Hope Reed saw stark disparities in math classes at Blythewood High School about a decade ago.
At the school, in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, nearly half of students were white. In the freshman remedial math classes, however, almost all the students were Black. Many of those in the remedial classes came from lower-income families.
Reed, then chair of the school’s math department, intervened. She wanted to experiment with detracking, or eliminating classes that separated students by level.
She started with a small test.
In 2013, she took on leading a ninth-grade remedial class and taught nearly 50 students the regular Algebra 1 curriculum.
“You’re in honors class, so you’re gonna do honors work,” she recalled telling them.
At the end of the year, about 90 percent of the students passed.
Sluggish growth in math scores for U.S. students began long before the pandemic, but the problem has snowballed into an education crisis. This back-to-school season, the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, will be documenting the enormous challenge facing our schools and highlighting examples of progress. The three-year-old Reporting Collaborative includes AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.
The success of that single class spurred Reed to expand the program. Rather than sorting ninth graders with high test scores into Algebra 1 and giving those with lower test scores remedial instruction, the school enrolled everyone into Algebra 1 classes.
That year, 90 percent of Blythewood students passed the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam, an increase from the previous year’s passage rate of 87 percent. The average score for Black students on the exam was 80, up two points from the year prior. Meanwhile, the average for white students was 83, an increase by less than one point from the year prior.
The experiment convinced Reed that detracking math classes could be a key component in narrowing achievement gaps between student groups.
Gaps between how minority students perform academically in comparison to their white peers have long been an issue across the country. The disparities often stem from larger structural issues — a lack of access to quality curricula, for instance, or teachers expecting students to perform poorly.
Recently, the gaps have worsened in the wake of the pandemic and its disruptions to learning.
“It’s like ironing a shirt. When you run the iron over one time, some wrinkles fall out but when you run it back over the second time, it’s crisp. That’s what it did for them.”Hope Reed, former chair of Blythewood High School math department
Math scores for Black 13-year-olds had dropped by 13 points between the 2019-20 school year and the 2022-23 school year, shows the latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the nation’s report card. White students had a six-point decrease between the three years.
As a result, the difference between Black and white students’ scores widened from 35 points in 2020 to 42 points in 2023.
Addressing those disparities is more critical than ever then, for both strengthening students’ understanding of math and increasing their opportunities to higher-paying jobs in STEM fields. And nearly a decade ago, Reed’s experiment with detracking showed some promise as an aid.
Step into any American school and you’ll most likely find tracked classes, especially for math.
Tracking students took root during the 20th century. Following immigration waves, desegregation orders and the inclusion of special education students in classes, tracking grew in use and separated those students deemed fit for higher learning at college from those who were viewed as less intelligent and only capable of learning a trade or craft, said Kevin Welner, an educational policy professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
As a result, tracking reflected the country’s larger societal inequalities then and it continues to do so today given some students, often from marginalized backgrounds, come to kindergarten or first grade already with measured achievement gaps.
While offering students more support in a separate class may sound ideal, lower-level classes often linger on remediation and watered down curricula. That exacerbates opportunity and achievement gaps, Welner said.
Tracked systems are also fairly rigid, he added. Students placed in higher tracks have the flexibility to move down to a lower track if necessary, but few students in lower tracks have the opportunity to advance to the higher track.
Detracking, in theory, then aims to level the playing field by exposing students to the same higher concepts and standards.
“If you have kids who are really struggling at mathematics, they really need to be identified and probably treated differently in terms of curriculum and instruction than kids who are just sailing through math courses.”Tom Loveless, an education researcher and former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Welner said studies of schools that have detracked classes show that achievement gaps have been narrowed to varying levels of success. Students who would have been otherwise placed in lower-track classes improve academically, while students who would have been in a higher track see no significant differences in their performances, he added.
Welner pointed to the Rockville Centre school district on Long Island, N.Y., as the gold standard for detracking. In the ‘90s, the district got rid of many tracked classes in its middle school and high school, and provided significant professional development for teachers so they could properly handle students of varying levels in the same classroom. As a result, the district has seen more students take more advanced classes later in high school.
Ultimately, Welner views tracking as a structural tool that places obstacles in the way of learning for kids in lower-track classes. Detracking alone doesn’t improve student achievement, but it addresses those obstacles.
“It’s just removing the harm,” he said.
When Reed expanded detracking across ninth-grade math classes in the 2014-15 school year at Blythewood High, the effort involved more than just bringing all students together into several Algebra 1 courses.
