Closing Racial Math Gaps through Detracking Classes


Summary: A school in South Carolina experimented with detracking math classes to address racial disparities in math achievement.

Hope Reed, the former chair of the math department at Blythewood High School in South Carolina, noticed stark disparities in the freshman remedial math classes, which were mostly composed of students of color. In an effort to narrow the achievement gaps, Reed taught a ninth-grade remedial class using the regular Algebra 1 curriculum. The experiment resulted in a 90% pass rate for the students. Inspired by this success, the school decided to enroll all ninth-graders in the same level of math class. Detracking aims to expose all students to higher concepts and standards, leveling the playing field.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated racial achievement gaps in math, particularly in scores among Black and white 13-year-olds. The National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that the math scores for Black students declined significantly compared to their white peers. Addressing these disparities is crucial for improving math understanding and increasing access to STEM careers.

Tracking, a practice that separates students based on achievement level, has long been a part of the American education system. However, detracking has gained traction as a method to address achievement gaps. Schools that have implemented detracking have shown varying levels of success in narrowing gaps. For example, the Rockville Centre school district in New York eliminated tracked classes in the 1990s and provided teacher training to handle mixed-level classrooms. As a result, more students took advanced classes.

At Blythewood High, detracking was expanded to all ninth-grade math classes. Students who would have been placed in lower-level classes received additional algebra lessons before joining the regular Algebra 1 class. This extra learning time boosted students’ confidence and ensured that the pace of learning did not slow down. One student, Kianna Livingston, initially believed she wasn’t good at math but gained confidence and leadership skills through the program. However, tracking eventually returned to Blythewood, indicating the need for flexibility in addressing students’ varying needs.

While detracking has shown promise, critics argue that it may not be effective for all schools. San Francisco, for example, eliminated tracking but saw the gaps between Black and Latino students and their white peers widen. Nevertheless, advocates like Hope Reed still believe in detracking as a way to provide all students with the opportunity to try higher-level math classes and ensure they feel valued and supported.

Tags: math education, achievement gaps, racial disparities, detracking, STEM careers