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Research Overwhelmingly Counsels an End to Tracking

Brief Reiterates Harm from “Ability Grouping” in School,
Prescribes Pathway to Access for All Students

William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,

URL for this press release:


BOULDER, CO (May 30, 2013) –The final installment in a series of short briefs summarizing current relevant findings in education policy research reviews the evidence about “tracking” students – that is, enrolling students in particular classes, curricula and courses of study based on perceived ability.

Rather than achieving its purported goal – to tailor instruction to the diverse needs of students – tracking has, over decades of extensive research, been repeatedly found to be harmful to students enrolled in lower tracks and to provide no significant advantages for higher-tracked students, writes Dr. William Mathis, the author of the series. Mathis is managing director of the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

Mathis also points to the overwhelming research finding that tracking stratifies students by race and by parental wealth. What this means, he explains, is that tracking is one of the primary mistakes that schools make if they hope to close achievement gaps. Children with the most limited opportunities to learn outside of school are then given lesser opportunities within the school.

“Whether known as sorting, streaming or ability grouping, an expansive body of literature conclusively shows tracking is harmful and inequitable and remains an unsupportable practice,” Mathis says.

Summing up the research, Mathis writes that lower-track classes “tend to have watered-down curriculum, less-experienced teachers, lowered expectations, more discipline problems, and less- engaging lessons.” But, he continues, it doesn’t have to be this way: “When high-quality, enriched curriculum is provided to all students, the effect is to benefit both high-achieving and low-achieving students.”

Successful examples of non-tracked or heterogeneous grouping can be found in school within and outside the U.S. Mathis describes research showing that the younger the age at which tracking occurs, the greater the differences among a country’s students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) by age 15.  And tracking is not associated with higher overall PISA performance.

Yet despite the evidence of its harm, tracking is still pervasive. Attempts to eliminate the practice often meet stiff resistance from teachers and parents who believe they or their children have benefited from a tracked system.

“The teachers assigned to high-track classes tend to be more experienced and therefore can exercise more power,” Mathis writes. “The parents who are able to secure high-track placement for their children are disproportionately likely to be white, well-educated and politically vocal and therefore similarly able to pressure schools to keep higher-track classes for their children,” segregated from lower-income students, students of color, or both.  

Mathis concludes with a series of recommendations drawn from an NEPC brief authored by Carol Burris, Kevin Welner, and Jennifer Bezoza, calling for the elimination of curricular tracking that separates students by race, socio-economic status, or assumptions about their learning ability.

The detracking reform described in the earlier NEPC brief is a multi-step process. For instance, it calls upon states to require schools and districts to identify and describe their tracks and placement policies. It also calls upon states as well as non-governmental groups to connect educators and communities with researchers able to advance best practices in serving diverse populations. (The earlier brief, with a comprehensive set of recommendations for moving to a non-stratified school environment, is found at


The new brief by William Mathis is part of Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking, a multipart brief that takes up a number of important policy issues and identifies policies supported by research. Each section focuses on a different issue, and its recommendations to policymakers are based on the latest scholarship.

The brief is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Find William Mathis’s brief on the NEPC website at:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on the NEPC, please visit

This brief is also found on the GLC website at