This Track or That

Different academic pathways bring different courses to many students, providing both opportunity and stigma specific to their given track.


Illustration by Lola Diehl

Tracking is “the middle and high school practice of grouping students into separate classes as opposed to grouping students within a class,” according to the Brookings Institute. Students’ paths through high school can then feel pre-determined from a very young age, beginning in elementary school with GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) extracurriculars and continuing into middle school with accelerated math and honors English courses.

Redondo Union is an “opt-in” school, meaning students can choose to take honors and advanced courses without testing into them, math being the exception. However, many students choose not to take honors or AP courses if they haven’t been encouraged to challenge themselves.

According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s interview with Jeannie Oaks, author of “Keeping Track,” there are many problems with tracking. Oaks worries

“that students get placed in these groups in a rather public way. The groups are a very public part of the school’s culture that reflects judgments that adults have made about children’s current and future abilities. Within that culture, the groups take on a very hierarchical nature: the ‘top group’ quickly becomes the ‘top kids,’ in a very value-laden way.”

This academic-based grouping doesn’t improve when the students reach high school, according to English Teacher Angie Yi.

A lot of students feel nervous when they’re in middle school or high school to try to take an accelerated course because they weren’t encouraged to do it when they were younger,” Angie Yi, who teaches both CP and honors English, said. “Students feel that fear of not succeeding, and not knowing what supports they’ll have. [The divide] might be self imposed, and it can also be the fault of the school system when we’re not encouraging students at all levels to pursue more rigorous classes.”

Although pressure to advance as much as possible starts early, students also develop at different rates, as Yi notes. Beginning tracking at a young age, therefore, may put many students at a disadvantage from the beginning. Colleges encourage AP courses, which in turn often require or at least have “strongly recommended” prerequisites. The prerequisites begin as early as freshman year or even in middle school via online courses, summer school and previously mentioned compacted math courses. Although courses of varying difficulty are meant to help everyone, they end up causing more problems than benefits for many according to Yi. 

“I’ve certainly seen students in my CP classes where they would say, ‘Yeah, [this is] the dumb class,’ and that makes me sad,” said Yi. “I don’t want them to label themselves in that way as if they weren’t smart or that they weren’t able to grow, because when you have those labels, there’s this idea that you’re not growing. But we can grow.”

If the solution is to detrack classes, there are many high schools that have already done it and reported on their results. 

Santa Monica High School detracked its freshman and sophomore English classes just this school year. As the Santa Monica Daily Press reported, “The reasoning for [detracking] was largely due to concerns over the achievement gap between white students and students of color, as well as the gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.”

If Redondo were to detrack its English classes, there is research supporting that students previously in lower tracks would do well.

In the article “Restructuring Schools for Equity: What We Have Learned in the Past Two Decades, the report states, “Most tracking research does not support the assumption that slow students suffer emotional strains when enrolled in mixed-ability classes. Often the opposite result has been found. Rather than helping students feel more comfortable about themselves, tracking can reduce self-esteem, lower aspirations, and foster negative attitudes toward school. Some studies have also concluded that tracking leads low-track students to misbehave and eventually to drop out altogether.”

In a tracked school, such as Redondo, students label themselves because classes have AP and honors labels.

Labels like “gifted” or “advanced” also come at a cost. According to a 2018 study by the National Library of Medicine, adolescents- especially teens, known for being impressionable- internalize these labels from a young age as well. Once they enter high school, the competitive, academic-focused attitude pushed by colleges, the school system, and sometimes even peers and family, can (word that means strengthen/increase) this pressure. Yi has seen “who can take the most honors/AP classes?” become a prevalent and unhealthy goal among these high achieving students. 

“A lot of students will take APs just purely for the extra points,” AP psychology teacher Meghan Gould said. “It’s so important to have some sort of purpose to [taking the course]. And it doesn’t have to be your favorite, but if you hate it, it’s not worth putting yourself through.”

While the payoff (college application bosting extra GPA points, and a stronger base of specific subject knowledge and experience through taking more challenging courses) may seem to make the intensive studies worth it, taking an overwhelming amount of AP classes can also come at the cost of a student’s mental and emotional well being. 

As Gould also points out, stress can be a powerful short-term motivator. As Drake University explains, good stress is known as eustress, and “is what energizes us and motivates us to make a change. It gives us a positive outlook and makes us capable of overcoming obstacles and sickness.”

However, stress becomes unhealthy when it is the norm- hours and hours of homework every night, packed schedules, work or worry-induced lack of sleep.

Despite the difficulties that come from tracking and advanced courses, Yi and Gould both agree that it’s important not to get rid of them completely because it ultimately would not get rid of the issue. They note that tracking can come from pressures outside of school as well, and that therefore students likely will still find a way to track themselves.

Although it’s hard to control all variables of outside pressures, RUHS has worked to decrease the divide from within. Teachers aim to allow their students to learn and branch away from harmful expectations. Counselors and the Nest, who provide college counseling, also encourage students to take courses that will lead them towards their passions, their future or the career path that they want-instead of falling into fixed mindsets and labels.

Gould’s AP psychology class represents a mix of students who have taken many APs and some who have never taken one before and want to give the class a try. APs like Psychology that have no prerequisites help to decrease the divide between the academic tracks, according to Gould.

“Especially in the beginning of the year, if this is the only AP class [a student has] taken, when they hear other students talking about all these other AP classes, there is an intimidation [factor] right away. I work really hard at the beginning of the year, as I know a lot of teachers do, to try and take away that stigma,” Gould said, referring to the initial process of addressing the gap between students from different academic backgrounds.

According to Gould, this kind of accessibility in a class can be beneficial to all types of students, giving some the opportunity to challenge themselves and others- such as AP-focused students who are normally in competitive, faster-paced classes- a chance to work in a more flexible environment. Gould makes time for group and independent work in her class to encourage different learning styles. These encourage students to learn from and teach each other, which decreases both social stigma and academic division.

Although her class provides equality of opportunity in theory, Gould  notes that there are benefits and drawbacks to a class built less with individual education in mind. The positive and negative effects outweigh one another at different times of year. 

“Especially right now, before AP exams and college acceptances and all of that, the burnout and the overwhelming stress is very high. [When] other people feel stressed, that competition is incredibly contagious,” Gould said. “So, if you are in a class full of these high achieving, high standard students, that competitive nature rubs off.”

Although diversifying the class can lower this stressful competition, it can also work the other way: students who aren’t used to dealing with  highly-concentrated, stressful surroundings can get caught up in the competition without knowing how to deal with it.

“What kind of supports do we have available, that’s the question that we should be asking,” Yi said. “We have to foster this love of learning across the board.”