Tracking: Focusing on the New Talented Tenth


In an essay of the same name published in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois popularized the term “Talented Tenth,” referring to a leadership class among African Americans. DuBois believed that African Americans would need a classical, traditional education in order to succeed in the United States. By becoming involved with white society, pursuing traditional markers of class and status, and emerging as leaders in their fields, the black “Talented Tenth” would slowly improve the state of affairs for all African Americans. In that essay, DuBois clearly displayed his belief in the aphorism, “a rising tide lifts all boats”:

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.

Many scholars criticized DuBois’ attitude for ignoring how this system would come at the expense of the group DuBois did not mention: the counterpart to the Talented Tenth, the other ninety percent of African Americans living in the U.S. DuBois even qualified his statements later in life, but the idea of the Talented Tenth persists—and while it may be most historically relevant to African Americans, the term Talented Tenth is often used now to refer to any group of intellectually gifted or talented group in American education.

When considering the state of education in America, some theorists draw on this vocabulary of the Talented Tenth, as well as on DuBois’ central thesis, as quoted above: they believe that the “Talented Tenth” in American education, wiped clean of its racial connotations, may “guide the Mass away form the contamination and death of the Worst.” Focusing energy, resources and praise on the Talented Tenth in the U.S.—who can be measured or evaluated in different ways, including those students who perform in the ninetieth percentile on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—through tracking and gifted programs reveals several assumptions made by educators and policy makers.

Although tracking is widely practiced, the assumptions on which this system is built may be harmful to students and to our educational system. Tracking systems and gifted programs imply that only certain students deserve or can appropriately handle more challenging material; in a certain sense, they uphold the belief that intelligence is fixed, and that certain students are destined to achieve less than others. Perhaps students who excel in higher tracks owe their success not to an inherent, fixed intelligence, but to other factors which promote achievement in school. The majority of tracking systems, as they exist now, ignore possible links between student achievement and socioeconomic status, as well as other factors. If certain students are inherently or naturally more intelligent than others, then perhaps those students do deserve a more challenging education. But can an equitable system be satisfied when the same students are rewarded again and again, as other students fall behind, not because of a lack of intelligence—but because of outside factors which affect their achievement? How does tracking, which separates the Talented Tenth from the other ninety percent of students, serve all students? Is it possible for tracking, as it exists now, or in any other incarnation, to lift all boats, and improve American education?


In order to attempt to address some of these implicit assumptions and questions, this paper will examine several issues related to tracking and student achievement. We will create a profile of a student from the “Talented Tenth” to examine the biggest predictors of student achievement, including factors such as socioeconomic status, race, geographic location, and parental education level. Then, we will review the achievement of students in tracked programs, and examine two tracking systems which attempt to be more inclusive, as well as their effects on student achievement.

Because this paper attempts to challenge the assumptions behind tracking systems, it will implicitly consider the question of whether intelligence is fixed or dynamic. Of course, that question, because of its difficult and fundamental nature, is not fully within the scope of this paper, but ought to be contemplated because of its link with tracking and some students’ intellectually gifted status.

In order to address these questions, this paper will attempt to review and synthesize different pieces of literature on tracking, and draw conclusions from data on student achievement and socioeconomic status.

General Overview of Tracking

Before beginning to examine the effects of tracking on student achievement, it is important to establish a standard definition and general overview of tracking. Tracking, which is also known as “ability grouping,” is the practice of placing students of like intelligence or achievement in the same classroom (“Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Grouping”). It does not necessarily denote an accelerated curriculum for those high-achieving students, but often includes or implies that. High achievers in math will be placed together, while students who need more attention in math will be placed in another classroom. In certain schools, tracking functions as a system: students who are considered generally high-achieving are placed in a more advanced track for all of their classes, not only in specific classes in which they excel. Even special admissions schools, like New York City’s Stuyvesant High School or Philadelphia’s Julia R Masterman School, which admit students on the basis of their academic achievement as measured by test scores, grades and letters of recommendations, can be considered a special type of tracking. Special admission schools remove “mentally gifted” students into their own track—where their higher track is their entire school, and may contain even more levels of tracking within the school.

