I see the issues raised here as fundamental, and have raised them with my school board here -- which is taking them very seriously.
Attewell's article (pdf file) was a revelation to me. I had experienced everything he describes, but hadn't put it together and certainly had no idea someone had "done the math." (I've still not read the article closely; if I see things differently once I do, I'll revise this.) In any event, I've been planning to write a series of posts about Attewell.
For now, here is a passage that is true of the situation in my own district:
Academic Tracking Among Strong Students[snip]This article considers tracking in its newer form, especially the role of AP and honors math and science.[snip][I]n the first model, the odds of a student from a nonexam public star school taking one or more AP examinations is 1.375 times as high as a student of a similar gender, race, and parental education who is enrolled in a nonstar public school (the reference category or yardstick). In the second model, after controlling for SAT scores, the odds of a student in an affluent star school taking an AP examination is .823, or only 82 percent as high as the odds of a demographically similar student with an equal SAT score who is enrolled in a nonstar public school.[snip]In some star public schools, access to the honors track has become limited to the cream of the cream. Accomplished through advising and tough grading policies, this new form of tracking leads to a steady attrition out of advanced math and science courses, causing experts to wonder why talented young Americans avoid these subjects.
This is exactly what we've experienced in a wealthy suburban school district.
A capable student whose area of strength is math/science takes Honors everything (math, science, social studies, foreign language, ELA); a capable student whose area of strength is verbal takes Honors ELA/social studies/ELA but is likely to be "washed out" of Honors math and some of the Honors science courses via "tough grading."
Honors math and some Honors science courses are viewed as courses for the mathematically gifted; Honors ELA/social studies/foreign language are viewed as courses for the capable and industrious.
Add weighted grading into the mix and the result is that math/science students dominate the top 10% of the class regardless of SAT scores, IQ, or native ability and effort.
[T]his new form of tracking leads to a steady attrition out of advanced math and science courses, causing experts to wonder why talented young Americans avoid these subjects.More later.