Tracking In The Era of High Stakes State Accountability Reform: Case Studies Of Classroom Instruction In North Carolina

Mar. 20, 2008

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 110 Number 3, 2008, p. 489-534


Considerable controversy surrounds the issue of whether high-stakes statewide accountability programs have led to more equitable educational opportunities for all students. Some researchers suggest that these programs have focused attention on improving the achievement of students of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Critics of accountability programs, however, raise concerns that high-stakes standardized tests have lowered the quality of instruction in inner-city schools, where students of color from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have traditionally not tested well, as these students do more out-of-context math and reading drill in preparation for the exams. A central question remains: What is the nature of curriculum and instruction for different groups of students in the new school reform context of high-stakes, statewide accountability programs, and what are the implications for equity?

Purpose of the Study

This account of classroom instruction delves into the instructional opportunities afforded students across different academic tracks under North Carolina’s accountability program. The author focuses on the nature of classroom instruction for students in the “regular” classes, which are disproportionately populated by students of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with that of their peers in “academically gifted” classes and considers the implications for equity in this new policy context.

Data Collection/Analysis

This research was based on the following data: 1) 68 hours of classroom observations in two focal language arts teachers’ classrooms, 2) six interviews with each of the two focal teachers, 3) student work from two focal teachers’ classrooms and 4) interviews with eleven other teachers teaching at other schools.


The analysis reveals five key differences in instruction across tracks that favored students in the “academically gifted” classes. The article discusses the extent to which the high-stakes accountability policies influenced teachers to make bifurcated curricular decisions for their students across tracks. The author argues that despite calls to close the achievement gap through high-stakes accountability programs, the gap will persist unless policymakers and educators consider ways in which school organization can perpetuate or equalize instructional opportunities for students.

Updated: Dec. 15, 2008