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Research continues on detracking freshman classes

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Researchers in Marquette’s College of Education are looking into how a local high school is adapting some of its freshman classes to combat what the superintendent saw as institutionalized racial inequality.

In many American high schools, students are placed on tracks based on a standardized test given in eighth grade. Based on the results of the test, students are typically placed in an above-average, average, or below-average track which is called “tracking.” This test can have long-term implications, such as what type of colleges students are accepted to based on the difficulty of their high school classes, said Sharon Chubbuck, a professor in the College of Education.

Chubbuck and her College of Education colleague, Cynthia Ellwood, are working on finding out what the classroom experience is like in detracked freshman classrooms, where all students start on the same level.

“We are going to be looking at several classrooms and doing a lot of interviews with those teachers to understand what the experience has been like for them,” Ellwood said. “We want to know what challenges and dynamics they’ve had to face in this redesigned classroom setting.”

Chubbuck said she can’t reveal the name of the high school as part of research protocol. The school began detracking in 2010 and Chubbuck and Ellwood have been working with the school for the past two and a half years.

A major effort in detracking is combatting racial inequality. “When students are tracked, white kids fill the highest classes,” Chubbuck said.

According to the researchers, it all began in 2007, when the school’s new superintendent made an impassioned speech to the entire staff addressing the lack of diversity in classrooms.

“He felt frustrated that the diversity he witnessed in the hallways, which included all races interacting with one another, went away inside the classrooms,” Ellwood said. “He argued that the school contained a form of institutional racism because you could determine a class’ academic status just by looking at the faces of the students.“

The reason advanced classes are predominantly white can be tied to the principle of social reproduction, said Marcia Williams, a professor in the College of Arts & Sciences.

“(Social reproduction) basically says that people, when they’re in a particular class, tend to have the resources, skills and knowledge to pass on to their children so that will allow them to be in the same class as their parents,” Williams said. “For instance, people in a middle-class background often will be able to live in a neighborhood or afford a school that will provide a certain level of education that will allow a child to pursue college and allow them to get a particular kind of job that oftentimes is middle-class.”

However, this creates a conflict because of the disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos from lower income backgrounds, said Williams.

“Structural and institutional racism has kept these groups in the lower classes,” Williams said. “Even if they go to a school of a higher income background, assumptions are made about their intelligence or their academic prowess. Teachers and maybe even principals may assume that they’re not as smart as some of the upper-class students going there.”

What’s more, classrooms also don’t always reflect the results of the standardized test due to parental intervention, said Chubbuck.

“White parents are often more likely to call the school and argue that their student’s placement wasn’t accurate,” she said. “They argue that their student is a bad test taker and the district will often move the student to the higher level class.”

Minority parents are often less likely to call the school and argue that their student deserves to be moved up.

“There are first-generation Hispanic students with parents that may not understand the system and the long-term trajectory,” Chubbuck said. “There are also a lot of African American parents that trust that the educators’ decision in placement is best. I don’t want to make big generalizations about what each race is like, but there are trends that come up.”

Hugh Mehan, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego has been researching detracking efforts for the past 20 years. He said that students on a lower track don’t receive the same educational opportunities as students on a higher track.

“The curriculum for lower track classes is taught at a much slower pace,” Mehan said. “The curriculum can be seen as watered-down (compared to classes for a higher track).”

Chubbuck said the high school hopes that detracking the freshman classes will give all students the chance to experience a classroom that is as challenging, or more challenging, than the typical honors class.

“Every student comes in on equal footing with a chance to earn honors,” she said. “If the student performs well on a cumulative test at the end of the year, they will receive an increase in their GPA. Even if students don’t receive that increase, they are given the experience of a classroom with the challenges, opportunities, and expectations of an honors class.”

Under the new system, the school has experienced an increase in students that pass AP tests and an increase in ACT test scores.

However, there is more to successfully detracking than just putting everyone on the same level. Mehan said that while detracking is a positive change in theory, there needs to be measures in place to ensure that students can benefit from the change.

“Careful selection of teachers, administrators and counsellors is essential,” Mehan said. “The people hired need to believe that black and Latino students have the same ability to learn.”

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