kitchen table math, the sequel: tracking: first controlled experiment

Monday, May 4, 2009

tracking: first controlled experiment


...This paper provides experimental evidence on the impact of tracking primary school students by initial achievement....One hundred and twenty one primary schools which all had a single grade one class received funds to hire an extra teacher to split that class into two sections. In 60 randomly selected schools, students were randomly assigned to sections. In the remaining 61 schools, students were ranked by prior achievement (measured by their first term grades), and the top and bottom halves of the class were assigned to different sections. After 18 months, students in tracking schools scored 0.14 standard deviations higher than students in non-tracking schools, and this effect persisted one year after the program ended. Furthermore, students at all levels of the distribution benefited from tracking. A regression discontinuity analysis shows that in tracking schools scores of students near the median of the pre-test distribution score are independent of whether they were assigned to the top or bottom section. In contrast, in non-tracking schools we find that on average, students benefit from having academically stronger peers. This suggests that tracking was beneficial because it helped teachers focus their teaching to a level appropriate to most students in the class.


This paper provides experimental evidence that students at all level of the initial achievement spectrum benefited from being tracked into classes by initial achievement. Despite the critical importance of this issue for the educational policy both in developed and developing countries, there is surprisingly little rigorous evidence addressing it, and to our knowledge this paper provides the first experimental evaluation of the impact of tracking in any context.

After 18 months, the point estimates suggest that the average score of a student in a tracking school is 0.14 standard deviations higher than that of a student in a non-tracking school. These effects are persistent. One year after the program ended, students in tracking schools performed 0.16 standard deviations higher than those in non-tracking schools....students who were very close to the 50th percentile of the initial rank distribution within their school scored similarly at the end line whether they were assigned to the top or bottom section. In each case, they did much better than their counterparts in non-tracked schools.

Peer Effects and the Impact of Tracking: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Kenya (pdf file) Esther Duflo1, Pascaline Dupas2, and Michael Kremer3, 4
NBER abstract

This will have no effect whatsoever on the folks running our public schools.

stagnation at the top - Fordham report
Tracking: Can It Benefit Low Achieving Children?
Linda Valli on tracking in 5 Catholic high schools, 1
Linda Valli on tracking in 5 Catholic high schools, 2
"school commitment" in Valli's study of tracking in Catholic high schools

7th grade depression starts in 1st grade

ability grouping in Singapore
characteristics of schools where SAT scores did not decline
The Other Crisis in American Education by Daniel Singal
Hiding in Plain Sight: grouping & the achievement gap
tracking: first random-assignment study

SAT equivalence tables
SAT I Individual Score Equivalents
SAT I Mean Score Equivalents

chickens have come home to roost
the deathless meme of the high performing school
Allison on the naturals


Anonymous said...

0.14 standard deviations moves a 50th percentile student to the 55th percentile (I think ... anyone confident about this feel free to chime in ...).

0.14 standard deviations isn't particularly large. I'll take it, but am surprised that the gap isn't larger.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

Gains compound over time -- that is "the challenging reality of compounding"!

Anonymous said...

If I'm reading this report correctly, this experiment took place in grades 1 and 2 and produced a small shift in mean.

If this is correct then I have a premise and a question. The premise is that young children start with roughly the same knowledge and skill and the standard deviation of a population grows with each year of education. My own school district exhibits this characteristic.

Chunks of missing knowledge build over time in differing ways with different kids. They get sick and miss a key concept, or they get a bad school for 6 months, or they just struggled with something critical and it hurts them down the road. Whatever the multitude of reasons, their is a sort of dispersion over time that forces a population to drift apart.

My question is that if this limited study shows a small improvement in the first grade, where differences were possibly small to begin with, how significant would it be if the approach was tried in, say a middle school, where the accumulated drift is huge?

rgetzel86 said...

It's interesting. The education establishment is gung-ho about giving every student exactly what they need (tailoring instruction to the individual). I don't find this philosophy particularly offensive, but couldn't we better serve students if they were grouped according to ability (or better said, achievement)?

I have a 7th grade math CTT class, and I am the general education teacher. I will readily admit that those students who came in three years below grade level have made very little progress compared to those students who are on grade level. There are extreme limitations in this arrangement (which is the exact opposite of tracking, it is an amalgam of above grade level math students and students who might be somewhere on the 3rd grade level).

