Research and Reflections

Dismantling Academic Tracking in Mathematics

“Do you know what it is like to enter a 7-Eleven and have someone watch you the entire time waiting for you to steal something?” 

I do not. As a white woman, I have not had this experience. However, when I was a high school mathematics teacher, this question was posed to me by a Black student. This was just one of many questions my students asked in the four years I was there that helped me understand that my experiences differed from theirs — and that I get to take for granted some of the ways that I move through the world and simply exist without question. Grappling with my own identity and confronting biases that I held was an essential precursor to my own work in dismantling racism. 

As a high school mathematics teacher, did I really have any power to “dismantle racism”? Was this my work? The answer is yes. I do have that power, and it is my work. Why didn’t my preservice teacher education program prepare me for this? Does racism extend beyond society and into mathematics environments? If yes, does dismantling of racism need to occur in mathematics? The story I share here is one that focuses on the education system, so when I use the phrase “dismantle racism in mathematics” in this context, I am describing a system that by its very design reinforces and sustains a power structure that benefits white people. 

I taught in a high school where students looped, which provided me the opportunity to teach and learn with the same group of students as they matriculated through grades 9 and 10. As I looked at my classrooms, two grade 9 Pre Algebra and two grade 9 Algebra 1 courses, I saw beautiful Black and Brown faces. But the school was about ⅓ white. So, where were all the white ninth graders? 

They were in Geometry. Or Honors Algebra. The white students were largely assigned to these “advanced” courses. This was my first real lesson on how systemic racism plays out in the education system — the races/ethnicities of the students in math classrooms could be predicted based on the names of the courses. Throughout the school building, less advanced courses were disproportionately comprised of students of color, and more advanced courses were disproportionately comprised of white students. 

I started thinking about my students, especially about the 56 students in my two Pre Algebra classes who would only get to Geometry by their third year of high school. My students who would be taking Geometry (and not Algebra 2) during the year when most students take the SAT or the ACT, which meant that these students were being positioned to not have sufficient mathematics coursework to do well on the tests that colleges frequently use for admissions decisions. Had somebody already decided that these students weren’t college bound?

I noticed that there was relatively little difference between the content of the Pre Algebra and Algebra 1 textbooks I was given. I was teaching the same content in both courses, which meant that some of my students would essentially take Algebra 1 twice, except the first time it would be labeled as Pre Algebra. The first month of the school year, I frantically requested that my Pre Algebra students be moved to my Algebra 1 courses. I moved as many students as the guidance department would allow. The 30 students I was able to move were then on track to take Algebra 2 by their junior year.

Teaching high school mathematics was the best, most important work I have ever done. And yet, I couldn’t stay in the classroom that I loved with the people I loved. I couldn’t sit back and participate in a system that so casually dismissed the brilliance of so many. So, I left. In 2007, I entered a doctoral program where I would spend three years studying academic tracking in mathematics, the practice of sorting students by perceived ability into predesignated sequences of courses. 

Researching academic tracking reinforced for me what I already knew — that standardized assessments can contribute to and uphold a system that isn’t designed for students of color. But when I dug into my own data, the standardized assessment scores actually revealed something I wasn’t expecting. The grade 8 math scores actually did not support the students’ placement into the grade 9 courses they were currently in. There were a large number of students assigned to grade 9 Pre Algebra who had scores indistinguishable from students assigned to Algebra 1, and in many cases well above the mean score of those other students. So, if they weren’t being tracked based on math assessment data, how were they being tracked? And as I dug into the literature on the topic, I found that almost none of the research on tracking actually detailed how students were assigned to different leveled courses.

I include the previous paragraph not as a suggestion that we do more testing (let’s not) or that we leverage data to assign students to tracks (this practice should be eliminated), but to suggest that we interrogate longstanding practices in mathematics education. And we can start with those that are designed to identify and sort students by perceived ability, many of which start long before the formal tracking that usually begins in middle school (e.g., ability groups, leveled instruction). The example I shared makes it clear that, despite tangible data to the contrary, somebody viewed these students as less capable and gave them that “grade 9 Pre Algebra” assignment. This is how racism works. This is how it thrives. There will always be people who, determined to maintain the status quo, say and do whatever is necessary to ensure that the system continues to operate exactly as designed and refuse to acknowledge it. This is why my preservice teacher education program didn’t prepare me for this work. It wasn’t supposed to. It was actually designed not to.

And this leads me to the current moment and the energy around “the mo(ve)ment to prioritize antiracist mathematics,” as the organization TODOS so beautifully lays out in its position statement. I am proud to work for Student Achievement Partners, an organization that is actively discussing dismantling racism in mathematics. This is the first in a series of blog posts on this topic. The series will ask us to interrogate longstanding practices in mathematics education, some at the system level and others at the classroom level. But first, we must collectively acknowledge that racism in mathematics and mathematics education is indeed a real issue.

One thought on “Dismantling Academic Tracking in Mathematics

  1. I really agree with the content of the article. I had stood in front of administrators to ask how students were placed in Foundation to Algebra class and it is all about how they view the students and how well parents know about their child’s education and if their parents are not educated enough to understand then those children were placed in foundation class. Unfortunately, the system is at fault and biased. Anyone who voices over the admin will face direct or indirect consequences.

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About the Author: Shelbi Cole is a Senior Mathematics Specialist on the Advisory Support team at Student Achievement Partners. Prior to joining the organization, Shelbi was Director of Mathematics for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Her teaching experience includes working as a high school mathematics teacher and teaching undergraduate and graduate level courses in assessment, gifted and talented and mathematics education. Shelbi holds bachelor's and master's degrees in Mathematics Education and a doctoral degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Connecticut.