NEPC Review: 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning – Part II: Tracking and Advanced Placement

This report uses state-level data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to describe 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. However, they are consistent with prior research that has frequently (although not always) identified benefits of tracking for high-achieving students. A key weakness is that the report neglects to consider how tracking is likely to affect lower-achieving students. Tracking is often implemented in ways that hinder the learning of students assigned to low tracks. Because disadvantaged and minority students are disproportionally assigned to low tracks, the report’s conclusion that tracking could be “a potential tool for promoting equity” is dubious.

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