Skip Navigation
archived information

Ask a REL Response

Tracking (ability grouping) in middle school mathematics — March 2017


What does the research say about tracking in middle school mathematics?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on tracking (ability grouping) in middle school mathematics. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Berends, M. & Donaldson, K. (2011). Ability grouping, classroom instruction, and students' mathematics gains in charter and traditional public schools. Evanston, IL: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In this paper, the authors examine differences between school types in the uses of ability grouping, instructional differences, and relationship of ability grouping to student mathematics achievement. Specifically, they address the following questions with teacher reports of students' mathematics placement in middle school: (1) Does the use of ability grouping differ between charter and traditional public schools?; and (2) What is the relationship between ability group placement and students' mathematics achievement gains? The data come from surveys of teachers in charter and traditional public schools, located in urban, suburban, and rural contexts across 24 states. The schools all participate in the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessment program and student achievement data in mathematics come from NWEA assessments. The data come from the What Makes Schools Work project to examine organization and instructional conditions in different types of schools. The findings reveal significant differences in the use of ability grouping in charter (CPS) and traditional public schools (TPS). For example, a greater percentage of CPS students are placed in both high ability groups (17% compared with 12% TPS students) and lower ability groups (20% compared with 13% TPS). Fewer CPS students are in mixed ability groups (20% compared with 51% TPS). Moreover, CPS student gains in each group were larger than those of TPS students in similar groups, and the gains of students in the high ability group were greater than those in the low ability group, contributing to increasing inequality over the school year. Few instructional differences among groups and between CPS and TPS teachers were significantly different, although further analyses are necessary.”

Berends, M., & Donaldson, K. (2016). Does the organization of instruction differ in charter schools? Ability grouping and students' mathematics gains. Teachers College Record, 118(11). Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Background: Although we have learned a good deal from lottery-based and quasi-experimental studies of charter schools, much of what goes on inside of charter schools remains a "black box" to be unpacked. Grounding our work in neoclassical market theory and institutional theory, we examine differences in the social organization of schools and classrooms to enrich our understanding of school choice, school organizational and instructional conditions, and student learning. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Our study examines differences in students' mathematics achievement gains between charter and traditional public schools, focusing on the distribution and organization of students into ability groups. In short, we ask: (1) How does the distribution of ability grouping differ between charter and traditional public schools? And (2) What are the relationships between ability group placement and students' mathematics achievement gains in charter and traditional public schools? Research Design: With a matched sample of charter and traditional public schools in six states (Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio), we use regression analyses to estimate the relationship between student achievement gains and school sector. We analyze how ability grouping mediates this main effect, controlling for various student, classroom, and school characteristics. Findings: We find significant differences in the distribution of students across ability groups, with a more even distribution in charter compared to traditional public schools, which appear to have more selective placements for high groups. Consistent with prior research on tracking, we also find low-grouped students to be at a significant disadvantage when compared with high- and mixed-group peers in both sectors. Conclusions: Although we find some significant differences between ability group placement and student achievement gains in mathematics, these relationships do not differ as much by sector as market theory (with its emphasis on innovation and autonomy) would predict. Consistent with institutional theory, both sectors still group students by ability and have similar relationships between gains and grouping.

Collins, C. A. & Gan. L, (2013). Does sorting students improve scores? An analysis of class composition. NBER Working Paper No. 18848. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This paper examines schools’ decisions to sort students into different classes and how those sorting processes impact student achievement. There are two potential effects that result from schools creating homogeneous classes—a “tracking effect,” which allows teachers to direct their focus to a more narrow range of students, and a peer effect, which causes a particular student’s achievement to be influenced by the quality of peers in his classroom. In schools with homogeneous sorting, both the tracking effect and the peer effect should benefit high performing students. However, the effects would work in opposite directions for a low achieving student; he would benefit from the tracking effect, but the peer effect should decrease his score. This paper seeks to determine the net effect for low performing students in order to understand the full implications of sorting on all students. We use a unique student-level data set from Dallas Independent School District that links students to their actual classes and reveals the entire distribution of students within a classroom. We find significant variation in sorting practices across schools and use this variation to identify the effect of sorting on student achievement. Implementing a unique instrumental variables approach, we find that sorting homogeneously by previous performance significantly improves students’ math and reading scores. This effect is present for students across the score distribution, suggesting that the net effect of sorting is beneficial for both high and low performing students. We also explore the effects of sorting along other dimensions, such as gifted and talented status, special education status, and limited English proficiency.”

