What if someone told you that most of the classes you take in high school were determined for you in fifth grade? This is a pervasive and controversial trend in ICSD elementary schools. A de facto tracking system is created when fifth grade elementary school teachers assign their students to take either accelerated or non-accelerated classes in middle school. This decision is one that can drastically change the course offerings that students can take in middle school, and even throughout high school. As an overall trend, the system places students of minority races and economically disadvantaged backgrounds on lower tracks. In an effort to alleviate this problem, ICSD has taken measures such as implementing heterogeneous classes and graduation coaches at the high school. However, it is ICSD’s responsibility to further ensure that all students have equal opportunities and motivation to excel in school.
The current system reinforces the socioeconomic academic achievement gap, effectively decreasing economic mobility after high school. In 2016, the overall 4-year graduation rate for students who did not receive free or reduced-price lunch was 93 percent. However, for students that did receive free or reduced-price lunch, the graduation rate was only 87 percent.
Economically advantaged students are far more likely to have parents who attended college, and studies have shown that this inherent advantage results in greater academic success due to in-home support and encouragement. In contrast, college may appear as an unrealistic option to economically disadvantaged students, and not having academic support at home can further impede their chances at succeeding in school. ICSD needs to do its part to make sure that all students have equal opportunities and motivation to excel in school by offering greater in-school and out-of-school support for students who don’t have it at home, and by demonstrating to students that academic success is attainable for people of all backgrounds.
ICSD has already begun to address this problem through the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program offered at IHS. AVID is a nationwide program which works with students of underrepresented backgrounds to provide academic support and college preparation assistance. It is extremely effective, and in order to help more economically disadvantaged students, the number of AVID classes at IHS should be expanded. Additionally, ICSD should look into providing a similar program for students in middle school to further motivate and aid students who are at an inherent academic disadvantage.
Another step that ICSD needs to take is to address the difficulty for a student to move up to a higher track. Currently, unless an unaccelerated student decides to double up on math classes in their sophomore year, it is impossible for them to take IHS’s highest level math course, AP Calculus, in their senior year. This problem acutely relates to socioeconomic status; in 2015, only 10 percent of the students in accelerated math were on the free or reduced-price lunch program. This means that the vast majority are placed on the lower track, which is nearly impossible to overcome without academic motivation and out-of-school tutoring and assistance. Therefore, ICSD needs to streamline the process of overcoming a track by providing academic assistance and support to those who are motivated to challenge themselves.
A solution to this issue is to not use a tracking system. For example, at the Montessori School of Ithaca, class sizes are limited, and in most years, every eighth grade student takes Algebra and Earth Science, preventing them from being bound to a track at IHS. Of course, implementing this system on a larger scale would be much more difficult. However, ICSD’s elementary and middle schools should postpone dividing students into levels so that they can develop aspirations without being told that they aren’t sufficiently advanced.
Some departments at IHS have tried to introduce new classes in order to counteract the detrimental effects of tracking. The English department started a heterogenous Honors English 11/AP Language and Composition class in which students could choose after the first 10 weeks which credit to take the class for. The science department now offers fewer options for incoming freshmen so that they are not immediately tracked depending on what class they opt for, and the math department offers a Regents/Honors heterogenous Algebra I class. However, solutions of this nature are not effective in leveling the playing field for students unless implemented much earlier, and they still may not fix the issue of differences in motivation between socioeconomic groups.
Clearly, problems exist in the tracking system as it currently stands. ICSD must continue to work to ensure that the diversity of race and socioeconomic status is maintained within accelerated classes in order to ensure that all students feel valued and know that ICSD is invested in their success. While efforts like the AVID program and heterogenous classes are certainly appreciated, more must be done to motivate and assist economically disadvantaged students in succeeding academically. Most students, with enough encouragement, do have the mental capacity to succeed in more advanced classes, and it is vital to give all interested students the chance to excel.