By Paula Marantz Cohen
Several years ago, I taught a freshman honors English course in which I asked students how they thought they’d qualified for the class. Most of the students attributed their accomplishment to a placement test they had taken in grade school, after which they were “tracked” into classes for talented and gifted students. From there, they continued to be placed in academically accelerated classes and, after years of challenging coursework, had not found it hard to do well on the English AP test during their senior year in high school, which got them into my class.
Nevertheless, most of these students were skeptical about the practice of tracking. They believed their high test scores in grade school were a matter of luck or of coming from a family that discussed books and ideas. The kids in the regular classes were just as smart as they were, my students said—smarter, in some cases—but hadn’t been tracked and so had not accumulated the cultural capital required to do well in high school and, now, in college.
In their 1995 book, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle challenge ideas central to our educational system, including tracking. Almost all students can master the material of primary and secondary school, they argue, but do so at different rates. Schools should therefore group students not by ability but by rate of learning, with the assumption that they will all end up in the same place but at different times. Leaving aside the impracticalities of this idea, I agree with the authors’ premise that labeling young students as superior and inferior learners is bad practice and ultimately affects how they develop intellectually.
Many schools have a policy that permits students to choose to be in honors or AP courses once they get to high school. This is a good policy, but it overlooks the ways that success and failure, giftedness and ordinariness, have already been conditioned in our students based on early tracking. Their sense of self has already adjusted to the expectations placed on them.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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