Viona J. Miller


Access Denied: Tracking as a Modern Roadblock to Equal Educational Opportunity

Viona J. Miller

It has been more than sixty years since Brown v. Board of Education, and our country still presents children with dual and unequal systems of education. Not only are students segregated between school districts, but segregation is happening within school buildings as well as through tracking. Tracking is the process by which students are placed into higher or lower subject-specific courses such as math or science—sometimes as early as elementary school—based on their perceived abilities. This practice prohibits many students from accessing high-level courses. Courses such as Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes have become indispensable for applying to college, but under a tracked system, if students do not take advanced classes in middle school, they will likely not be able to take advanced courses before graduating high school. Proponents of tracking argue that it is an efficient model of education that allows students to learn based on their skill level, but research shows that students are tracked along racial and class lines rather than on “ability.” Tracking causes both academic and psychological harm to students in lower tracks, and the opportunities students in higher tracks receive, as opposed to their innate intellectual abilities, are what cause them to succeed. In this Note, I argue that tracking is an inherently inequitable system that should be abolished since it denies so many students the resources, learning opportunities, and access to higher-level courses needed to succeed in today’s society. The legal tools that have been employed to dismantle this system under federal law—the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act—have had limited success, so this Note points to state law as a possible solution. State constitutions contain educational mandates and equal protection clauses that together require states to provide children with an equal educational opportunity. Under this doctrine, many courts have established that states must provide students with the opportunity to gain the skills necessary to compete in a changing society. Although state equal educational opportunity litigation has primarily occurred in the school finance context, this legal tool could be extended to tracking. A finding that tracking violates a student’s right to an equal educational opportunity would require school districts to detrack and open the door so that all students, regardless of race, class, or parental influence, have the opportunity to succeed.