Mixing or Tracking Students: Reflections on Voice, Accessibility, and Implications for Higher Education

As I reviewed our list of readings this week, I was drawn to the article by Margarita Pivovarova, “Should We Track or Should We Mix Them?”  for two reasons.  First, as a former eighth grade English teacher, my students were tracked to some degree as students’ math classes dictated schedules. Inevitably, high achieving math students were grouped together throughout day.  Secondly, as a community college administrator, we currently practice ability homogenous grouping in some disciplines as students take placement tests in order to determine what level of English, reading or math aligns to their current abilities.  So, the question of tracking or mixing students is one that has been part of my educational career for the past twenty years, and those twenty years of teaching and educational experience, along with our current development in this course, influence my reaction to this article.Voice

First, I must confess that I am biased regarding using equations, mathematical terminology, and statistics to exclusively discuss an educational topic.  So, I offer this reflection about voice not as a criticism of this study, but as my own development as a scholar-practitioner embarking on my research journey.  Pivovarova analyzes the interactions between classmates with varying achievement levels in the elementary and middle school classrooms.  She utilizes data from Ontario public schools and explains mathematically and statistically the effect of high-achieving (good) and low-achieving (bad) students on groups of students.  According to Pivovarova (2014), “The presence of low-achievers in a class does not impede the achievement of other students, and even helps students who are low achievers themselves.”    Furthermore, “being surrounded by good peers is beneficial for everyone independent of their own learning level.”  To sum it all up,  Pivovarova states that “peer group composition matters”  (p. 28).

In no way do I question the validity of the study, or the means as to which Pivovarova arrives at her conclusions.  But, I left this study wanting more – specifically, the voices of those instructors in the classrooms and the voices of the students (high, low, marginal, etc. – all the labels utilized in the study).  Each of the groups of students from Ontatrio whose data were used for this study has a story to tell.  Each of the teachers who worked with the respective students has a story to tell.  And, from our readings thus far in this course, I now have a sense that by not telling those stories, we may not have a true sense as to the impact of mixing or tracking students on the students themselves.  This study adds to the discussion of ability tracking or streaming, which was the goal of the author.  I offer that it is critical to also include the voices of the participants in the study to gain additional knowledge and insight about tracking or mixing students based on ability level.


As I think further about my development as a scholar-practitioner, I am beginning to question the accessibility of research studies.  How are they written?  Who is the audience?  Is the language used in an article accessible to those impacted by the research? In this case, the author uses very scientific language that includes descriptions of formulas and mathematical explanations, all necessary to fully understand the methodology and processes involved to derive the respective conclusions.  But, as I think of principals I have worked with over the years responsible for making schedules, or I think of the many teachers and administrator who struggle with this question each year, I wonder will studies such as these impact this particular audience?   As I reflect on my upcoming research, I hope I am able to connect my research to my audience and make it accessible to them, in order for it to have a positive impact on current practices and policies.

Implications for Higher Education

Finally, this study caused me to contemplate some current practices in higher education.  In some respects, a community college classroom has the most diverse (mixed) population a teacher could imagine.  Students will differ by age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, personal experiences, and religious affiliation.   But, community colleges also track students in some disciplines.  As mentioned earlier, students are initially placed into English, math and reading courses based on results of a single placement exam.  So, grouping in this instance is based on ability, granted only a single measure is being used to determine ability.  Four-year universities, for the most part, could be viewed as a glorified tracking system.  There are highly selective universities that only accept students who demonstrate a certain academic ability-level.  Isn’t this an example of tracking?  So what does this all mean for higher education?  I think it should cause faculty and administrators to pause and evaluate how our systems may unintentionally or intentionally track students, and discuss whether this tracking is in the best interest of students.

Regarding my line of inquiry with developmental education, is it beneficial to have college students who for varying reasons may be struggling academically in a particular discipline take classes only with other students experiencing similar academic challenges?  Are there advantages to rethinking this model, to allow for mixed classrooms that could benefit all students in some manner? Studies such as these help to shed light on the issue of tracking or mixing students by ability; however, I also believe student and educator voices need to be included in discussions before policies and practices are altered. 



Pivovarova, M. (2014). Should We Track or Should We Mix Them? Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Tempe: Arizona State University.


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