Are Students’ Math Futures Being Unwittingly Set By Tracking?

Diversity and Equity

Are Students’ Math Futures Being Unwittingly Set By Tracking?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Mar 4, 2024

Are Students’ Math Futures Being Unwittingly Set By Tracking?

When Pierrce Holmes entered ninth grade, his school put him in 9C, a lower-level algebra class.

Before then, Holmes had always earned good grades in math — mostly As — and when he found out his friends were in honors math, he felt he belonged there too. And so he approached his guidance counselor and asked why he wasn’t in the honors math class. “Oh, do you want to try?,” Holmes recalls the adviser replying. He was switched over to the more advanced class, which taught algebra II and geometry.

Holmes had been “tracked,” or grouped, into the lower-performing math class. “I wasn’t even thinking about tracking at all, honestly. I was just a kid. I’m just going to whatever class they send me to,” Holmes says, adding: “If you’re not paying attention, nobody tells you.”

Reflecting on his more recent experience as a policy analyst for RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization, Holmes doesn’t think it makes much sense that he had to hunt down the chance to try more difficult math. Only when it was too late to influence his own decision did it become clear to him that this was a moment when he could have been unwittingly sent down an alternative path.

Which students get to attempt intellectually stimulating courses like calculus may rely in part on where they attend high school rather than just their aptitude for math, according to a new study. Since these courses can sway placements in coveted college spots, this may be both leaving talent on the table and reinforcing unequal opportunities.

Previous studies have also shown that students receive different guidance from their counselors, with some students even turning to social media sites like YouTube to determine what math courses to take. When America’s math performance is lagging, it could have big consequences.

The Complicated Reality of Tracking

Getting rid of tracking is not the answer, says Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at RAND. But there are questions about how to accomplish it equitably, making sure that students who can handle difficult math content aren’t having their talents squandered, she argues.

Based on her research, the factors that are used to determine how to group students differ depending both on the state and the type of school.

Kaufman and Holmes published a report in February that suggests large and low-poverty middle schools tend to use achievement-based tracking more for math placements than their high-poverty counterparts. Called “Elementary and Middle School Opportunity Structures That Factor into Students' Math Learning,” the report investigated student tracking, teacher qualifications and support for struggling students in four states: California, Florida, New York and Texas. It was the first publication based on RAND’s American Mathematics Educator Study. This particular report focused on data from a subset of that study drawn from 2,505 teachers and 2,293 principals working with kindergartners through eighth graders.

One finding: How these schools corralled students into math groups also differed by the income level of the families they serve. Schools with fewer students who receive free or reduced-price lunches were more likely to use parent or family requests when grouping students, as opposed to teacher recommendations or performance on assessments. It’s not clear precisely why, Kaufman says. Perhaps low-income families are less assertive, or perhaps principals aren’t weighing their requests as highly, she speculates.

In general, schools are using different kinds of data when slotting kids into tracks, Kaufman says. For example, in New York, it was common for principals to report that they use teacher recommendations when determining where to place a student. In Florida, in contrast, it was more common to rely on grade-level tests or interim assessments than teacher recommendations when grouping students.

Some of the dissimilarities in the report are mysterious. For instance: Principals in Texas reported more “major obstacles'' preventing them from delivering effective K-12 math instruction, according to the survey. These principals were divulging more pressure on teachers to cover specific material that will be tested in Texas, as well as more staffing shortages and inadequate time for teachers to prepare lessons in Texas compared to the nation as a whole. Why that should be worse for Texas educators, as the data suggests, is something that the researchers say they don’t have a clear explanation for.

Access to Opportunities

In her previous work teaching adults trying to earn a GED, Kaufman spent a lot of time reflecting on how the education system “shortchanged” those students. Factors outside of their control seemed to pull them toward the GED path: where they were born, what opportunities they had and what the schools they attended could offer them when they struggled, she adds.

In setting students up for success, it’s not just what one teacher does in one classroom, but what schools can do more broadly, she says. That’s something she sees in math tracking as well.

For example, lots of principals say that their school offers algebra, a critical juncture in the race to calculus. But, Kaufman says, they also say that only some students can take algebra, which implies some tracking.

In the end, this can shove students down academic journeys they might not even be aware they are on.

Students are often put on pathways and they don't realize that they have any choice in the matter, Kaufman says. That can work out. But sometimes, especially when kids are tracked into lower- and higher-achievement levels, students can find themselves stuck in lower-track pathways, she adds. That can shape their self-perception, and it can also affect how teachers perceive a student’s math ability, Kaufman says.

Missing out on some mathematics can make college more difficult, she adds, and it can happen without anyone ever discussing it with the student or their parents.

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