Monday, February 14, 2011

Tracking Study

Probably most appropriate for twitter, but I'm still holding out on that end...

At the Escape from the Textbook conference I attended last Saturday, Jo Boaler referenced a large scale study in England on tracking.  A cursory search came up empty so I came here to let someone else do the work of finding it.  Ok, ok, not really.  Actually, I was hoping someone familiar with the study could point me in the right direction.



  1. not sure whether it helps, but tracking is not a term i am familiar with as a brit - we called it setting or streaming.

    now i'm pretty sure i remember reading this study during my pgce but i've got no recollection of how you can find it. it's one where it says streaming basically harms the low achieving kids and doesn't affect the high achieving kids right?

  2. It's referenced in Boaler's book "What's Math got do with It?"

  3. The report Dan Meyer points to gives the interpretation of the study, but is not the full report, which is at

    Incidentally, I'm a bit dubious about the conclusion that top students benefit little from ability grouping. I'll have to read the details of the report to see whether the measures they were using had ceiling effects that would limit how much improvement they could observe at the top, or whether there were other artifacts of the study.


    is a report on a study with the opposite conclusion from the DCSF-RR118 study.

  5. as a warning, the report is on streaming in primary schools, eg age 5-11. report mentions KS2 which is 7-11 and KS3 which is 11-14.

  6. The question of tracking is rightfully of great concern in education, simply by noting two FACTS: (1) brown and black kids appear disproportionately in lower tracks, and (2) once assigned a track, kids do not leave it, i.e. you are ensured a lesser (mathematics) education.

    I appreciate gasstation's skepticism about the ways in which top students benefit; that is not only a "healthy" attitude toward research, but ought to be our culture given the modern misuse of science.

    With that said, I wish to point to the funding source of the "opposite conclusion", the Fordham Institute. The F.I. is well-established as being pro-nat'l standards and charter school. No one argues they represent a right-wing ideology. The conclusion alluded to is, "The study cannot link tracking policy causally to this outcome but ... it
    serves as a caution to schools and policymakers that detracking may adversely affect high-achieving students."

    The UK study, conducted by Mathematics Education scientists (which some might argue as educators, represent a left-wing view?), conclude, "ability grouping in Primary school improves the mathematical reasoning of children in the top ability group, but the effect is small. It hinders the progress of children in the other groups."

    First, it actually seems to me both observe the same findings. Maybe the findings are spun in different ways? (of course)

    The more important question for me, regarding tracking, is to consider WHAT is valued as the endgame of schooling, and/or the endgame of a mathematics education? I think each of us must identify that for ourselves, and then critique research to understand the underlying belief/theory/bias from which they operate as they conduct their research. This bias leads to what the researcher decides to measure as achievement in mathematics, and to how they decide to measure it.

  7. I prefer that my HS mathematics students learn to appreciate the thinking of others, and learn how to "think with" the thinking of the other. I believe with this possibility, creativity *and* appreciation for diversity emerges (this is Jo Boaler's "relational equity").

    I know that some of my HS students can race forward with a surprising ability to mimic me procedurally, and that some also display a great proclivity toward conceptual understanding of deep concepts. I *believe* that their is a far greater spread of procedural proficiency among HS age students than conceptual, but that is simply hypothesis.

    I also believe that it is much easier for an adolescent to disappear into his/her own mind doing mathematics than it is for them to develop the empathetic stance that I suggest above, learning to listen to others, who think differently than oneself.

    For these reasons, I am a STRONG proponent of untracked mathematics classes, at the very least through age 16.

    Final thought, I now work with teachers. I know that they carry a deep seated belief that they could teach better if students were divvied up into different tracks (by whatever name, as the Fordham Report points out). But both studies above actually refute this notion. I think that is the MORE important take away from considering research on the effects of tracking.

  8. This recent research paper (available free download) is excellent - the literature review is particularly good.

    Tracking/streaming is a classic case where education research and teaching practice seem to be totally at odds with each other. IMHO, I think it's because tracking creates a self-fulfilling prophecy which then justifies the practice. Decades of quality research suggest it does help top ability students but has no, or a negative effect on other students. Which would suggest the good approach would be to have one or two top classes, and mix the rest.

  9. From the Lit Review in the Forgasz study:

    (1) "Linchevski and Kutscher (1998) found that average and less able year-9 students’ mathematics achievements in mixed ability settings were significantly higher than those of their peers in same-ability (streamed) classes, and that the performance levels of the highest achievers were about the same in both settings." (p. 62)

    (2) "Burris, Heubert, and Levin (2006) found that the highest achievers from both streamed and mixed ability year-6 mathematics classes achieved similarly, but that the students from mixed ability groupings were more likely to have completed advanced mathematics courses in the future."

    (3) "Zevenbergen (2003, 2005) found that high achievers in streamed year 9 and 10 classes benefitted greatly, and that those most at risk
    were in the lowest streams. She claimed that ability grouping locked students in and was 'achieved through a differentiated curriculum that increasingly reifies differences as students progress through school'.... Zevenbergen (2003) claimed that: Most often when students are grouped by ability, the outcomes support the practice—that is, the higher streams perform very well, and the lower streams perform poorly. This can be used as evidence to show that the practice is justified and that the groupings are correct since the outcomes ‘prove’ the effectiveness of the original groupings. However, questions need to be posed as to whether pedagogy is matching the needs of the students or whether the outcomes are a reflection of the pedagogies being used. (p. 3)"

    (4) "The researchers [Hanushek and
    Wößmann (2005)] concluded that early tracking appeared to increase educational inequality and reduced a country’s mean performance, and that there was no equity-efficiency trade-off in adopting early tracking."

    (5) Summarizing studies focusing on gender presented in the Lit Review, there is a correlation with reimplementation of tracking policies and the increase in the "gender gap favouring males... once

    (6) Finally, as Forgasz reports as a summary of her Lit Review, "The findings on the relationship between streaming and students’ achievements are inconclusive, particularly for those at the highest levels of achievement. There is general agreement, however, that those in middle and lower achieving mathematics classes may be disadvantaged with respect to achievement, and that their future mathematics and life options are likely to
    be curtailed."

    Given the conclusions based on scientific inquiry present in the recommended paper, I cannot understand how enzuber arrives at the conclusion, "Decades of quality research suggest it does help top ability students but has no, or a negative effect on other students."

    First, I think it is just incorrect to make that conclusion given #1-6 above. But to be less argumentative, I would say the key questions is "IF IT DOES INDEED HELP TOP ABILITY STUDENTS, WHAT IS TRACKING HELPING THEM TO DO?"

    Be more better than their peers?