Sociologists Samuel R. Lucas and Mark Berends differentiate between de facto tracking and de jure tracking. De jure tracking is when students are intentionally tracked into an overarching series of courses based on their achievement: identified as intellectually gifted, students in these schools may take honors English, honors math, and a more advanced science class. De facto tracking is when this system exists unintentionally: students are placed into courses by their achievement in each one, but their achievement is correlated, and so they may be placed into all advanced classes, therefore unintentionally creating the “series” of courses that exists in a school with de facto tracking (p. 328). De jure tracking is much less popular now than it once was; in the late 1960s sixties and early 1970s, a transition occurred in which many schools and school districts moved away from de jure tracking. However, just because de jure tracking no longer exists in many schools does not mean that de facto tracking does not currently exist (Lucas & Berends, 2002, p. 330).

Despite the controversy that exist around the topic of tracking, tracking has both positive and negative effects in schools.  Proponents of tracking argue that tracking students who have different ability levels into different classes makes classes easier to teach (Lucas & Berends, 2002, p. 328). It also allows different students to get what they need out of school and out of individual classes: students to have a more serious interest in math can take a more difficult math class, while some students who have less interest in math do not need to take such an advanced math course. Although many agree that it is possible to have a classroom with students of mixed abilities, in reality, differentiation is extremely difficult, especially for new teachers.  Additionally, proponents of tracking would argue that

not every student can benefit from advanced education, and it could well be that the best way to increase performance is to reduce the number of students included in these programs while continuing to focus on bringing all students to international standards. (Epstein, R.A., Pianko, D., Scnur, J., & Wyner, J., 2011, 50).

If certain students are indeed naturally more adept at certain subjects, many would agree that those students ought to be in a classroom that challenges them more intensely. Proponents of tracking might also point to research that argues that high achievers will not maintain their level of achievement without rigorous work (Epstein, R.A., Pianko, D., Scnur, J., & Wyner, J., 2011, 49).

However, there are many criticisms of tracking, the most substantial of which focus on the effects that tracking has on students of low socioeconomic backgrounds.  Critics say that tracking traps low income and minority students in lower tracks. Research has shown that, in general, black students occupy lower tracks then white students (Lleras, C., 2008, p. 887). Lucas and Berends state that tracking “inescapably involves racial, ethnic, and class segregation” (2002, p. 328). Tracking often prevent students from taking more advanced classes later in school because they miss a window for learning fundamental skills, especially in math (Lleras, C., 2008, p. 889). Critics take this to mean that those students are tracked into lower level classes are set up for lower performance overall. Indeed, lower tracks have lower achievement gains than higher tracks, implying that students who are more challenged will make greater learning gains (Lleras, C., 2008, p. 888). It is also significant that minority and low income students are often overlooked or underrepresented in higher tracks or intellectually gifted programs (Guo, J., 2015). These findings suggest that while tracking is beneficial for students were placed into higher level classes, tracking fails to represent the interest of minority and low income students.

Profile of America’s New “Talented Tenth”

When considering the effects that race and socioeconomic status have on the student achievement, it is crucial to consider the profile of high achievers in general in America.  Just as one might expect from the criticisms of tracking systems, it does seem that student achievement is correlated with socioeconomic status as well as other markers of privilege. When examining the profile of the most advanced students in United States, as defined by scoring in the 90th percentile or greater on the math NAEP in eighth grade, it appears that students who are low income or who are minorities are dramatically underrepresented.  For example, only 10.2% of these gifted students qualify for free or reduced price lunch; 36.1% of students who score at the national average qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, for the 2009-2010 school year, 47.5% of students nationwide qualified for free or reduced price lunch[1] (Number and percentage of public school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 2012). 81.5% of these gifted students are white, while only 2.6% are black and 4.4% are Hispanic.  In simpler terms, black and Hispanic students are 1/5 to ¼ of the expected proportion of high achievers, and are twice the expected proportion of love achievers (Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A., 2008, p. 27). (Comparison in Figure 1.)

It is obvious that there are other effects on student achievement as well. It has long been known that parental education status is one of the largest effects on student achievement. This is shown to be true with this data as well: 64.4% of high-achieving students have mothers who have graduated from college, and it is appropriate to assume that many of these parents have pursued even higher education (Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A., 2008, p. 27). This is significantly higher than the national average: 36.9% of students have a mother who graduated from college; only 19.6% of low-achieving students have a mother who graduated from college (Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A., 2008, p. 27).

