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Lesson 5.3

How Schools Sort Students

Learning in levels, groups and tracks

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Overall, California's student body is incredibly diverse. On closer inspection, it is well sorted.

Throughout childhood, students get used to being sorted: they are sorted by age, by gender, by height, by neighborhood. They are sorted by interest, or readiness, or preference, or luck. Not so long ago, students were explicitly sorted by race. As discussed in Lesson 5.1, today sorting persists by zip code or community, often with similar effect.

This lesson focuses on sorting that schools and educators do intentionally, as part of their educational strategy, as well as sorting that just happens.

Academic sorting

Schools routinely sort students academically. Classes are organized into grade levels and then further into learning groups. In lower grades, students are often sorted into math groups and reading groups. In higher grades they are separated into courses and classes. In many high schools, Advanced Placement (AP) courses are the academic equivalent of varsity: not all students make the team. Some schools allow students to enroll in these challenging courses based on their interest. But allowing isn't the same as encouraging or requiring. Many colleges and some high schools are selective; students must demonstrate their ability and commitment to gain admission.

What is tracking?

The practice of grouping students according to readiness or ability is known as tracking, particularly where groupings persist from one course to the next. Tracking often begins in elementary and middle grades in the form of reading groups or math levels. In middle and high school grade levels, tracking is particularly common for math classes because more advanced concepts build from less advanced ones. It's difficult and risky to skip steps.

Education equity advocates tend to dislike tracking, especially in mathematics. The main alternative is called differentiated instruction, an approach that requires teachers to serve multiple learning levels in the same class. Not all educators agree that this improves results for students, especially those who are relatively advanced. Arguments in favor of tracking can be found in this article from Education Next and this one from the Atlantic.

Selective policies tend to benefit those who ask

Grouping by interest

Some schools work to attract similar birds of a feather as part of an educational strategy. For example, some schools promote their emphasis on the arts. Others promise an enhanced focus on technology. Schools that emphasize Gifted And Talented programs (GATE) attempt to identify students with exceptional academic promise and provide extra learning opportunities appropriate for their needs.

Sort if you like, but don't expect extra money

In the Ed100 blog
What do gifted students need?

In the past, both the federal budget and the state budget included funds to support programs for gifted students. As we discuss in length in the Ed100 blog, little remains of that support. Some gifted programs remain here and there, but they are sufficiently rare that the National Association for Gifted Children has difficulty even collecting useful information for an annual report.

California school districts may offer programs for gifted students (it's allowed) but they don't have to. It is entirely a matter of local control.

Co-ed schools, or keep 'em separated?

Single-sex schools were somewhat common in America prior to the civil rights era, when co-education became the expectation in public education. In 1996, the US Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Virginia that under some circumstances gender-separated public schools can be separate but equal. The number of gender-separate schools remains quite small, though the number has risen slightly in recent years according to 2023 reporting from GreatSchools. The most important relevant research and reporting about the effects of gender separation in education is from Ireland, where it remains a common practice in a minority of schools.

The minimal available research, mostly from Catholic schools, suggests that all other things being equal, academic achievement is generally higher in single-sex school classrooms than in co-ed ones, but the research finding is not straightforward. Like most social science, the data are messy and the validity of this conclusion can be disputed.

California’s first new single-sex public school in twenty years opened in Los Angeles in 2016. It’s an all-girls school. California law prohibits sex-segregated schools, but federal law permits them. LAUSD obtained a California waiver from the State Board of Education to open the school. Very few public gender-specific schools have been opened since then.

Selective public schools exist, but are rare

It is common for private schools to be selective, but selective public schools are rare. In California there are very few of them, including Lowell High School in San Francisco. In 2022, the school briefly converted to a lottery-based admission system. The move was deeply unpopular, and it contributed to the recall of several members of the school district board. Read more about it in the Ed100 blog.

Want to be selected? Stand up for yourself!

At the risk of stating the obvious, selective policies tend to benefit those who ask to be selected. Selecting anything (or being selected for something) usually requires action, even a small one like raising a hand, filling out a form, or talking to a teacher. These small barriers requiring student self-advocacy or parent advocacy tend to reinforce patterns of selection, even unintentionally.

Each school, intentionally or unintentionally, develops its own reputation for the ways in which it is selective and the ways in which it is diverse. In cases where parents have a choice about where their children attend school, they respond to these signals. Parents can influence the balance their local schools strike between these two competing values.

The next lesson will examine the role of special schools for children at risk.

This lesson was updated March 2024.


How are “Gifted and Talented” programs funded in California?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 13, 2022 at 8:56 pm
Selective Admissions are now under debate in major cities throughout the country: from Boston to San Francisco.

Our blog “Are selective schools evil?” explains the issues.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 5, 2022 at 6:14 pm
Detracking in K-12 Classrooms: US News
"In recent years, some school systems have detracked math programs, in particular, to address achievement gaps, and California is considering doing so statewide through 10th grade.

Math is the most-tracked subject, and proponents of detracking – including the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics – argue that eliminating tracking creates more equal opportunities for all students.

