A trial court’s ruling in Hobson v. Hansen (1967) raised legal questions about ability grouping but failed to stop the practice in its tracks. Civil rights activist Julius Hobson filed a class action lawsuit in federal trial court against the Board of Education of the District of Columbia and its superintendent, Carl Hansen. The suit alleged that low-income and Black students were denied equal educational opportunity as a result of the district’s discriminatory practices. Included among the challenged practices was the institution of a rigid system that assigned students to three or four homogeneous ability groups, or tracks.
Once assigned, students had virtually no opportunity to switch tracks. Students in the lowest tracks received a substantially different and lesser education geared toward attaining lower-paying, blue-collar jobs, while honors track students prepared for college. Low-income and Black students were disproportionately represented in the lowest track. Students were tracked on the basis of the results of a single measure: a standardized aptitude test administered in early elementary school.
Circuit Judge Skelly Wright found that the tests were not actually measuring ability because they were biased in such a way that poor, Black children would inevitably earn lower scores and, as a result, lower track placements. Thus, children were being assigned to tracks based not on ability, but on status. Wright concluded that this was discriminatory under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, because the lower-track classes provided less educational opportunity.
Such clear-cut legal victories for opponents of tracking have since been rare. One reason is that neither Hobson v. Hansen nor any other tracking challenge has ever made it to the Supreme Court. Another reason is that the plaintiffs in Hobson v. Hansen showed that tracking was discriminatory in effect but not necessarily in intent.
Nine years later, in Washington v. Davis (1976), the Supreme Court found that the plaintiffs in such cases must prove intent. This is difficult because despite decades of social science research demonstrating that tracking harms low- and middle-ability students without significantly boosting the achievement of those in higher tracks, ability grouping has great commonsense appeal. Opponents of tracking may honestly believe that they are providing a more equitable education by catering to each student’s individual needs.
Hansen himself stated that the objectives behind tracking were “the realization of the doctrine of equality of education” and “the attainment of quality education.” Proving intent is made all the more difficult today because tests are less biased and tracking policies are less rigid. Rare is the district that employs a single test result to group students by ability. Today’s schools generally consider a variety of factors, including grades, teacher recommendations, and student/ parent preferences. Although research shows this still results in minority overrepresentation in lower tracks, the multitude of criteria muddies the waters, making it even more difficult to demonstrate intent.
Tracking continues to face legal challenges. In People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education School District (1994), a federal trial court in Illinois found that tracking was intentionally used to segregate students by race. More common are challenges in which discriminatory intent is easier to prove because the district is already under a desegregation order (e.g., McNeal v. Tate County School District, 1975, and Diaz v. San Jose Unified School District, 1985). A final avenue that does not require proof of intent is for the U.S. Office for Civil Rights to seek termination of federal funds under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Starting in the 1980s, research including Jeannie Oakes’s 1985 landmark indictment of ability grouping, Keeping Track, helped inspire a voluntary detracking movement that was not mandated by the courts. It is still unclear whether the resulting heterogeneous classes produce better results. Early studies found little difference between achievement levels in tracked and untracked classes. More recent research indicates that all students benefit when schools provide a challenging curriculum in heterogeneously grouped classes with extra support, such as tutoring for struggling students.
The majority of secondary schools in this country continue to track. Poor and minority students still disproportionately receive the diminished educational opportunities available in lower tracks. Hobson might have prevailed in court, but Hansen’s vision remains firmly entrenched.
R. Holly Yettick
See also Ability Grouping