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Academic tracking (also known as academic streaming) refers to an educational policy whereby students are categorized depending on their intellectual ability and social background. Academic tracking has been an issue of great controversy based on its implications to the workforce and the society. Tracking has its merits and demerits as analyzed below.

Ability grouping starts as early as in the elementary level. Teachers are known to group children according to their ability to grasp things. In secondary schools, course level grouping is rampant. Students are assigned to classes of different levels or covering different content. Traditionally, high schools in the United States offered three curricular tracks- general education, vocational training and college preparation.  Tracking also occurs at school level, and could be categorized into implicit school level or explicit school level. Implicit school level is widespread in the United States and is based on factors such as residence of students. Explicit school level is based on factors such as the school type, and it emphasizes prestige (Ireson & Hallam, 2001).

Those who support ability tracking mainly base their argument on efficiency. According to them, students with high intellectual grasp and those with lower grasp should not be in the same class as their rate of understanding differs.  This allows the teacher to adjust his/her mode of instruction. For slow learners or low-achieving students, the teacher will use a slower pace of instruction that involves repetition and reinforcement. For fast learners, they will be given an opportunity for independent research and cooperative group discussions.

The proponents of ability tracking also argue that it allows and facilitates higher achievement quick learners. A study carried in 1992 by Kulik and Kulik claims that students in tracked classes perform better than their counterparts in untracked classes. This could be attributed to the fact that tracking increases the completion among fast learning students and act as a motivating factor. Tracking also improves the learning atmosphere in classes for lower achieving classes and it improves their participation in class since there is no intimidation from performing students.

Another benefit of academic tracking is that it helps in the allocation since it directs students to specific areas of the labor market. Higher achieving students are directed to scientific and mathematical fields of work since they are deemed fit to engage in the rigorous mental activities that are characteristic of such fields.   

In spite of all the above merits of academic streaming, a strong argument for academic de-tracking has been brought forward. Academic tracking has been the source of many hot debates on the political, scientific and research platforms. Some of the main demerits of academic tracking are mentioned below (Sprague & Keeling, 2007).

The most pronounced theme for academic de-tracking relates to racially imbalanced and inequitable tracking levels. The findings of a study by Jomills Braddock in 1990 showed that racial and ethnically minor groups are discriminated against in ability tracking. White and Asian students make up the larger proportion of potential groups while the African-American and Latino students are overrepresented in the low ranking. Education researcher Jeannie Oakes reports that schools often judge African-American and Latino students as having learning defects limited intellectual ability. These learners are less likely to be selected in accelerated courses even if they had the same grades as the White or Asian students.

Students from families with high socioeconomic status tend to be more academically advantaged than those from less advantaged families. The relationship between family background and academic outcome is particularly pronounced in countries with explicit between-school tracking like Germany. Students from rich families are taken to prestigious schools that have better teachers and resources. Such form of tracking contributes to the immense socioeconomic inequalities faced. Psychological and sociological researches have shown that the inequalities become amplified at the points of transition. Such inequalities are furthered from institutions of learning into the labor market.

Critics of ability tracking also claim that more money and resources are spent on high ability students for research and general schooling as compared to the lower ability students. High track students also get better qualified teachers who have wider content knowledge than the lower ability students. This inequality further increases the difference in their intellectual level. The teachers of higher track levels are said to be more enthusiastic in teaching provide better examples and are more organized than those of lower track students (Wolf & Jenkins, 2010).

In addition, ability tracking has been labeled as a major cause of low self esteem and embarrassment for low ability student. Although insignificant, this problem has led to social stereotyping and creation of prejudices against some groups of people. Low ability performers are directed to the manual sectors of production. It has also been said that placing students in high ability groups makes them arrogant.

Ability streaming has also been accredited to the formation of peer groups among students of the same academic level. This prevents interaction between students of different academic levels. Since most of the students in high track levels are White and Asian while those in lower class tracks are Afro-American and Latino, it further escalates the problem of discrimination. Stigmatization of under-performing students has a negative effect on their studies. It has also been noted that the management of schools tend to form negative attitudes towards low achievers, and label them as difficult and problematic.

The demerits of tracking outweigh its benefits and as such, most policymakers and educationists do not vouch for it. Instead, several alternatives to ability tracking have been suggested. For example cooperative learning whereby students undertaking the same course are allowed to group themselves according to their interests and work together and jointly feel responsible for each other’s success or failure. Reconstruction of vocational training programs to prepare all students equally for college or employment.

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