Tracked Math Classes Continue to Inspire Debate

Ayla Safran, ‘15

Many BHSEC students have experienced “tracking,” the practice of separating students of different ability levels into different sequences of classes, at some point in their school career, whether in the form of an “honors” course or “Math A.” BHSEC currently is not fully committed to this system. Currently, the graduating classes of ’14 and ’16 have tracked math classes, while those of ’15 and ’17 do not. Although many BHSEC math teachers stand against tracking, the issue continues to spark debate and controversy within our school.

The majority of BHSEC students would like to be able to take tracked math classes. The main reason for this, as articulated by Alberta Devor, ’15, is that “every student comes into BHSEC with a different background in math, so we shouldn’t all be taught the same things.” Peter Freitag, ’15, agreed, saying, “In ninth and tenth grade math, I didn’t learn anything that I hadn’t already been taught in middle school. I think that people who already know that material should be able to take a more interesting or fun math class, like sports analysis or analyzing data.”

Indeed, it is difficult for ninth grade math teachers to teach a class in which some students are bored by material they have already learned while others struggle to keep up. One student explained, “It makes sense that the whole grade should be at the same level, but I think that it’s kind of silly for kids who were in advanced math in middle school to be learning the exact same stuff again freshman year – that seems like a waste of time. Maybe [the school] could have different classes freshman year to get everyone up to the same level, and then have everyone in the same classes sophomore year or have everyone in the same classes second semester freshman year just to make sure that everyone is on the same level but also that no one is just bored in math class.” Gabriel Hoshino, ’17, said that while he can see benefits to a non-tracked system, “if they did track math classes it would be better for the advanced kids because they’d be able to move way faster and do less review and more new material.”

Lilly Donlon, ’15, gave another reason to implement ability-segregated classes: “I think it’s a good idea because that way people who struggle aren’t afraid to ask questions, and they have more support from the teacher, while people who are better at math don’t have to dumb themselves down.” When struggling students are placed in an environment where the material is taught at a more relaxed pace and other students in the class are at the same level as they are, they have more opportunities to address their basic misunderstandings and confusions.

BHSEC math teacher Ms. Coffey, however, claimed, “not separating students can actually have a positive effect on everyone in the class. Strong students will be strong students no matter what, but if those who are not as strong have a model of varying approaches, they are better able to understand the material. In addition, having a heterogeneous grouping acts as a sort of symbiosis, and ideally it offers students a way of viewing themselves as capable, even if they’ve never thought of themselves as being good at math, through seeing other students’ experiences and struggles with the material as well.”

Untracked classes have shown, to a certain degree, that students of varying ability levels can excel without being separated, and Mr. Rubenstein expressed his worries that tracking would stigmatize students and reverse this progress: “While I do understand why students might want different tracks, when we [the math department] do the sorting, students get the impression that they are either smart, or non-math people, which is completely detrimental.” Students resent being told that they are not sufficiently prepared or, as they often interpret it, not smart enough, to take a math class that some of their peers are taking. Liana Van Nostrand, ’15, said that in her grade, “some people refer to the less advanced one as ‘dumb math’ and that’s both discouraging to people in those classes and uncomfortable for people who take the advanced class.” Io Brooks, ’15, agreed, saying, “the stigmatization inherent in a tracked system is destructive to our school’s community.”

The process of placing students in a track can also be highly problematic. Caroline Nelson, ’16, said “I think [tracking] is a good idea but [the math department] should have probably taken [individual] students into consideration because I know a lot of kids who are in the other math class who feel like they should be in that [advanced] one, and then there are also some kids in my math class who wish that they weren’t.” Liana reiterated, “I know that some kids in the non-tracked class think that it’s too easy for them and I think the tracked one might be too difficult, so it’s sort of hard because people aren’t just on two levels.” This seems always to be the case, because a single test often fails to reliably and accurately assess a student’s math ability. Arden Feil, ’14, explained, “The biggest issue [with the tracking system] is that you take this placement test and get placed in either the advanced or non-advanced, and a lot of kids feel like they should be in the other class. Allowing kids to choose how challenged they want to be in math might help.”

This suggestion was widely popular: Eli Binder, ’15, proposed that BHSEC should “have multiple different levels of classes, and to let students choose which class they want to be in.” Io made a similar proposition: “If the school gave students the choice to take a variety of classes at a variety of levels, a choice that allows students to self-reflect on the type of classroom, the subject matter, and the level of difficulty they know they can handle, perhaps a middle ground can be found between a rigid, test-based track-system and one that forces students to re-learn material they feel comfortable with.” Liana acknowledged that “the school is trying to do the best to meet the needs of the people in the grade, and if they think the best way to meet the needs of the students is to break them into two groups then that’s what they should do. Ideally, we would be able to have more groups… like seven tracks. Because right now there’s just dumb math and smart math and that’s really horrible for everyone to hear.”

A system that allows all students to choose from an assortment of math classes, whether it be at the beginning of ninth grade, or in tenth grade or Y1, after all students have been brought up to the same level, would likely serve many students very well. The math department is currently understaffed, however, which has already caused a cut in the number of math electives and forced teachers to take on a heavy workload. It is hardly the right time to add even more math classes. But the debate over whether to track math classes will likely continue in the coming years until a consensus is reached.

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