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The Right Track

Science and mathematics courses taken in elementary and secondary schools affect success on a variety of performance measures and the ability to successfully complete college-level work. A study of the effects of assigning students to different levels, or tracks, of mathematics and science courses in high school has revealed differential effects of tracking on students in groups defined by race/ethnicity and gender (Dornbusch 1994).
An examination of tracking practices and the effects on students in a sample of 1,245 northern California high school students in six high schools included the analysis of records for black, Hispanic, Asian, and white students in each of three broad ability level categories. Student questionnaires provided a variety of data to augment the records of courses taught and student performance.
Findings revealed that school course assignment practices have substantial effects on student opportunities and performance:
An analysis of courses taken by students with high expectations for themselves regarding college attendance and career goals revealed that half of the disadvantaged minorities, compared with 20 percent of whites and Asians, were not enrolled in courses that would permit them to complete the expected sequence of courses needed to enter a 4-year college. That is, they were in slower-paced or remedial courses that were insufficient for college entrance. Further, they were unaware that their current courses of study were inadequate.
In comparing student records with assignments to courses, incorrect (too low) assignments had been made for at least 30 percent of black and Hispanic students, compared with 13 percent for whites and Asians. All of the students labeled "incorrectly assigned" were in the top 50 percent of all students nationally in math skills.
High-ability students in lower tracks were not challenged to do good work and were likely to sink to the level of coursemates rather than achieve at a high level. Being at the bottom of a high track appeared to bring better educational returns than being at the top of a low track.
The probability of a student's taking chemistry or physics during the junior or senior year of high school was markedly affected by the student's initial placement level in mathematics and science courses, even controlling for mathematics ability. Students near the 50th percentile in math who were assigned to biology had a 70 percent probability of taking chemistry and physics, compared with only 7 percent for those assigned to "baby biology" courses.
Higher levels of parental education were associated with taking college preparatory courses, but the "parental education effect" was smaller in its impact on college preparatory enrollment for Hispanics and blacks than it was for whites and Asians.

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