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State Board Of Education Discourages So-Called Tracking In Schools

GRACE E. MERRITT

January 07, 2010

HARTFORD - The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to oppose the longtime practice of tracking students by academic ability, saying it funnels a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students to less challenging classes that hurt their chances to succeed.

The resolution is not binding on school systems, but is designed to discourage the practice.

The board's resolution calls for schools that do track students to inform parents if their child is on a low track and tell them that the level of course work would not be rigorous enough to allow the child to attend the state university system.

In addition, schools must file annual reports explaining their tracking systems, describing the research that supports them and mapping out the demographic characteristics of students assigned to each track level.

"The intent is not to take issue with instructional-level classes or groups," board member Theresa Hopkins-Staten said. "It's to take issue with the disproportionate number of students of color and low-income students in low-track classes.

"This is something we, as a board, need to monitor ... to ensure high quality education is available to all in this state."

The measure is not aimed at advanced placement courses or honors courses or even just splitting up a classroom into different reading groups, said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

"That's not tracking," he said. "Tracking is when you have an A-team and a B-team and maybe even a C-team and you never leave those teams. You have a different curriculum, a different pace and a different set of expectations."

Assistant Education Commissioner George Coleman said the resolution approved unanimously Wednesday is designed to make sure parents realize that their child has been placed in a non-college preparatory track and give them an opportunity to see the data supporting that placement and redress the decision.

Hopkins-Staten said she proposed the resolution after learning that some school systems in Connecticut still adhere to rigid tracking. The Department of Education doesn't know exactly how many school systems still have tracking because schools systems are run and controlled by local school boards.

For instance, the board learned that Danbury and Stamford still have tracking systems though they're dismantling them when school leaders presented the board with their school improvement plans recently.

Tracking, which was popular in American schools in the 1970s, has fallen out of favor in some education circles, Murphy said.

"We are trying to get away from it," Murphy said.

Instead, state school officials prefer a more heterogeneous approach in which a wide range of students learn together in one classroom.

"Research says if you are in a heterogeneous classroom where you have students of all levels and experiences, students, particularly students who are struggling, can do better," Murphy said.

Critics, however, say that approach does a disservice to high-achieving students who might become bored as extra time is spent with other students. A group called Stamford Residents for Excellence in Education, for example, has said that Stamford's plan to dismantle tracking would "dumb down" instruction.

There is conflicting research on both sides of the issue.

A study by the Fordham Institute released last month on tracking in Massachusetts middle schools found that more students at schools with two or three levels of math scored near the top of state math tests than those at schools with only one math track.

But Stamford Superintendent of Schools Joshua P. Starr firmly believes in the benefits of "eradicating" the tracking system, which he says serves only high-performing students.

"The kids at bottom stay at bottom and it hurts kids that are traditionally lower performers," he said. "They are not being challenged. They are not being asked to work at a higher level. The evidence is overwhelming. It all leads to the same conclusion: Tracking does not work for those kids."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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