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Academic Tracking May Put Teens On the Wrong Track

December 16, 2022

When my children attended public school, their school quickly separated the students into groups, depending on their academic performance. As I reflect upon this, the groups stayed fairly  consistent throughout the 13 years between kindergarten and high school graduation. Most of my children’s friends were in the same academic groups as them, because these were the people they were always with. Because my children were in the “smart kids” group, my children’s social networks were comprised of other academically high-achieving students who were interested in learning, and my children grew up thinking that it was “cool” to study hard and do well in school.

Although these groups, or “academic tracks,” are seen in many school systems, there are many who argue against tracking, because, in many communities, it has become a form of structural racism -  it limits access to educational opportunities to a small, elite group of students.

Dr. Rebecca Dudovitz and colleagues from the University of California-Los Angeles, the Rand Corporation, the University of Southern California, and Los Angeles Unified School District hypothesized that these academic tracks also have an impact on health, because one’s social networks largely determine what one believes to be appropriate behavior, including health behaviors. If your classmates are skipping class to go outside to smoke or vape, you are more likely to do so.

Dr. Dudovitz and her colleagues therefore conducted a study in which students performing in the “academic middle” (average grades of B or C) and entering high school (9th grade) in low-income communities could participate in a lottery, which randomized them to a more rigorous, college-preparatory academic track (Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) track) or the same “academic middle,” non-college-preparatory track. The authors conducted surveys at the beginning and end of the school year, asking the students questions about their social network and the behaviors (alcohol and marijuana use, attitudes about and engagement in school) among the students in their social network, and about their psychosocial well being and health risk behaviors (substance use, delinquent behaviors). This week, Pediatrics is early releasing the results of this study and an accompanying video abstract (10.1542/peds.2022-057183).

The results are fascinating but maybe not too surprising. Teens in the AVID track were more likely to have peers who had high levels of school engagement and less likely to both have a peer who used  substances and to use substances themselves. The boys in the AVID track also reported lower stress levels and higher levels of self-efficacy, grit, and school engagement.

Given these results, wouldn’t it make sense to eliminate academic tracking, and allow all students to access upper-track classes? In an invited commentary, Jason Giersch PhD from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte asks this question (10.1542/peds.2022-059051). He argues that most students will benefit if they are in constant contact with higher-performing peers, so that school engagement and more healthy behaviors are normative.

I encourage you to read this article and the accompanying commentary. We can advocate for educational systems that try to lift as many students up as possible rather than limiting access to educational opportunities to only a few. 

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