The Gift That Doesn’t Give: The dangers of tracking students

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Illustration by Alisia Gruendel

I have always found the most profound thoughts are stumbled upon in the darkness of night. During one such late night, I stumbled upon a strange idea: Was I smart? Or had I been told I was, by society and my parents, and accepted the persona. I had been in “accelerated” classes all my childhood; in high school, I took honors and AP courses. But did that mean I was smart? Or did I just have a penchant for taking classes that sucked up my time and, sometimes, my sanity?  

Intelligence itself is a complex concept, one that is affected by both our genes and our environment. It is often used to separate kids within the educational system; the name changes from place to place — accelerated, honors, gifted, etc. The idea remains the same: One is “more intelligent” than the other. However, the separation has drastic implications for both groups, especially those not placed into the “honors” program.  

Even though studies have shown intelligence is firmly rooted in both genetics and the environment, public schools often seem to ignore the environmental factor. The young children who have grown up with educated parents, who have been exposed to complex problems, who have felt secure, will often appear more intelligent than their counterparts. Children who have been raised in an optimal learning environment will reach their full potential, which will be reflected in their test scores and work. Tracking, the act of assigning students in groups based on talents and ability, will place them in an environment among individuals who have also been deemed more “intelligent,” and perhaps, even grown up in an optimal environment. An environment that repeatedly reminds them of their ability and intelligence. From this perspective, it seems excellent: a cycle of success. But what about those who aren’t raised in that “optimal” environment?  

An optimal environment is composed of many things, physical and mental. One aspect that correlates strongly to education, however, is income level. In an article written by the New York Times, a graph shows that for all aspects of the SAT — critical reading, math and writing — test scores increase as income level increases. Instead of serving as a tool to challenge students, tracking instead propagates socioeconomic divisions and racial divisions. Individuals living in low-income areas will not grow up exposed to experiences that build these critical thinking skills. That does not mean they will never develop these skills but simply that they will not enter school with them; something out of their control should not determine the path they are placed on. 

Tracking can also become detrimental to an individual’s consciousness. Not everyone will be good at everything, and being average is okay. Test scores and GPAs do not determine success. But tracking can make it seem like the opposite. Being repeatedly deemed “average” can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, cursing the individual for believing forever that what they are is average. It can make them feel as if they are imposters when they succeed. Even worse, it can cause self-sabotage due to this label of “average.” It is important to remember that being average in general or specifically is OK. But labeling someone at such a young age only serves as a hamper, prevents them from being the best version of themselves they can be. Those marked “above average” don’t escape the dangers of labeling either. Repeatedly being told you are better can create disillusionment and make them ill-prepared for obstacles.  

Sorting students when they are but impressionable children is detrimental to their ability and can cause real psychological harm. Different people will be more suited for certain things; that is the nature of humans. However, dividing children due to their strength in one aspect of success, intelligence, will cause more harm than good. It will hamper many from fulfilling their purposes and be a disservice to society.  

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