Gleason, P., Clark, M., Tuttle, C. C., Dwoyer, E. (2010). The evaluation of charter school impacts: Final report. NCEE 2010-4029. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Adding to the growing debate and evidence base on the effects of charter schools, this evaluation was conducted in 36 charter middle schools in 15 states. It compares the outcomes of 2,330 students who applied to these schools and were randomly assigned by lotteries to be admitted (lottery winners) or not admitted (lottery losers) to the schools. Both sets of students were tracked over two years and data on student achievement, academic progress, behavior, and attitudes were collected. The study is the first large-scale randomized trial of the effectiveness of charter schools in varied types of communities and states. Among the key findings were that, on average, charter middle schools that held lotteries were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving math or reading test scores, attendance, grade promotion, or student conduct within or outside of school. Being admitted to a study charter school did significantly improve both students' and parents' satisfaction with school. Charter middle schools' impact on student achievement varied significantly across schools. Charter middle schools in urban areas--as well as those serving higher proportions of low-income and low achieving students--were more effective (relative to their nearby traditional public schools) than were other charter schools in improving math test scores. Some operational features of charter middle schools were associated with less negative impacts on achievement. These features include smaller enrollments and the use of ability grouping in math or English classes. There was no significant relationship between achievement impacts and the charter schools' policy environment. Because the study could only include charter middle schools that held lotteries, the results do not necessarily apply to the full set of charter middle schools in the U.S.”

Mulkey, L., Catsambis, S., Steelman, L., & Crain, R. (2005). The long-term effects of ability grouping in mathematics: A national investigation. Social Psychology Of Education, 8(2), 137-177. Retrieved from Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The complexities of school tracking have resulted in patchy explanations of how it might affect students’ academic success. We aim to develop a comprehensive understanding of tracking by investigating its long-term relationships with student outcomes. Our study is informed by sociological and social psychological theoretical perspectives that explain how this school practice may wield its influence. We use panel data from the National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS:88) for a comprehensive analysis of the associations between ability grouping in the eighth grade and subsequent social psychological and academic variables in the 10th and 12th grades, respectively. By covering three waves of data that monitor the mathematics progress of middle school youngsters as they go through high school, we present the durable relationships of tracking. Our method compares students in tracked and untracked schools, and further partitions these students into high and low ability groups. Our results reaffirm that tracking has persistent instructional benefits for all students. Yet, high-achieving students who are tracked in middle school may suffer considerable losses in self-concept that subsequently depress their achievement, and mathematics course-taking. Implications are for a broad range theory of tracking and for further empirical work on the viability of heterogeneously-grouped classes.”

Schmidt, R. A. (2013). Tracking and student achievement: The role of instruction as a mediator. Evanston, IL: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Most public schools and districts must face the problem of how to help low-achieving students and efficiently target resources, particularly in the face of accountability under No Child Left Behind. One policy that has been employed is grouping students into classrooms by their measured or perceived ability--a process known as tracking. Research has shown, however, that this practice disproportionately assigns minority and low-income students to low-track classes (e.g., Gamoran, 2009; Oakes, 2005) and may increase inequality between high and lowachieving students (e.g., Esposito, 1973; Gamoran, 1987; Oakes, 2005), without an average gain in student achievement in the school or district (e.g., Esposito, 1973; Gamoran, 2009; Kulik and Kulik, 1982; Slavin, 1990). This research focuses on the role of instructional quality in mathematics as a mediator between tracking and student achievement, and addresses the following research questions: (1) Are there measurable differences in instructional quality between teachers in tracked and untracked settings?; (2) Between high- and low-track classrooms?; and (3) Do these differences mediate the relationship between track level (high- versus low-track) and student achievement? This analysis uses data from the Middle school mathematics in the Institutional Setting of Teaching (MIST) project at Vanderbilt University. As a part of the MIST project, nearly 120 teachers in four districts have been videotaped during instruction for two consecutive days, and their students' achievement data has been collected. This data included the current year mathematics achievement test results as well as two prior years' scores, which were standardized to state distributions by grade and year. Demographic data were also collected, including grade level, gender, race, free/reduced-price lunch, English Language Learner and Special Education status. This analysis found only a small mediation effect of instructional quality on the relationship between track level and student achievement. This indicates that other variables are driving this relationship besides a difference in rigorous tasks and mathematical discussions.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Tracking AND “middle school math”
  • “Ability grouping” AND “middle school math”

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.