Removing the stigma around tracking

Maxime Kawawa-Beaudan

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In my sophomore year I asked one of my friends for help on my math homework. When I showed him the problem he told me his class hadn’t studied that unit yet, and so naturally I asked him what class he was in. “Geometry,” he said, “But only because―”

I don’t remember the rest, but what sticks with me is the fact that he felt required at some level to provide an explanation, as if being in a lower math class than me would leave some stain upon his reputation. He was ashamed, apologetic about it―and it was then that I first became aware that some people cared about math class placement more than placement in any other subject.

From then on, I’ve been intensely aware of that fact. Most people have likely heard some peer or another give that same type of repentant, unsolicited explanation for why they’re in that math class perceived as lesser.

This separation of students into different levels of classes in a subject is known as tracking. The National Education Association defines it as “the practice of grouping children together according to their talents in the classroom.”

And on it’s own, the stratification of courses wouldn’t be so bad. But the system at Redwood is, for many reasons, almost an invalid way of judging academic prowess. Math class placement for many students doesn’t have much to do with mathematical abilities (although I wouldn’t go so far as to discredit the skills of all advanced math students). Some students who are now a year ahead in math skipped their year in middle school, or even elementary school, setting them one year ahead based on knowledge of basic mathematics, not knowledge of the level of math they’re studying now.

This isn’t to say that they’re somehow undeserving, or unprepared for their level of math. All this shows is that there’s no need to deify kids in advanced math as geniuses, and more importantly, no need to create a stigma around being a year back.

Many students in lower classes were held back by recommendations from their middle school teachers, who saw that they weren’t ready for geometry. Of course, it’s true that some students in lower math classes are there because they’ve failed in past semesters, or simply aren’t very skilled in math.

There’s no need to be ashamed about being on the “lesser” track. For one thing, who cares? Few students would pass judgement on another for being in geometry instead of advanced algebra, and if they would, their judgements probably aren’t worth much anyways.

Besides, math isn’t the only subject at school. A failing math student can be a stellar English student and vice versa. We all have weak points and strong points.

Math classes are a good example because it’s in this subject that I see the most separation of students based on tracking. One leap forward or setback anywhere along the sequence of math classes has lasting impacts―the kid who stays back a year in elementary school is a year back in senior year.

As the National Education Association puts it, “students are given labels that stay with them as they move from grade to grade.” Furthermore, the NEA says that, “for those on the lower tracks, a steady diet of lower expectations leads to a low level of motivation toward school,” and “contributes to a widening of the achievement gaps”.

This tracking doesn’t just occur in math classes. Honors classes are a form of tracking, and those exist for most subjects at Redwood. AP classes that have prerequisite courses or require entrance exams are also part of a tracking system.

Tracking systems at Redwood aren’t so uncommon as one might think. Consider the stratification between World History and AP European History, between Honors Advanced Algebra and Advanced Algebra, between the juniors taking AB or BC Calculus and the Pre-Calculus students.

There’s a clear assumption in each of these pairings that one course is lesser than the other; and yet there aren’t many substantive differences between each pair of classes. Juniors in Pre-Calculus will take AB or BC their senior years, so what does it matter? Honors kids will delve a little deeper, but students in both classes will have been taught the basic curriculum.

However, one significant difference between the courses is that students in the perceived higher level course never give that apologetic explanation. Students in the other course will likely feel as if they are underachieving or stupid, and risk losing motivation in academics. Tracking reinforces perceptions of academic inferiority, according to the NEA.

I’m not arguing that honors and certain AP classes should be removed from Redwood, or that everyone should simply take the assigned course for their grade level.

However, students need to remove the stigma around being in different levels in various subjects, in math classes especially. Honors math classes are full of students who like math, who want to learn more about it, not necessarily kids who are better at it.

And on the flip side, classes perceived as lower level are full of kids who might not enjoy that particular subject as much as others, not full of bad or inferior students. So to that friend of mine from last year, I’d like to publicly say: There’s nothing to be ashamed about.