Do Our Schools Still Offer Advanced Classes?

| Mon Oct. 3, 2011 1:01 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I read Rick Hess's piece in National Affairs complaining that our national mania for "closing achievement gaps" has badly shortchanged our top students. Teachers are now focused so resolutely on getting slower students up to grade level that very little attention is given to high performers who are already above grade level and therefore pose no risk of hurting a school's NCLB goals. As a result, our best students are left to languish in boring classes and are falling ever further behind the best students in other countries.

I didn't entirely understand Hess's argument. There was something missing that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Today, in a Room for Debate roundtable devoted to discussing Hess's piece, Michael Petrilli fills in the missing link:

Over the past two decades, “tracking” as traditionally practiced has been virtually eliminated from the vast majority of America’s schools — with the exception of mathematics at the middle and high school levels. Whereas a typical middle school might once have had three tracks (remedial, regular and honors) for almost every academic subject, most schools have collapsed all this into one class. At the high school level, Advanced Placement courses — once reserved for the academic elite — have now been democratized through open-admissions policies. It’s “all together now,” in a very real way.

Aha! There are no advanced classes anymore? Everyone is just lumped together in a single classroom without regard to ability? I didn't know that, which just goes to show how out of touch I am with modern schooling.

But wait. It only shows that if it's actually true. But is it? There are certainly elementary school gifted programs still alive and well in lots of places. And as Petrilli says, high schools are practically crawling with AP classes these days — and democratized or not, AP classes are still honors classes even if they've been watered down a bit from their original ideal. That leaves only middle school, which I really don't know anything about. But if tracking is, in practice, still alive in elementary school and high school, then there's still quite a bit of tracking left.

So now I'm really confused. If this is really all about the demise of tracked classes, what's the story? I know that placement of kids in "vocational" tracks mostly ended decades ago, but basic academic tracking still seems to be very widespread. So what's the real complaint here? Teachers and parents with kids currently in school are invited to educate me in comments.