To track or not to track, that is the question. All administrators grapple with this question because there are pros and cons to ability tracking students. Personally, I have experienced student placement based on ability tracking as well as placement based on a more heterogeneous approach but I have yet to decide which approach I prefer. Pivovarova’s 2014 article opened my eyes to the pros and cons of particular classroom designs and allowed me to begin formulating a better understanding of best practices for placing students in classroom.
During my first four years of teaching, I was asked to be involved in the student placement process for the middle school students. Our process for placing students was not a fine science but instead based on teacher observations such as, student behavior, gender, and grades. With these traits in mind, we attempted to evenly distribute the students into each homeroom with the intention of creating heterogeneous classrooms. This type of distribution seemed to be effective but I always had to wonder how the lower achieving and behavioral issue students were affecting my higher achieving students. I felt a sense of guilt every time I had to stop the class to handle a behavior or begin my lesson with foundational pieces that my higher achieving students already understood. Although I saw some negative aspects to this classroom design, I also was able to witness outstanding cooperative learning moments where higher achieving students would help instruct lower achieving students. I believe this was not only beneficial to the lower achieving students but it was also incredibly advantageous for the higher achieving students. With that being said, Pivovarova (2014) stated that both low and high students benefit from these exchanges and there is a “positive effect of diversity of abilities in the classroom supports the idea that students learn from each other not only from their teacher, and class interaction play an important role in learning and transmission of knowledge” (p. 24).
During my fifth year as a teacher, I was introduced to the concept of student achievement tracking. The middle school students were placed according to achievement on Arizona’s high-stakes test, AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards). All high-performing sixth through eighth graders were all placed in the same class, all middle achieving students were placed in another class, and all low-achieving students were placed in a class. The first thing I noticed upon walking into the classroom was the morale of the students; the high-achieving students were upbeat and motivated; the middle-achieving students lacked motivation and were complacent; and the low-achieving students had poor morale and continuously referred to their class as the “dumb class”. Pivovarova (2014) came to a similar conclusion; she stated “while grouping by ability seems to be beneficial for high-achieving students, there is no evidence to support the tracking model for all students” (p. 27). Although it was extraordinary to watch the higher-level students excel and work on more advanced assignments, I knew my lower students were academically stagnant.
By utilizing achievement tracking are we perpetuating the intellectual perceptions that the students already have? I believe so, because it was a daily struggle to get our middle and low achieving students to believe that they can achieve at high ability levels. Unfortunately, I watched as my middle-achieving students, who were capable of meeting our standards and excelling, simply gave up because they were not labeled as “high-level” students. Placing students in these levels, I believe will select an educational path that students will be confined to for the remainder of their academic careers. Is this fair? Is this the message we want to send to our kids?
I still do not have a definitive answer to the question: should we track our students? There are valid pros and cons to both sides of the argument and as a school administrator; I am left to make this challenging decision for my students. After reviewing Pivovarova’s 2014 article, I believe that it would be in my students’ best interest to remain in heterogeneous classes due to the moral obligation I have to do what is best for all students, not just a select few. All students deserve to have access to an excellent education.
Pivovarova, M. (2014). Should We Track or Should We Mix Them? Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College. Tempe: Arizona State University
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