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 10.16.33 PM

Figure 1. Comparison between student scoring in 90th percentile, national average and 10th percentile. Reprinted from High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB (28) by Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A, Thomas B. Fordham Institute. (2008)

Students who scored in the 90th percentile on the NAEP are also much more likely to attend suburban schools than urban schools, and smaller or average sized schools than larger schools. They are also more likely to attend private school than the typical student: in the 2011-2012 school year, private schools enrolled 10% of American students (“Council for American Private Education”), but 14.7% of students who scored in the 90th percentile or higher in math on the NAEP attend private schools (Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A., 2008, p. 29). Finally, students who are high achievers tend to have teachers who have been teaching longer than the teachers of low-achieving students: high-achieving students have teachers who have, on average, 15.2 years of classroom experience; teachers of low-achieving students have, on average, only 11.8 years of classroom experience (Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A., 2008, p. 30).

When focusing in on students who are high achievers but who are socioeconomically or educationally disadvantaged—students who reforms like No Child Left Behind aim to target, and who traditionally underperform on measures of academic achievement—we can qualify this pattern. These students comprise about 14% of all high achievers, and are black, Hispanic, or qualify for free or reduced price lunch (Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A., 2008, p. 32). Some students perform equally well on the NAEP as middle- or high-income students whose parents attended college, despite coming from “less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds and attend[ing] schools with more constraints—larger numbers of poor, urban children and fewer advanced math courses offered” (Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A., 2008, p. 36). These students, it appears, achieve an intellectually gifted status, in spite of their disadvantages and less privileged background and schooling. Although these students have certain markers of low socioeconomic status, their mothers are more likely to have graduated from college than other students of similar socioeconomic status (41.1% versus 19.6% of those students who were low achievers), and they are more likely than the typical African American eighth grader to have a teacher with more experience and a higher standard of certification (Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A., 2008, p. 33). These students, who are more socioeconomically disadvantaged than the typical high-achieving student in America, could be a valuable group to observe when attempting to tackle questions related to fixed intelligence, and socioeconomic factors on student performance. They achieve at as high a rate as their privileged counterparts, but seem to have more markers of socioeconomic or educational privilege than other black and Hispanic students who are low-achieving.

All of this data seems to suggest that high achievement or performance on the NAEP, which is considered the nation’s report card and is widely trusted to be an accurate measure of a student’s performance more generally, correlates to higher socioeconomic status, higher parental education status, and higher quality of teaching. Even among students of a lower socioeconomic status, those students who perform well on the NAEP are more likely to have positive external effects than those students who come from similar socioeconomic statuses and do not perform well. Considering these factors in conjunction with information about tracking may reveal some of the inappropriate assumptions of tracking systems—specifically, that only certain students are inherently intellectually gifted, and deserve to be placed into more challenging classes based on their success in the classroom.

Correlations Between Tracking Programs and Student Achievement

Having observed a correlation between student achievement and socioeconomic and parental educational status, as well as school location, school size and teacher experience, it important to turn now to the effect of tracking on student achievement. In what ways does tracking benefit high-achieving students? How does tracking affect students who are placed into lower tracks?

There are some studies that suggest that there is little to be gained from tracking or ability grouping for high-achieving students. In a study conducted by Robert E. Slavin, there was found to be virtually no effect on high-, medium- or low-achieving students when placed into groups of like ability (1990, p. 485). Slavin asserts that seven “multiyear correlational studies,” which studied up to five years of students placed into high-, medium- and low-tracked classes, showed no obvious pattern of effects (1990, p. 486).

