The Impact of Tracking Students with Disabilities in Mathematics

Tracking is a system of assigning students into separate levels, classes, or courses based on perceived ability, teacher recommendation, placement assessments, prior achievement, or a range of non-academic expectations such as student compliance. Tracking most often involves multiple levels of the same course, often sorting students into high, average, and low levels that typically offer significantly different academic content, instructional quality, and expectations. There has been a lot of research done in the past twenty years showing that tracking in mathematics has negatively impacted most students. Students who are placed into what has traditionally been considered a “low level” track almost always stay in this track and do not have access to content or coursework that adequately prepare them for post-secondary opportunities (NCTM, Principles to Action, 2014; TNTP, The Opportunity Myth, 2018). Students with disabilities are often placed into the lower-level tracks unless they have someone who actively advocates for something different. This article is a call for all of us to advocate to end the tracking of students in general, but also to be the voice to where we may unintentionally be widening opportunity gaps for students with disabilities.

The research shows that we need to diminish the worth or value of our system so that we do not have “low-level” tracked classrooms. The position paper “Closing the Opportunity Gap: A Call for Detracking Mathematics” put out by the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM, 2020) breaks down how policies and practices of tracking widen the opportunity gap whereas policies and practices for detracking reduce the opportunity gap. The position of NCSM:

NCSM, Leadership in Mathematics Education, believes that all students should have access to high-quality instruction and post-secondary educational opportunities. While we acknowledge that many factors hinder such student access, in this position statement we call for the cessation of one clear, addressable factor: the practice of tracking. As a practice, tracking too often leads to segregation, dead-end pathways, and low-quality experiences, and disproportionately has a negative impact on minority and low-socioeconomic students. Additionally, placement into tracks too often lacks transparency and accountability. Overall, tracking does not improve achievement but it does increase educational inequality. In light of this, NCSM calls instead for diminishing the worth or value of, heterogeneous mathematics instruction through early high school, after which students may be well-served by separate curricular pathways that all lead to viable, post-secondary options. 

 

The full position paper and video can be found here and includes research and key ideas for how all stakeholders can contribute to reducing opportunity gaps for every student. 

In addition to NCSM, the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics (ASSM) has also published a position paper. Similar to NCSM, the ASSM position paper stresses the inequitable practice of tracking students and the importance of every student having access to quality instruction in mathematics. The position paper for ASSM also includes unintended consequences of tracking and provides action steps for stakeholders. Students who are tracked into lower levels are often taught procedurally and understand math to be a set of skills to memorize and lack opportunities to problem solve, collaborate, and make sense of what they are learning. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Catalyzing Change series notes that it is our goal to “mathematically empower every student through courses with relevant, applicable and appropriate mathematics coursework, guided by providing all students the opportunity to expand their career opportunities after high school, develop competence using mathematics to understand and critique the world and its social and natural phenomena, and ensure that every student experiences wonder, joy and beauty when learning mathematics.” Tracking undermines the attainment of such goals. 

Students with disabilities can be successful with learning at high levels in mathematics when given the proper structure and support (Boaler, Mindsets, 2015). Students with disabilities learn best when “the information they are learning is connected to something they already know or find useful.” (Tapper, Solving for Why, 2012). As teachers, we can support students by: 

  • Advocating for and making certain our students with disabilities are not placed into “low level” tracks;
  • Working with teams to ensure IEP’s have mathematical content goals that support the most important content of the grade level (useful resource: Major Work of the Grade documents); 
  • Taking advantage of and attending Professional Learning opportunities to increase content and pedagogical knowledge; 
  • Incorporating the Teaching Practices from NCTM; and

Implementing the Multi-tiered System of Supports to collaborate with peers around Team-based problem solving, High-Quality Instruction, and Data-based Decision making.

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