I and my co-teacher simply cannot teach 2-step algebraic equations to half the class, the multiplication tables to 3 or 4 kids, and subtracting with replacement to another all at once. 70% of my kids can be proficient with the math, and I intend to make them excel, but then I have to slow down at their expense to try to meet the needs of learners with extraordinary deficits.

As far as politics, I'm as liberal as they come. But progressive education just makes unfiltered anger course through my veins. We abandoned tracking presumably because we did not want to segregate kids and degrade those who ended up at the bottom rung of the ladder --- essentially because it was not fair. But isn't fairness giving kids the education that works for them?

If further studies bear out that tracking actually works, shouldn't we be compelled to implement it?

SteveH said...

"I and my co-teacher simply cannot teach 2-step algebraic equations to half the class, the multiplication tables to 3 or 4 kids, and subtracting with replacement to another all at once."

Is this a tracking issue or is it an issue of not making sure kids know what they need to know before they go on to the next grade? Are there specific reasons why those 3 or 4 kids still don't know the times table in 7th grade? If these kids do have learning issues, are they being helped by being passed along? Do schools need statistics to prove what they see in the raw data? Schools choose to do things this way without any basis in research or data. However, others have to have research-based proof to change the system. You can't fight assumptions and opinions with research.

When I was growing up, the lowest ability kids were sent to other schools. Some were mainstreamed, but they had to keep up. There might have been some social promotion, but it wasn't much. There were specific goals for content and skills and everyone had to keep up or suffer the risk of summer school or being held back a year.

I can see why people didn't like this model, but what do we have now? Full inclusion and social promotion. The downside to this approach is that goals of content and skills have to be watered down in K-6. It also means that schools don't even try to determine if the reason kids don't learn is because they have real difficulties, or if it's because they have no consequences.

Schools didn't use research to come up with these ideas. They decided that this is what they wanted to do and then tried to use differentiated instruction to deal with the mixed ability issue. This means enrichment rather than acceleration. In spite of the fact that this was implemented to deal with problems of full inclusion, we are told that magically it's even better than grouping kids by ability. This isn't a research question. It's an assumption and philosophy issue.

So, if research shows that tracking is better, then the obvious result might be tracking starting in the earliest grades. However, this will be what I might call "natural" tracking, or tracking by how much help you get at home. It still doesn't help the student who is quite smart, but gets no push at home or at school.

Schools have some responsibility for pushing and making sure that learning gets done. We can't have kids get to 7th grade not knowing the times table and not really caring how that happened in the first place.

The big problem I see is that K-6 educators now believe less in content an skills. Acceleration (not a research question) is not an issue. They've decided that enrichment is all that is necessary.

This is religion, not research.

So which is the better approach; demand tracking that starts in the earliest grades (I'm sure research would show gains), or ask for a more effort to ensure math skills for all in each of the earlier grades?

The big problem I see is the very fuzzy philosophy of education in K-6. You might get away with this in some areas, but not in math and reading. Learning these skills is not natural. Schools can't dismiss things as rote skills and mere content, and they can't use natural tracking. They have to make sure that learning gets done.

If they don't believe in mere facts and rote knowledge, then they're completely off the hook. However, even Everyday Math doesn't call for allowing kids to get to 7th grade without knowing the times table.

Independent George said...

The thing is, tracking already occurs - by middle and upper-middle class parents who can supplement on their own at great personal expense. As a result, kids without money or educated parents are pretty much screwed in the name of egalitarianism, while people who support tracking to improve productivity are labled as racist or elitist.

palisadesk said...

Is this a tracking issue or is it an issue of not making sure kids know what they need to know before they go on to the next grade? Are there specific reasons why those 3 or 4 kids still don't know the times table in 7th grade? If these kids do have learning issues, are they being helped by being passed along?I know that at the local level, schools deal with these matters in different ways, so my experience may not generalize – but it is not untypical for my district. We have *no* way to ensure that kids know the times tables by seventh grade – indeed, we have children in middle school now who can’t do addition and subtraction with regrouping (one teacher came to me in great distress because she has a student – not Special Ed – who can’t count by fives or tens, or even by ones past 50, and who only this year learned the days of the week and months of the year).

