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STANFORD - A new study on tracking in high schools shows the system of placing some students in college preparatory courses and others in easier math and science courses is "harming millions of students in American society," says Sanford Dornbusch, the Reed-Hodgson Professor of Human Biology, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Sociology and the School of Education at Stanford University.
Tracking doesn't limit opportunities for the top tenth or so of students but is particularly disastrous for students whose abilities fall in the middle range, Dornbusch said.
Eighth grade test scores are critical to a students' high school placement, yet many who do well on those tests - particularly Latino and African American students in the Northern California schools studied - are misplaced in courses below their abilities, said Dornbusch, who led a research team on the subject.
The tracking system also misplaced about a fifth of white students who aspire to go to four-year colleges, he said.
"At minimum, more students should be in higher tracks," Dornbusch said.
Perhaps even more shocking, he said, are findings that students who intend to go to college and their parents often don't know when a student has been tracked out of college-preparatory science and math classes. Biology courses with names like "Ecology and You" or "Life on Earth" hide the fact that they will not prepare a student for admission to a four-year college. Similarly, a student assigned to business math or other courses that teachers tend to nickname "bonehead" math will find it hard to get back on track for admission to a four-year college.
School principals and teachers may not want students and parents to know which courses are college preparation, Dornbusch suggested in his recent inaugural address as president of the Society for Research on Adolescence. If they knew, more students and parents would complain and demand better placements, he said.
Dornbusch urged researchers to consider tracking to be a "key variable" in their studies of youth and what leads to success, but he also said enough studies already indict tracking, so that school policymakers should consider changing their practices now.
Jeannie Oakes of the University of California-Los Angeles concluded that "the tracking system is more a product of inertia in a school system than of the abilities of students" in the schools she studied, Dornbusch said.
The Stanford tracking study led by Dornbusch involved analyzing all school records since the fifth grade for approximately 1,200 students in six diverse San Francisco Bay Area high schools. The researchers selected at random an equal proportion of students with high, middle and low grades for each gender-ethnicity combination so that there were no ethnic differences in school grades for their sample. They then compared the students' school records to their current placement in high school math and science courses.
They did not look at English or social studies courses, Dornbusch said, because those subjects were hardly tracked in the schools studied.
The researchers found that the proportion of high-ability African American and Latino American students not taking college prep courses in math and science was more than twice that of white and Asian American students of the same ability level.
For all groups, the proportion of college prep math and science courses markedly increased with higher parent education. Having more highly educated parents, however, did not influence African and Latino American enrollments nearly as much as for whites and Asian Americans.
A 1990 study by Dornbusch and Phil Ritter found that "the level of parent education had much less influence on school performance of minority adolescents in the context of a predominantly minority community."
"Under such conditions, the school's offerings may reflect the typical characteristics of students from the community, and the influence of parents on school performance is thereby reduced," Dornbusch said.
In the new study, the factor that most determined a student's first high school tracking placement was his or her eighth grade test score. Other factors that were significantly related were elementary school grades, attendance and negative comments about a student's behavior in his or her files.
Among students who had high educational expectations and thought they were in the college-prep track, Dornbusch found almost half of the African American and Latino American students were not actually in college-prep math and science courses, and about 20 percent of white and Asian American students weren't either.
"This finding upsets me," Dornbusch said. "This set of data points to a systemic pattern of ignorance, and African Americans and Hispanics are even less aware of the extent to which the tracking system is short-changing them. These results help us to understand why so many talented and hard-working minority students are ineligible for four-year colleges and universities.
"And of course, the paucity of these minorities among scientists and engineers is a necessary consequence."
But, he added, "if one fifth of non-Hispanic whites and Asians are also misinformed, we are discussing a major national problem that does not just affect disadvantaged minorities."
Some of the findings were foreshadowed in an earlier study by Dornbusch. In four Northern California high schools, he found that 55 percent of the students could not correctly state even one admission requirement for the University of California, and 76 percent could not identify a single California State University requirement. Moreover, good students in high-level math and science courses "were just as likely to be ignorant about college requirements as students in the lower tracks."
A second study with Jose Carrasco of San Jose State University found that teachers of high school classes with mostly Latino and African American students were less likely than others to know current college admission requirements, Dornbusch said.
The best students often overcome bad placements, Dornbusch said. He cited, for example, a Latino student of his at Stanford who was placed in Algebra 0.5 in the ninth grade but wound up taking algebra and geometry together in his sophomore year at the suggestion of a teacher who recognized his abilities.
"His was a success story, but it took an unusual combination of teacher and student to make it happen," Dornbusch said.
"Students at the very top of eighth grade math ability, perhaps those above the 80th percentile, and certainly those above the 90th percentile, usually do well in math and science regardless of their initial placement," Dornbusch said. Those who are initially misplaced in lower- track courses still had a moderately high probability of eventually taking chemistry or physics.
But a tracking system can't be justified, he said, on the basis that it doesn't cause harm to the top 10 to 20 percent of the students.
Student grades also indicated that "being at the bottom of the high track appears to bring better educational returns than being at the top of the low track," he said. "High-ability students in the lower tracks learn little and get lower grades than those of equal ability in the higher track.
"Most kids can learn a lot but aren't learning much, and too often schools use lack of ability as an excuse for poor performance. Baby- sitting is not a substitute for education."
The Stanford researchers also checked to see if students expressing a desire to go to college were possibly overestimating their own abilities. They did another analysis just of those students whose eighth grade math scores put them in the top half. All such students, in their view, should have been assigned to college preparatory math.
"The proportion of these students mis-assigned to lower track classes without their knowledge was about 30 percent for the disadvantaged minorities (African Americans and Hispanics) and about 13 percent for the others," Dornbusch said.
They also found the original placement in science for these students strongly affected the probability that they would take chemistry or physics in their junior and senior years. "Students of average ability assigned to [college-prep] biology were 10 times more likely to take chemistry or physics than students assigned to 'baby biology,' " he said.
"High school placements made in the eighth grade have profound occupational and educational outcomes," Dornbusch concluded. "For students in the middle, these decisions are more arbitrary and less likely to be based on ability."
Funding for the study was provided by the Carnegie Foundation of New York, the Spencer Foundation, the Drown Foundation of Los Angeles and Jill and Boyd Smith.
The research team included Brad Brown of the University of Wisconsin, Larry Steinberg of Temple University, and Zen-yin Chen, Phil Ritter, Harriet Romo, Ricardo Stanton-Salazar and Ken Wood of Stanford.
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