One key component to Reed’s detracking program was the math seminar, an additional class period required for students who would have otherwise been placed in lower-level math classes. Students took the seminar in the morning, where they would pre-learn Algebra 1 lessons, as Reed said, and then they took their Algebra 1 class later in the day with the other students.
The additional learning time offered yet another boost in confidence for students, Reed said. By the time they arrived in their Algebra 1 class, she joked those students thought they were geniuses. Teachers would ask questions during lessons and students would eagerly answer.
“It’s like ironing a shirt. When you run the iron over one time, some wrinkles fall out but when you run it back over the second time, it’s crisp. That’s what it did for them,” Reed said. “They didn’t go in there just blindsided, lost.”
The goal was always to keep the students focused on progressing ahead in concepts rather than pausing and slowing down to remediate.
The math seminar also ensured that, for students who would have regularly been placed in a higher-level class, lessons did not slow down their learning.
Kianna Livingston was one of the ninth-graders enrolled in the math seminar and detracked Algebra 1 in 2014-15. She initially believed she wasn’t good at math, but saw her skills grow through the two classes.
Livingston, who is Black, also said she saw how the class instilled confidence in herself and other Black ninth-graders at the school; the classes gave the students attention and access to support many hadn’t had previously. Livingston recalled feeling so assured of her knowledge that she would help other students during the Algebra 1 course.
“It really allowed me to really own my leadership skills,” she said.
By the end of the school year — and to her surprise — she had been recommended for Honors Geometry for the following year.
Still, tracking seeped back into Blythewood’s math classes, partially out of necessity.
Despite the support from the math seminar, a small group of students continued to struggle with the material, Reed said. By the middle of the 2014-15 school year, she realized they might fail and not receive math credit.
That struggle highlights what some education experts, such as Tom Loveless, believe is one troubling aspect of detracking: The approach lacks flexibility for when some students genuinely need more support.
Loveless, an education researcher and former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been studying detracking for three decades. He cited San Francisco as an example where detracking hasn’t helped. When the school district eliminated tracks in middle and high schools starting in 2014, middle school students could no longer take Algebra 1. Instead, all students would take the course in ninth grade.
But Loveless said his analysis of assessment data indicates gaps between Black and Latino students and their white peers in San Francisco have only widened since the district detracked math.
“If you have kids who are really struggling at mathematics, they really need to be identified and probably treated differently in terms of curriculum and instruction than kids who are just sailing through math courses,” Loveless said.
At Blythewood, Reed decided to act after realizing several students were falling further behind.
She and the nine other teachers leading the detracked classes identified four students from each class who needed the most support. Those 40 students were then dropped down to a remedial math class starting in January 2015 for the rest of the school year.
Despite having to group some students into a lower-track class, Reed, who now works with just freshmen at Blythewood, said she still believes in the promise of detracking. She highlights the school’s 90-percent passing rate on the Algebra 1 exam in 2014-15 as proof. And while 40 students had to drop down to a lower-level class, she emphasizes that they were still a fraction of the nearly 400 students who had been in the detracked Algebra 1 classes.
More detailed end-of-course data also showed more signs of progress. While the percentage of Blythewood’s Black students who scored within the “A” range on Algebra 1 stayed the same as the year prior, the percentage of students who scored in the “B” range increased from 14 percent in 2013-14 to 25 percent in 2014-15.
But after that first year of Algebra 1 detracking, Blythewood approached the set-up differently. Rather than dropping struggling students down to a lower-level math class midyear, teachers started the school year with two lower-level math classes, each with 20 students.
In 2015-16, Blythewood’s passing rate on the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam dropped back to 87 percent.
Still, with teachers concerned about struggling students falling through the cracks, the school stuck with offering some lower-level math classes, and continues to do so, Reed said.
The school’s end-of-course passing rate has never been as high as it was in 2014-15, when for at least half a year the school had completely detracked Algebra 1. Reed believes that all students being exposed to the regular Algebra 1 curriculum, even for just half a year, made a difference.
The last remnant of her program, the math seminar, ended with the 2022-23 school year. Due to a scheduling change with class length, the school no longer offers the seminar to be taken concurrently with Algebra 1.
Reed isn’t critical of the school’s changes. Students’ scores still might improve this year, she said. But she’s keen on seeing this year’s end-of-course data. Then maybe she and school leaders could have a conversation about detracking and the seminar again.
At the core of Reed’s efforts is creating equity for all students.
“They just need to know they matter,” she said.
This story about detracking was produced by The Post and Courier as part of The Math Problem, an ongoing series about math instruction. The series is a collaboration with the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms that includes AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.