However, the majority of research supports the claim that placement in higher tracks compared to lower tracks results in greater achievement gains for students (Lleras, C., 2008, p. 888). Placing students into higher tracks gives them the opportunity to be exposed to more material, “at a more advanced level, and with higher instructional quality and higher teacher expectations in higher track courses” (Lleras, C., 2008, p. 888). This is intuitive: more advanced classes will review more material in a shorter amount of time when compared to lower track classes, and most schools are willing to put more advanced or more expert teachers into accelerated classrooms. The positive effects of tracking students upwards contribute to an achievement gain which holds, even when normalized for parental education and income, prior grades, and test scores (Lleras, C., 2008, p. 888). This is extremely important: tracking students into higher level classes creates achievement gains, regardless of prior grades and test scores, the main measurement of student achievement in most schools. “High expectations” has been a buzzword in education since the 1960s, when Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson published a study on the “Pygmalion Effect”: they argued that holding students to high expectations led to significant educational gains and changes in the classroom. Challenging each student and expecting them to achieve changed students’ behaviors: students were more likely to be more engaged, and actually gained IQ points by the end of the study (Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L., 1968). It seems that this might hold true in tracked classrooms as well—setting high expectations and presenting rigorous, challenging material to students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, resulted in large education gains.

Robert Slavin acknowledges that there is a difference between “ability grouping of high achievers” and “special programs for the gifted,” which may allow us to reconcile his findings with Lleras’ and many other researchers’. Slavin defines special programs for the gifted as programs that accelerate learning; tracking, or ability grouping, simply places high achievers in the same classroom (1990, p. 486). Slavin’s definition of gifted programming more precisely matches Lleras’ description of tracking, in which students are exposed to “more advanced” material. This may be in part because Slavin’s research is older than other studies comparable to Lleras’. Slavin acknowledges that gifted students in accelerated classes performed substantially better on tests than students who were in homogenous classes: “grouping per se has little effect on the achievement of high achievers” but acceleration does (1990, p. 486).

New Tracking Systems Address Some Criticisms of Tracking

From reviewing this information, it appears that high achievers benefit from tracked classrooms when those classrooms also involve curriculum acceleration. It is important to remember that those high-achieving students are most likely to be students who are socioeconomically and educationally privileged. However, two new tracking systems may reveal ways in which tracking can benefit students who have a different socioeconomic or educational background than the typical high-achieving American student, who is more likely than not to be white, and middle-or high-income, and to have a mother who graduated from college.

One of these newer tracking systems reveals that high-achieving minority students may benefit most from tracking into higher level classes. David Card and Laura Giuliano have released a working paper that shows that high-achieving black and Hispanic students who had just missed the “giftedness” cutoff but were nevertheless placed in gifted classrooms made academic gains equivalent to those found at the best charter schools (2016). These students, in a traditional tracking system, would not have been placed into a gifted classroom. But under this new system, which required schools to have a gifted classroom if there was even a single gifted student in the school—meaning that the other seats must be filled by students not qualified as “gifted” but rather as “high-achieving”—these students excelled (Card, D., & Giuliano, L., 2016). The gains for these students were much larger than those made by white students in the same classroom: effectively, placement in a gifted class closed the achievement gap for these black and Hispanic students (Card, D., & Giuliano, L., 2016). Challenging and tracking these students up into higher classes made an enormous difference. More studies ought to be done to further explore the possibility that low-achieving students can benefit from being placed in classrooms that will challenge them, thereby exploring the practicalities of the Pygmalion Effect.

Another new tracking program deserves to be profiled and modeled. In Broward County, Florida, in 2005, the School District began to require universal screening for academic giftedness (Shammas, B., 2015). The old system in Broward County, which is the same as those in many school districts across the country, dictated that students had to be referred by teachers or parents to gifted testing. Only once a child was referred would he or she be able to take the IQ test that determined his or her entry to the gifted program (Shammas, B., 2015). After the school district realized that gifted students came from primarily privilege socioeconomic areas, they began a universal screening process; after scanning all students in second grade, the number of black and Hispanic students in gifted education skyrocketed (Shammas, B., 2015).  Before 2005, 28% of black and Hispanic students were in gifted education, although they made up 60% of the overall school population (Shammas, B., 2015).  After they began universal screening, the percentage enrolled in gifted education raised by 80% for black students and 130% for Hispanic students (Shammas, B., 2015). Lleras suggests that minority and low income students are often underrepresented in gifted programming because some teachers have low expectations for them, or because the students’ parents are not aware that they can refer to their children to gifted testing (2008, 890).


