It is important to know what is tracking in education. Some schools more effectively teach reading, mathematics and sciences than others. School effectiveness research mainly agrees with this statement. However, increasing students’ general cognitive abilities is usually not an explicit goal of schooling. Yet, the question arises whether school quality indicators not only result in different subject specific outcomes but also differentially affect students’ general cognitive abilities. This question is relevant against the background of broad evidence regarding the meaning of intelligence for numerous factors of life quality such as educational success, employment status, higher income, better health, higher life expectancy, and enduring partnerships. Therefore, and in light of an increasingly complex environment a closely related, albeit not identical construct, that is domain-general problem solving, has received a lot of attention from educational researchers to the point of its inclusion in the PISA 2012 cycle.
Many school systems integrate some sort of grouping of students at least during secondary schooling based on the assumption that teaching is easier and more effective in homogenous groups. Grouping can take place within class, on a course-level (setting or streaming) or on a school level (tracking). So you know what is tracking in education. The placement of students often depends on their achievement. Differences between groups or tracks are expected for two main reasons, compositional effects and institutional effects. Compositional effects refer to the more favorable student composition at academic track schools. On average, students show higher achievement and higher cognitive abilities along with a more favorable social background. This allows for interactions between students which are more cognitively activating. Institutional effects refer to the fact that tracks differ in their pedagogical response to the different groups in terms of curricular foci, teacher qualification and instructional quality. Concerning the curriculum, in Germany, for example, academic track students are required to learn a second foreign language. In their language lessons they focus more on literature while in the nonacademic track the focus is more on basic linguistic skills.
Research on the effects of tracking has shown, that academic track students indeed reach a higher level of achievement than students on other, more vocationally-oriented tracks, even when controlling for intake differences between tracks. This effect is most pronounced for mathematics achievement, but can also be found for French as a foreign language.