Study Suggesting Benefits of High-Track Classes Doesn’t Support Conclusion that Tracking Promotes Equity

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Key New NEPC Review Takeaway: Report’s weakness lies in not considering tracking’s likely negative effects on students placed in lower-track classrooms

The practice of tracking, or grouping students into different classes according to perceived ability or achievement, is a common one in American high schools. A report published by the Brown Center at Brookings argues that tracking in eighth grade may promote greater equity because states with more such tracking tend to have more students passing AP exams in high school. However, a review of that study points out that, even if the associational evidence were convincing, the study should also have considered the effects of tracking on low-achieving students and the potential of the practice to exacerbate existing educational inequalities.

Marshall Jean, a graduate fellow at the University of Chicago, reviewed 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education – Part II: Tracking and Advanced Placement for the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

This report’s data confirm the prevalence of tracking—noting that the average state tracks approximately three-quarters of its math students. But the author explored whether more or less tracking, on average, in a given state, was associated with later scores among students taking Advanced Placement math. Controlling for state-level poverty and the percent of students scoring at the advanced level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the study found a positive association between tracking in eighth grade and the proportion of students passing AP exams in high school. The relationship is moderately strong and holds true for White, Black, and Hispanic students.

The report suggests that the separate learning environments for high achievers created by tracking are important for providing students (including students of color) with the skills and knowledge to succeed with the most demanding coursework offered in high schools. The findings are based on correlations and cannot establish a causal relationship, nor can they identify what mechanisms might be at work if there were a causal relationship. However, the findings are consistent with prior research that has frequently identified test-score benefits of tracking for high-achieving students.

The reviewer’s primary caution is that even if one accepts that tracking can be beneficial to high-achieving students, the report’s conclusion that tracking could be “a potential tool for promoting equity” is dubious. This is because the report neglects to consider how tracking is likely to affect students placed in lower-track classes. A large body of other tracking research points to academic and other harms to students assigned to such lower tracks. Because disadvantaged and minority students are disproportionally assigned to those tracks, the equity claims of the report are particularly problematic.

Find Marshall Jean’s review at:

Find 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning – Part II: Tracking and Advanced Placement, by Tom Loveless, published by the Brookings Institution, at:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) Think Twice Think Tank Review Project ( provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. The project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

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William J. Mathis

Marshall Jean
University of Chicago
(773) 368-5521
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