throughout the year, allowing them to rearrange students’ groups as their individual skills and needs evolve. While it may be tempting to take kids who need more supports, such as English learners, out of class, given the COVID crisis, these kinds of strategies aren’t as effective as “push-in” models in which specialists provide extra supports within a general education classroom. Schools should also add extra learning time for below-grade-level students through summer programs and afterschool tutoring. They may need to create classes of students with varying levels of ability for in-person instruction, while supplementing with small-group teaching tailored to students’ individual academic levels that is primarily delivered online. 

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PDK has just released an evidence-based resource guide to help school and district leaders do the hard work of assessing student proficiency in ways that will enable them to make adjustments within classrooms and allocate resources and supports where appropriate. System leaders on the superintendent’s team — principal supervisors, chief academic officers, equity officers, to name a few — must regularly monitor data on students’ class placements and teacher schedules. The superintendent must also make strong public statements about the detriments of tracking, be explicit about the kinds of supports children will receive, and develop and enforce district policies that guide student grouping in ways that prioritize equity. Training and reinforcement for school staff will likely be needed, and possibly adjustments to resources and funding. 

Successful de-tracking is worth the work. When done well, it can create large academic boosts for lower-achieving students while maintaining growth for top students. COVID-19 has broken our normal systems of schooling. As we rebuild, we need to think not only about physical health and safety but also about the academic pathways we set up. If we’re not careful, we may end up closing academic doors for the students who most need a way out.

Halley Potter is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of the report “Integrating Classrooms and Reducing Academic Tracking: Strategies for School Leaders and Educators.” Joshua P. Starr is CEO of PDK International and former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and Stamford Public Schools in Connecticut.

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