July 27, 2015

Sarah Cohodes (Harvard Kennedy School)

Tracking in schools – the practice of separating students into classrooms by ability – is a hotly debated issue in the United States. Advocates for tracking claim that it helps teachers target instruction and ensures that higher ability children have the opportunity to reach their maximum potential, while opponents claim that tracking places low-income and minority students in watered-down classes that exacerbate existing inequalities. Adding to the debate, current evidence on tracking student achievement is mixed, with some studies finding positive effects on academic performance for both high-ability and low-ability peers while others finding very little to support these claims. The lack of consensus on the effects of tracking likely stems from the fact that it is difficult to separate the effects of tracking from other influences that typically occur in tracking programs, such as increased personal attention, teacher support, additional time spent on certain subjects, or peer interaction.

Prior academic work on tracking for high-achieving students at the elementary and middle school level is also limited by a short time horizon, limiting outcomes to standardized test scores. Thanks to a long-established program that tracks high-achieving students in the Boston Public Schools (BPS), the paper that this policy brief is based on provides the first opportunity to understand the longer term effects of this type of program for young students. Advanced Work Class (AWC) is an accelerated program in the BPS for 4th through 6th graders who score well on a 3rd grade standardized test. Students in the AWC program get a dedicated classroom with high-achieving peers, advanced literacy curricula, and accelerated math in the later grades.