Efforts to define what it means to be college and career ready have advanced research about the types and the complexity of materials that students should be reading. A new study in Reading Research Quarterly by Laura Northrop and Sean Kelly adds to this understanding by examining the differences in instructional practices and reading assignments for middle school students based on the ability level of the classroom. What they find will challenge those who are staunch critics of tracking.

They used nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K) data, which followed students from kindergarten to eighth grade, focusing on academic year 2006–07, when students were in the eighth grade. The sample had 6,700 students, with 690 in below-grade level classes; 4,750 in grade-level classes; and 1,260 in above grade-level classes, according to teacher self-reports. They looked at a variety of English language arts (ELA) practices and assigned readings in eighth grade ELA classrooms. They used linear regression models, which accounted for the clustering of students within schools and included lots of covariates at the student, teacher, class, and school level. Students’ prior achievement was also controlled using fifth grade reading scores and an eighth grade teacher rating of academic ability.

They found that teachers of below-grade level classes report allocating more class time to skills and strategy instruction (39 percent of class time) than did teachers of grade-level classes (28 percent) and above-grade level classes (24 percent). Likewise, teachers of lower tracks also reported allocating less time to literature instruction than did teachers in the other two levels, more frequently using workbooks and worksheets, and assigning less homework. Teachers in high tracks more frequently assigned group activities and projects. And students in lower tracks spent more time watching videos and reading aloud compared to students in grade-level classes.

Regarding assigned texts, there were similarities in text assignment across all three levels. Specifically, eight of the twenty frequently assigned titles were the same for all students, no matter the class level (for example, they all read The Outsiders, The Diary of a Young Girl, and Call of the Wild). Still, though there’s substantial overlap in the Lexile levels across different tracks with these shared texts, there was nonetheless a difference in the average Lexile levels: for the below-grade level classes, it was 813 compared to 843 for the grade-level classes and 892 for the above grade-level classes.

Putting aside the texts they had in common, students in low tracks tended to read a little more popular fiction, whereas students in high tracks read more classics. When controlling for a variety of student characteristics, though, they found that the adjustments in text complexity go above and beyond what one might expect based on student achievement alone. Specifically, high-track students encountered texts about one-third of a standard deviation higher in complexity than regular-track students.

In the end, it’s hard to know what to make of all this. That’s especially true since the average rate of growth on the ECLS-K assessment between the end of fifth grade and the end of eighth grade for students across all three tracks was the same—eighteen points. Analysts say they can’t be sure whether those eighteen points were “qualitatively the same” across tracks. Still, they are not shy in describing the merits of tracking, which stand in sharp contrast to the prevailing narrative. In their words: “[T]hese basic results suggest that overall track effects on learning were not strongly negative and that tracking likely benefited students in some ways. For instance, teachers might have adjusted instruction to meet the individual needs of students in ways both revealed and not revealed in the data.” They get even more bullish later: “The fact that students across all three track levels gained the same amount of points on the ECLS-K assessment between the end of fifth grade and the end of eight grade suggests that teachers were matching instructional practices appropriately overall.”

Kudos! That’s a useful reminder that educators have the power to use ability grouping effectively—not to confine lower-achieving students to a dead-end track but to build them a temporary detour so they can soon catch up to the other drivers.

SOURCE: Laura Northrop and Sean Kelly, “Who Gets to Read What? Tracking, Instructional Practices, and Text Complexity for Middle School Struggling Readers,” Reading Research Quarterly (December 2018).

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

View Full Bio