Should We Provide Ability-Based Tracking in Our School?
We received a question on the All Things PLC website from a high school English department that was in the process of revising its curriculum. The school offered three levels at each grade level based on the rigor of the course. They wrote:
Currently we have three courses of American Literature for 10th grade students. One course if for the "middle of the road" student who doesn’t struggle with comprehension or writing and has retained previous skills from grades K-9 that will aid in success and give new skills for courses in grades 11 and 12. One course is for students who excel in reading and writing and want to push themselves to prepare for AP or College level courses in grades 11 and 12. And, finally, one course is for those who struggle with reading and writing and haven’t retained skills from previous grades. These students will work toward re-obtaining those skills and prepare to move to courses in grades 11 and 12 which could be lower rigor in nature as well depending upon the skill level increase.
The teachers were asking if the outcomes of the courses should be the same for all students, but the materials with which they worked would vary in rigor based on the level of the course. This is a question many schools are addressing, particularly in light of the Common Core State Standards in Language Arts.
My response is below:
I got your question regarding whether or not the outcomes should be the same for the 3 different levels of English classes you offer. You indicated that the levels were based on "rigor." I would argue that the only reason to have 3 different levels is that you have 3 very different outcomes in mind.
For example, in my former high school we had three levels of English classes. They were as follows:
- Honors: College level. This series of courses prepared students for success in the Advanced Placement program and test. It gave students access to college-level courses while in high school
- Regular: College Preparatory: This series of courses prepared students for success in college English but did not give them access to college-level courses. The goal was to ensure students would succeed in Freshman English at the university without the need for remedial courses.
- Accelerated: This series of course was offered only in the freshman and sophomore years for students who were reading far below grade level and could not be expected to succeed in the College Preparatory level. The goal was very specific - to accelerate student learning by providing them with a double block of English and tutorial time so that by the time they were juniors, they could move into and succeed in the College Preparatory program. The objective was not to serve as a four-year remedial program but a two-year launching pad because as juniors, the lowest level course available was College Preparatory. We recognized that not all students would elect to go to college, but we believed that those who did not still needed to be able to read text closely, write persuasively, etc.
So if you are going to have 3 levels, you must start with a clearly defined purpose for each level. Furthermore, the lowest level must be designed to accelerate student learning so that those students move out of it while in high school. Absent this plan to accelerate student learning you have simply created a remedial track that widens the achievement gap. There is abundant research that a four-year remedial program is detrimental to student learning and conveys a message of low expectations on the part of the school. You really need to rethink your 4-year remedial program. There is no research to support it.
I would also caution you about excluding students from rigorous curriculum. We would recommend courses to students and their parents, but if they wanted to enroll in a more challenging curriculum we allowed them to do so, with the caveat that we would review their placement at the end of the first grading period and if they were not passing we would move them to a different level. We discovered that we were not infallible, and that some students that we thought would flounder were so motivated that they would put in the extra time and effort to flourish in curriculum that was challenging for them.
The bottom line is that every student who enrolls in your school is entitled to be prepared for success on high stakes tests and should have the knowledge and skills to pursue some form of education beyond high school. That is the very premise of the Common Core State Standards, and the key word there is common. So in that sense, there must be a rigorous baseline of proficiency for all students; however, students in advanced curriculum should be expected to achieve well beyond that baseline, otherwise there is no justification for creating that level. The only exception to this generalization would be those students who have a handicapping condition that is so severe and profound that their IEPs establish very different goals for them.
It is certainly acceptable to select texts based on the intended outcomes of the different levels of your curriculum, but your team should spend a lot more time clearly defining the purpose and outcomes of the different levels than selecting materials based on your perceptions of rigor.