With very few Special Education classes – and those only for children with severe behaviour problems or developmental disabilities (read, IQ below 50-60), and limited resource support, the average middle school teacher in a low-income area has students with skills at a first and second grade level as well as a plurality with skills below grade level but within hailing distance, and several who are quite competent and even advanced.

Even if we had excellent remedial programs and support systems, the number of transfers in and out defeat attempts to get all students on track. That doesn’t mean we quit trying, but it perpetually confounds our attempts. Just as we start to get results with a student, the family moves.

As for kids being “passed along” – in our system, the students are not *promoted* if they are significantly below grade level – they are “transferred” to the next grade and it clearly says on their report card that they failed to meet grade level expectations. However, they are not retained in grade except under extraordinary circumstances. The research is quite clear that retaining students almost never has any positive long-term effects. The exception is if you provide something different for that student the second time through the grade that specifically addresses his/her areas of instructional need. We (at my school at least) know how to do this, but we lack the staff and instructional resources. We have been successful in a few cases but continue to transfer most students to the next grade because we have nothing better to offer.

Most do have learning issues of one kind or another, but the parents and families generally lack the resources to seek help outside the school system, may have limited command of English and knowledge of the system, and we are not staffed to provide appropriate services even to students with exceptionalities. In K-6 at least (I am less familiar with the everyday operations in middle school, although we share the building), the teachers are very hardworking and committed to ensuring optimum learning for the kids, but there are severe constraints in what can be done.

When we brought in “full inclusion” about 10 years ago, the superintendent at the time got a bit “off script” in his presentation to staff and clearly said that the driving force behind this initiative was saving money. Special classes, busing, training of special ed teachers, aides etc. all cost money that is not spent if students are “serviced” in a general ed classroom with occasional resource support (all that is available).

I have never heard anyone argue that academic results are better for anyone concerned. The high school that receives most of our students is now dealing with the fruits of this experiment. The head of the math department came and made a presentation on their math program and seemed to feel there was a problem that urgently needed to be dealt with – too many students are coming in with such weak math skills that they don’t even score on the h. s. placement test they give incoming ninth graders. “We are set to identify students with fifth and sixth grade skills for remedial math, but we don’t have the tools to assess students at the second grade level. And students that low, no matter how we teach them, will never make enough progress to attain even one math credit (three are required) at ninth and tenth grade level, so they have no hope of earning a high school diploma.”

Yet, although a few see the urgency of the situation, most do not. Our dropout rate is very, very high, and both literacy and math proficiency are factors.

Officially, we don't have any tracking until 11th grade, but of necessity there is some (unofficially) starting in ninth.

SteveH said...

"The research is quite clear that retaining students almost never has any positive long-term effects."

But what about the negative effects on the other students? There is no alternate solution? Do they put "transferred" kids into separate classrooms?

"...the driving force behind this initiative was saving money."

The cost savings from not sending kids to special schools is huge in our town, but that isn't the driving force. They DO think that it's a better education for all. This could only be done because they redefined the goals of K-6.

There seems to be two types of school systems; those that are driven by pedagogy, and those that are just struggling to get by day-to-day.

For those schools that are struggling to survive, why don't they let the students go elsewhere? Why do they (apparently) mix "transferred" students with promoted students?

In our schools, there is no day-to-day struggle, but kids still get to higher grades not knowing their times table. There is no excuse for this.

Perhaps we need to define problems and assumptions more clearly. If we're talking about struggling schools, I would be more concerned about separating those who can or will from those who can't or won't. If we're talking about other schools, I would be more concerned about pedagogy and assumptions.

So, even if we're talking about better schools, many kids still won't learn the times table. Even if the promoted students are separated from the transferred ones, many still won't learn the times table. Even though teachers see kids who should be able to handle the material, and even though the school is not struggling day-to-day, teachers or schools can't or won't do anything about it.

My guess is that many schools get caught up in the big picture of state testing and don't (can't) see that mastering the basics in math is much more important than all of the vague categories they look at, like problem solving or numeracy. The math placement test they give in 6th grade is staring them in the face, but they still turn to the vague categories on the state test.