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E.D. TAB: Curricular Differentiation in Public High Schools
NCES: 95360
December 1994


Curricular Differentiation in Public High Schools

American schools are faced with two difficult, competing tasks. First, they are required to provide equal educational opportunity for all students. At the same time, they are expected to offer a differentiated education to students so that differences in abilities, learning styles, and motivational levels can be accommodated. While proponents of curriculum differentiation, traditionally referred to as "tracking," see it as a necessary response to individual educational needs (Biemiller 1993), critics charge that it benefits only students assigned to high-ability courses, and otherwise reproduces the socioeconomic inequities and racial differentiation already present in the larger society (Oakes 1992).

In order to filly document the magnitude of the effects of tracking on today's school children, it is important to go beyond what effects tracking can have, and determine how and to what degree tracking is actually being implemented in our schools.

Tracking has been a fundamental aspect of education in this country since the early part of this century, when public schools devised a system of curriculum tracks in order to accommodate the diverse group of students attending school for the first time. Recently, tracking has generated a large volume of research and policy analysis. 'There has been much debate over whether or not tracking creates unequal quality in educational experiences and later opportunity (Oakes, Garnoran, and Page 1991). There is also concern about whether tracking perpetuates, rather than alleviates, differences in children created by socioeconomic stratification (Oakes 1992). This issue has been particularly relevant for educators and researchers concerned about equal access to education by minority students who, in racially integrated schools, are disproportionately represented in curricula designed for low-ability or non-college-bound students (Garnoran and Mare 1989).

Hundreds of research projects have studied tracking's effects in terms of student outcomes, such as standardized test scores (see Slav in 1990). Some researchers have conducted case studies or ethnographies of individual schools concerning how tracking is practiced (e.g., Valli 1990).

However, many of these studies are subject to mixed interpretations and leave many questions unanswered. In addition, a major weakness in this area of research is that little is known about the pervasiveness of tracking in our nation's schools, and the different ways tracking is being used across different school systems. Most researchers who study student tracking would agree that the policies and practices of curriculum differentiation are varied, although little is known about the degree of this variation across the nation. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to estimate the effects tracking policies and practices are actually having on the nation's children.

This E.D. Tabs report contains tabular summaries based on data collected from the Survey of High School curricular Options for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

E.D. Tabs are a collection of tables whose sole purpose is to make data or tables available to the general and research public quickly. E.D. Tabs are not intended to present analyses of the data from the survey. The tabular summaries present the actual data collected and only selected findings are highlighted in this report. Additional, in-depth reports containing detailed analyses of the findings from this survey are forthcoming.

This national survey was in response to the growing controversy over the implications that curriculum differentiation, or tracking, has for American school children today. The summary tables present statistics on the policies and practices of secondary schools regarding curricular options available to students who come to school with different abilities, learning rates, interests, or motivations. For this survey, secondary schools were defined as regular public schools that include grades 10-12. A national sample of912 schools, taken from the 1990-91 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), responded to questions concerning the following: different approaches to curriculum differentiation and policies concerning these practices, course offerings and the ability levels of the students for which the courses are designed, the degree to which students move from one ability-level course to another, student assignment procedures, and teachers' assignment to courses. The tables present data from the 912 surveyed schools, as well as for schools that have been classified according to the following SASS variables: school size, determined by enrollment in grades 10-12 (less than 300, 300 to 799, 800 or more); locale (city, urban fringe, town, rural) (see Johnson 1989); region (northeast, central, southeast, west); and percentage of minority enrollment (5 percent or less, 6-20 percent, 21-50 percent, 51 percent or more). All data have been weighted to provide national estimates. For definitions of specific terms included in the tables, refer to the Glossary that appears on the following two pages.

This survey was conducted for NCES by Westat, Inc., a research firm in Rockville, Maryland, through the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS). FRSS was established by NCES to collect small amounts of policy-oriented data quickly and with minimum burden on respondents.