Tracking in secondary schools: a contextual perspective

by Jeannie Oakes

Purchase Print Copy

 FormatList Price Price
Add to Cart Paperback25 pages $20.00 $16.00 20% Web Discount

Tracking is nearly ubiquitous in secondary schools despite evidence suggesting its general ineffectiveness and likely negative effects on students in low tracks. This paper, which originally appeared in Educational Psychology, v. 22, no. 2, April 1987, argues that two contexts in which tracking is embedded must be considered to understand how tracking works and why it persists. The schooling context (tracking's consequences for school and classroom practice) permits understanding of how tracking's educational effects may occur. The societal context (the beliefs, values, and circumstances that originally influenced the institution of tracking and may continue to shape the practice) provides an understanding of why tracking, and not some other approach, was adopted as the means for managing student diversity. It also provides insight into how race and class were historically confounded with tracking and may continue to influence practice. Analyses of these contexts suggest that tracking profoundly influences the day-to-day conduct of schools and reflects assumptions about how schools should respond to student diversity. This contextual view of tracking explains why tracking is not easily reconsidered.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Paper series. The paper was a product of the RAND Corporation from 1948 to 2003 that captured speeches, memorials, and derivative research, usually prepared on authors' own time and meant to be the scholarly or scientific contribution of individual authors to their professional fields. Papers were less formal than reports and did not require rigorous peer review.

Our mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis is enabled through our core values of quality and objectivity and our unwavering commitment to the highest level of integrity and ethical behavior. To help ensure our research and analysis are rigorous, objective, and nonpartisan, we subject our research publications to a robust and exacting quality-assurance process; avoid both the appearance and reality of financial and other conflicts of interest through staff training, project screening, and a policy of mandatory disclosure; and pursue transparency in our research engagements through our commitment to the open publication of our research findings and recommendations, disclosure of the source of funding of published research, and policies to ensure intellectual independence. For more information, visit

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.