Are Tracking and Retention as Helpful as We Thought?

May 18, 2017

What happens when you've been doing something for a long time and then you realize evidence completely contradicts your efforts? If you learned today, for instance, that Kale is not only NOT a super food, it actually causes cellulite, you would likely be flabbergasted. Of course, a lot of people might rejoice at that (no more Kale EVERYTHING). But drastic contradictions can be incredibly disorienting, nonetheless. Finding out that you've been doing it wrong can cause disbelief, anger, and doubling down on the previously held belief.  Of course, our example is just Kale. Who cares, really? But what if the evidence-based contradiction regards regular practices in intervention?

At SchoolStatus, we’re familiar with educators’ desires to identify a list of students that meet specific criteria. For instance, we’re frequently asked to help districts identify “bubble students,” those kiddos just at the cusp of proficiency, or students who are off-track based on literacy benchmarks. As #datanerds, we understand the importance of knowing exactly where students are in relation to their individual goals and the goals of your school or district. As #datanerds on a mission to change the status quo, we are also curious about the outcomes associated with this identification… and feel compelled to draw you into a conversation about the harmful impact of too much help.


Recently, I was introduced to the work of Professor John Hattie, whose research synthesizes hundreds – literally, hundreds – of studies regarding the best practices for promoting learning. Hattie’s research has culminated into a series of work known as Visible Learning, complete with multiple book publications and a systematized rank ordering of variables or “influences” related to student learning outcomes. Notably, Hattie has rank-ordered the variables that most impact learning based on having achieved a particular effect size, which is a fancy way of saying that outcomes are clearly discernible beyond being statistically significant. While reviewing Hattie’s list, which now includes 195 variables, a couple of items drew my attention: detracking and retention.

Detracking, the opposite of tracking, is the absence of grouping students by ability, and it has a clear positive impact on learning. Tracking became popular in the 70s, at the height of desegregation, and was touted as a way to help the smartest children achieve their full potential (Garland, 2011). However, with over 500 studies conducted on the topic of tracking, results indicate that there are negligible effects on students’ learning outcomes but profound negative effects on fairness and partiality (Mathis, 2013). Basically, there’s a boatload of evidence that tracking prioritizes some groups over others, whether or not such preferential treatment is intended.

The desire to group students based on ability is tempting. We think we can put a laser focus on those students and address their specific needs. Unfortunately, years of research indicate that – despite our best intentions – we fall short of providing the best to our students when we group them by ability. Instead, for those students who need the most support, we end up lowering our expectations of them, watering down their curriculum, and assigning them to our least experienced teachers (Mathis, 2013). An alternative to tracking, especially in primary grades, is multi-age classrooms, where students of different ages and abilities are grouped together (Protheroe, 2007).

The multi-age classroom has also been promoted as an alternative to retention, another variable from Hattie’s list. Although it’s not mind-blowing that failing a grade would have negative consequences, I’m surprised at the amount of literature outlining the negative outcomes associated with grade retention. There are temporary gains, especially within the year the child is retained, but these are short-lived and few retained students “catch up” to their non-retained peers (Jimerson et al., 2005). In fact, retention has the strongest and most negative impact on reading, which is typically the reason for retention in the first place. Moreover, students perceive retention to be as stressful as losing a parent or going blind. If those factors aren’t convincing enough, consider “that grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of dropping out of high school” (Jimerson et al., 2005, p. 11).

Tracking and retention are intervention strategies that are well-established in the American education system. Yet, a large body of evidence suggests that these strategies have negative, sometimes severe, learning outcomes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with following students’ progress and identifying those that are most in need. However, as you strive to be and provide the best for your students, stop to ask if the help you are providing does more harm than good. And, before implementing a method that comes naturally – like grade retention – consider if an alternative strategy such as extended-day or extended-year programs would be appropriate.

Most importantly, engage in conversations with students’ parents as soon as you recognize students are off-track. While it may be obvious to you and your colleagues that a student isn’t prepared for college, or worse, high school graduation, parents may be none the wiser. For instance, Michael Petrilli explains that parents will rationalize a child’s poor test results by attributing performance to ‘a rough day’, or they may feel overly confident in their child’s trajectory if they see As and Bs on the report card. Loop parents into a conversation about the whole picture, as you see it, to make sure expectations are clear and strategies get implemented before it’s too late.

"When you know better, do better" - Maya Angelou


If you've ever stared at a spreadsheet of data and seen only hieroglyphics, you will appreciate the work that Joy Smithson does for school districts as the Data Scientist at SchoolStatus. Joy spends her time working with district admin and teachers not only analyzing data, but helping evaluate process. Find out more about what Joy and the team are doing here



Garland, S. (2011). Should we revive academic tracking? HechingerEd Blog. Retrieved from The Hechinger Report at

Jimerson, S. R., Pletcher, S. M. W., & Kerr, M. (2005). Alternatives to grade retention. Counseling 101. Retrieved from

Mathis, W. (2013). Research-based options for education policymaking: Moving beyond tracking. Retrieved from

Petrilli, M. (2017, April). Schools should tell parents whether their middle schoolers are on track for college. Education Next. Retrieved from, N. (2007, January/February). Alternatives to retention in grade. Principal. Retrieved from