But California’s proposals have fueled heated debate, with opponents arguing that detracking is unfair to students who are more advanced learners."
user avatar
Caroline February 18, 2020 at 1:13 pm
Asking teachers to differentiate instruction with 10-15 different lesson plans to accommodate a class of 35-40 students seems unreasonable. If funding is not available to lower class sizes or to add a second full-time adult to the classroom, then it seems like "ability grouping" might help the teachers out. Lesson plans for 3 groups rather than for 10 groups might be more reasonable. But when this is suggested, the response is "tracking is illegal." It is confusing because "ability grouping" is used in math in middle school and in ELA in elementary school. How is "ability grouping" different from "tracking"? How does one explain this idea to administrators without being accused of suggesting tracking?
user avatar
Pamela Wright April 16, 2018 at 3:48 am
Do districts have one pie...and all things come from the ONE pie? If a district has many students with diverse needs is the pie just evenly divided with everyone getting the same share? Do services for all learners cost the same? Does is take more support and resources to help a non English speaker learn the curriculum and pass the tests? Are gifted students challenged and empowered to use their full potential by attending the same classes as all other students? Does differentiated instruction meet the needs of every student? Is it really possible for one teacher to present a lesson and differentiate it for a special education student, an English learning student and a gifted student? How much preparation time is each teacher provides in order to prepare to teach that lesson every period in every subject every day,
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 17, 2018 at 12:37 pm
The short answer is that district administrations have a lot of control over their budgets, and that teachers have a lot of control over their time. Whereas in the past there were tons of accounting rules that commanded districts to spend dollars in particular ways, LCFF provides districts with considerable leeway, within the confines of the commitments they make with their bargaining partners and any other binding commitments they make. Your questions about use of time are addressed in chapter 4, with the caveat that it always depends. Teachers are people, and in the end they individually choose how they spend their days!
user avatar
francisco molina February 23, 2019 at 10:55 am
En este punto, la realidad es muy distinta a elejir por parte de nuestros socios que son los maestros y consejeros, simplemente no tienen opcion ni siquiera a opinar cuando la administracion desvia ese presupuesto y lo invierte en aspectos que no eran una necsidad educaticativa o de apoyo a esta. Eso no deberia seguir ocurriendo, los distritos deberian ser auditados en dicha gestion, creo que eso nunca fue previsto cuando se les delego ese poder y ha sido el mayor dano desde 2008 en que como una reaccion propia de contingencia presupuestaria de la epoca , esta se transformo en una ley perpetua, antes del 2008 California estaba en un mejor ranking en cuanto a calidad de educacion publica, despues de eso no ha parado de ir cada vez peor.
user avatar
francisco molina February 23, 2019 at 11:01 am
Jeff, I love all your Ed100 work because it is helping everyone to understand how the system works. Once you understand it better, you have a better foundation to reform it.
user avatar
jen_bullock December 5, 2017 at 7:43 pm
The map at doesn’t seem to be working any more?

[Ed100 Editor note: messages like this one from Jennifer are VITALLY helpful. We couldn't keep Ed100 up to date without tips from our readers.]
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 28, 2016 at 3:11 pm
California's first new single-gender school in twenty years is slated to open in Los Angeles in 2016. It's an all-girls school. California law prohibits gender-segregated schools, but Federal law permits them. LAUSD obtained a California waiver to open the school.
user avatar
_Bruce Ross August 26, 2015 at 8:31 am
"At the risk of stating the obvious, selective policies tends to benefit those who ask to be selected."
Obvious, but until you see it play out, it is not obvious how strong the effect is.
I live in a county that effectively has open enrollment and free transfers wherever there is room. (The County Board set the policy years back, and since they will grant any transfer that a district denies, there's no point in denying them.) It's not really an ethnic/racial thing, but it broadens the divide between the aspirational middle class and everyone else. Our kids attend and I love our neighborhood school, but it is striking -- and sad -- how many of my peers literally would not think of sending a child there.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 24, 2014 at 3:03 pm
Research on the efficacy of "gifted" programs, summarized by
The short version: the research found evidence that gifted programs may work best for motivated students that are NOT classically "gifted" with a high IQ. The EdExcellence take: "So why would a program impact high scorers and not those with high IQ? Perhaps high test scores demonstrate non-cognitive traits, like longer attention spans and willingness to meet social expectations, which are important in gifted classrooms. In any event, the findings suggest that creating separate classrooms in every school for top-performing students is a cost-effective way to significantly boost performance, even in the poorest neighborhoods."
The full report sells for $5 at
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek June 15, 2019 at 2:09 pm
Would this be beneficial to the entire class? In our district, our GATE program is integrated because they showed that data supports that this is best practice.
user avatar
Caprice Young April 23, 2011 at 10:54 pm
As a kid, I was identified as highly gifted early on. For a while that meant I was given crossword puzzle and word search books. Often, I would be called on to tutor my peers. Since my gifted-ness didn't carry over to social skills, this was a huge punishment. In some cases I was just given more work. No one understood that gifted didn't just mean I could tackle more advanced work earlier and faster. It meant my brain worked differently. When I attended a racially and economically diverse magnet school, I finally found teachers and peers who understood. The curriculum and instructional strategies were tailored to help us expand and train our weird brains and academic success wasn't ridiculed or stifled, as it all too often is in melting pot schools.

Grouping students with like interests and learning needs can be a great way to deliver high quality education in a more individualized way. As long as the placements are made thoughtfully and at the choice of the students' guardians, more specialized educational environments can really work well.

I participated in the bussing folly of LAUSD 30 years ago (yeah, I'm ancient). Merely bussing kids across town did nothing to integrate the classrooms or lunch areas. However, in Magnet schools, which select students in a lottery basis in order to group students by interest or learning style, we actually shared classrooms, libraries, lunch pavilions and friends. It took away that awkwardnes and let us get to know eachother as people with similar interests-- which is how friendships more naturally form.
user avatar
David B. Cohen April 20, 2011 at 10:43 am
For a complete and convincing account of one school system's success in this area, I highly recommend "Detracking for Excellence and Equity" by Burris and Gerrity (2008).
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