Idea of Tracking Fast and Slow Learners in Class Is Put to Test

The Washington Post

Pencils and hopes in hand, the two dozen Fairfax County eighth-graders nervously awaited their spelling test. “Thirty-word people, are you ready?” teacher Alice Sontag asked.

A third of her students bent over their desks and began to write as Sontag called out the first word on the examination--"monastery"--followed by nine more.

“Twenty-word people?” Most of the other students went to work as Sontag read out the next 10 words. “Ten-word people?” The final few started up. Sontag slowly recited the final 10 words, ending in “unison.”

Something for All


Unlike many American classrooms, this one at Carl Sandburg Intermediate School in the Mt. Vernon area of Fairfax County, Va., is not filled with students of similar academic ability. Reading levels vary from third grade to high school. And students in the class decide in advance how many words they want to be tested on: 10, 20 or 30. The staggered spelling test is designed to offer something for everyone.

Until last year, students in English classes at Sandburg were grouped by ability, a standard practice in public education in this country. But this approach, known as tracking, is increasingly under attack. And Fairfax is a particularly appropriate laboratory to illustrate why.

If there is anywhere schools should be able to overcome the burdens of poverty, race and broken families--factors that educators say predispose children to fail--it is in this affluent county, which provides innovative programs, well-kept buildings stocked with modern equipment and the time to spend on instruction rather than coping with life’s gritty realities.

But studies indicate that being a poor, underachieving child in an affluent, high-achieving environment can reinforce feelings of failure. And that problem can be exacerbated by tracking. Many specialists believe that a child grouped only with children of similar ability is less likely to show improved academic performance.


‘I Must Be Stupid’

“You look around and say, ‘Everyone in here is stupid, so I must be stupid, and that’s the way I’m going to act,’ ” said Howard Johnston, a professor of education at the University of Cincinnati and a leading researcher on middle-school tracking.

“You’re talking about kids identified in elementary school as blue, orange and yellow birds, and they fall into that mold and they want to break out of it,” said Carol Robinson, an assistant principal at Sandburg.

Changing demographics give new urgency to the issue of reaching underachievers in Fairfax County. A decade ago, one in 11 county students was a minority; now, one in five is. Disproportionately, those minorities are likely to be poor; even in this comfortable county there are trailer parks and dingy apartments.

In Fairfax, as in communities across the country, the job of educator is being altered dramatically by social and economic trends. Nationally, the percentage of children in poverty is increasing; immigration is bringing in more students who do not speak English, and teen-age pregnancy rates mean more children entering school who have been raised in less-than-ideal circumstances.

Attacking Failure Rate

These and other factors point to more school failure at the same time the number of school-age children is declining. The implications are clear: Schools must reduce their failure rate to produce a competent work force for the next century. But the job is increasingly difficult.

Research by University of Wisconsin political science Prof. Kenneth J. Meier and associates, based on county figures, indicates that black students in Fairfax were only one-third as likely as white students to be assigned to a class for the gifted in 1984 and 140% more likely to be suspended than other students.


The county’s research, first compiled four years ago, showed that minority students generally get lower grades, are enrolled in fewer honors classes, are less likely to graduate from high school and are more likely to be disciplined by school officials than their white counterparts.

Although minority children are disproportionately likely to be poor, the findings applied to all income levels. Fairfax officials came to the uncomfortable realization that the definition of a child at risk in the suburbs included more than the children of poor or unstable families.

Odds Against Black Child

“The black child is at risk no matter what the socioeconomic group,” said Eretha Williams, a Sandburg teacher.

At Sandburg, a drop in scores on standardized tests led administrators and teachers to some hard thinking about the problems of underachieving students.

“We were alarmed that our reading scores last year were so low,” English Department chairman Ebba Jo Spettel said.

Spettel and other school officials had considerable leeway in discussing what to do because the 180 public schools in Fairfax County are allowed substantial independence in devising curriculum. The idea for mixed grouping in English classes came from a county school audit team that visited Sandburg last year and recommended that it be tried.

“I was very apprehensive,” said English teacher Carolyn Larkin. “I was used to teaching honors, average and basic classes. I didn’t know where to start. But it’s just organization. I like it. Kids work better together. I have fewer discipline problems.”


Several Components

Sandburg’s program to bolster the self-esteem and academic achievement of its underperforming students has several components. Mathematics classes, which still are tracked, employ cooperative learning in which students team up to solve problems together. Evening meetings are held for parents of students in trouble.

But at the heart of Sandburg’s effort was replacing most tracked English classes with a system of random placement. For the student who is not at the top of the class, researchers say, the mixed group offers encouragement to succeed, models to emulate and the self-respect that comes from being treated as a potential learner rather than as a behavior problem.

Sandburg, the product of the merger of two very different intermediate schools three years ago, remains mainly a white, middle-class school. It draws some of its 1,000 students from neighborhoods of $300,000 houses near the Potomac River, where children do their homework on family computers. Others come from blocks of three- and four-bedroom brick colonials, where many of their parents go to work each day for the federal bureaucracy at Ft. Belvoir, a nearby Army base.

Enjoy Drive to School

For some students, the ride down the school’s long tree-lined driveway each morning offers a jarring contrast to their homes in cheap motel rooms or low-rent apartments where there may be no quiet place to study. A third of Sandburg’s students move in or out of the school district each year.

The students range in age from 11 to 15 and in social outlook from childhood to prematurely adult. “Some of them bring dolls to school,” one teacher said, “and others have their own babies.”

The decision to merge the high-, middle- and low-track classes was controversial with Sandburg’s mainly white, middle-class parents, many of whom feared that their children would be cheated by the grouping.

When meetings were held to explain the new approach, “the community went a little bonkers,” said Julie Casaletto, a Sandburg parent who is the PTA’s liaison with the English Department. “They said they wanted their kids with kids they’d always known. . . . There were a lot of people concerned about it.”

Now, as the school year nears an end, students and teachers are enthusiastic about how things have gone.

Likes Mixed English Class

Seventh-grader Mike Domingo, who wants to be an airline pilot and describes himself as a below-average student, likes the mixed English class he is in. “Sometimes I just don’t get things,” he said, “so I can ask another student.”

To organize classrooms for students with different needs, students have been given more choices in how and what they learn, with the result that they take more responsibility, overcoming the traditional passivity of the low-level learner.

In Judy Seward’s class, students set their own reading and writing goals. “A lot of kids have gravitated toward much more difficult books than I would have predicted, or that I would have picked,” she said.

And the education each student gets is more sophisticated. This year, all eighth-graders studied a unit on Shakespeare. In the past, Spettel said, “we wouldn’t have bothered” for the less advanced students. “The curriculum is higher. That’s a very democratic thing.”

Sandburg does not expect overnight miracles, but there were a few good signs by midyear. Fewer students got Ds and Fs in their English classes, and teachers uniformly said that classes were better behaved.

Boys vs. Girls

But all has not been smooth. In one of Spettel’s classes this year, most of the girls got A’s and Bs in the first semester, and most of the boys got Ds and Fs. The girls complained that the boys weren’t pulling their weight in class. Spettel called a meeting with the boys’ parents and promised to send home weekly reports on their progress if the parents helped push for higher achievement.

For minority students, isolation is a problem that can’t be solved by changing the curriculum. At Sandburg, as at other schools, true integration has yet to be realized; students do much of their socializing along racial and socioeconomic lines.

And for black students, there are few black teachers to serve as role models or with whom they can relate more easily. Of the school’s 73 teachers, only 10 are minorities, and none of its top administrators are.