This paper focused primarily on effects of tracking for high-achieving students, but for the most part, for considerations of space, ignored the effects that tracking programs have on low-achieving students. A more in-depth paper would be able to explore the research on whether not the performance of low-achieving students could be improved by placing those students into more challenging classes. Analyzing the results of the Pygmalion Effect and the study done by David Card and Laura Giuliano, I would hypothesize that all students might benefit from a more challenging curriculum, as well as the more experienced and expert educators that usually come with a gifted class.

Of course, because this paper could not attempt to answer the question of whether intelligence is fixed or dynamic, it cannot fully explore the ethical implications of tracking students into different levels of classes based on their prior achievement. It does seem that high performance in the classroom is strongly correlated with certain markers of privilege. However, that does not fully rule out the possibility of some level of innate or fixed intelligence. Furthermore, it is unlikely that society will abandon this idea anytime soon. In the meantime, it is important that schools and school districts attempt to make their tracking programs, which do reflect racial and socioeconomic inequality, as equitable as possible. The two new tracking programs discussed are especially important for this consideration, not because they address the problems that tracking creates for low-achieving students, but rather because they address other criticisms of tracking, which argue that tracking has negative consequences for low income and minority students. By increasing the representation of low income and minority students in higher tracks or gifted classrooms, these programs can begin to address the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. If school districts hope to increase the equity of their tracking programs, they should consider replicating these new tracking programs, especially by screening all students for their gifted programs.

No education system is perfect, and the American education system has its own set of serious problems.  We do not fully understand qualities of intelligence, nor how to solve our problems related to racial and socioeconomic inequality. Tracking, too, is an imperfect system. However, there do seem to be advantages for high-achieving students. If the American education system continues to believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, it makes sense that we will continue to direct resources to those students who perform the best academically. The best that we can hope for these imperfect programs is that they will attempt to function more equitably, and will be inclusive to minority and low-income students.


Works Cited

Card, D., & Giuliano, L. (2016). Can tracking raise the test scores of high-ability minority students? (Working Paper No. 22104). Retrieved from National Bureau of Economic Research website:

Council for American Private Education. (n.d.). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from

DuBois, W.E.B. (n.d.). The Talented Tenth. Retrieved May 05, 2016, from

Epstein, R.A., Pianko, D., Scnur, J., & Wyner, J. (2011). Are we lifting all boats or only some? Education Next, 46-53.

Guo, J. (2015, September 22). These kids were geniuses — they were just too poor for anyone to discover them. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 5, 2016.

Lleras, Christy. (2008). Race, Racial Concentration, and the Dynamics of Educational Inequality Across Urban and Suburban Schools. American Educational Research Journal, 45 (4), 886-912.

Loveless, T., Parkas, S., & Duffett, A. (2008). High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB (Rep.). Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Lucas, S.R., & Berends, M. (2002). Sociodemographic Diversity, Correlated Achievement, and De Facto Tracking. Sociology of Education, 75(4), 328-348.

Number and percentage of public school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, by state: Selected years, 2000-01 through 2010-11 (Rep.). (2012, December). Retrieved May 5, 2016, from National Center for Education Statistics website.

Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Grouping. (n.d.). Retrieved May 05, 2016, from

Rosenthal, R., & L. Jacobsen. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Slavin, R. E. (1990). Achievement effects of ability grouping in secondary schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of educational research60(3), 471-499.

Shammas, B. (2015, October 17). Broward’s gifted programs getting more diverse. Sun Sentinel. Retrieved April 6, 2016, from

United States of America, Food and Nutrition Services, USDA. (2009, March 27). Child Nutrition Programs—Income Eligibility Guidelines. Retrieved May 5, 2016.


[1] In the 2009-2010 school year, all students whose parents had incomes that were 1.30 or 1.85 times the Federal income poverty guidelines qualified for free or reduced price lunch, respectively (Child Nutrition Programs—Income Eligibility Guidelines, 2009). For a family of three, for example, a student would receive free lunch if his or her family income was below $23, 803, and reduced price lunch if the family’s income was below $33,874. This calculation is meant to provide important context: 47.5% of students in the U.S. fell into these categories in the 2009-2010 school year, but only 10.2% of gifted students fell into this socioeconomic bracket. Clearly, students from low-income backgrounds are dramatically underrepresented in the gifted population in schools.


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