Many high-school students who have the desire to go to college and the willingness to work hard but haven’t had the opportunity to become college ready. These are often students with B or C averages who don’t get placed in college prep courses. Instead, they are likely to get tracked with peers of similar or lower academic performance and engagement. But what happens by detracking these students and placing them in more challenging classes with higher expectations? As scientists dedicated to studying adolescent health and academic performance, we wanted to see whether placing B- or C-average students in a college preparatory program could have a positive effect on their social networks, psychosocial outcomes and health behaviors.
In our randomized controlled trial, the experimental group of students was enrolled in the Advancement via Individual Determination program of rigorous college preparatory courses. This placed them on an academic track typically targeting higher-achieving students. They also attended a daily AVID elective class, where teachers provided academic skills coaching and supported navigation of the college application process. The control group received typical high-school programming.
Higher expectations yielded better outcomes
We discovered that the AVID program, aimed at increasing educational opportunities for under-represented and economically disadvantaged students, also improved their health behaviors and significantly reduced substance use.
After one year, students in the AVID group had lower odds of using substances and of associating with substance-using peers. They also had about 1.7 times the odds of socializing with peers who were more involved with academics. And the AVID program proved especially effective with boys, lowering their stress and building their engagement with school.
Here are three takeaways from our research that we believe can be applied by educators at all levels of the school system.
Takeaway No. 1: Disrupt typical academic practices by detracking
Academic tracking is a common practice in high schools that clusters students of similar academic performance together so that educators can tailor academic rigor to meet their student’s level of preparation.
However, tracking has potential problems. First, studies show that many low-track classes are comprised of minoritized and low-income students, further stacking the deck against historically marginalized populations. Additionally, grouping lower-performing students together reinforces connections with low-performing peers, and that may lead to school disengagement and risky health behaviors, such as substance use.
Our study randomly detracked students from high schools that primarily served low-income and Latinx families. The experimental group received a daily AVID elective class, and the students were encouraged to enroll in high-performing academic courses, while the control group did not. As a result, the AVID students were exposed to more academically successful peers and more prosocial networks. Our study found that mixing lower- and middle-performing youths with high-performing youths led to better student health.
We spoke to AVID elective teacher and staff developer Nick Kempski of West Chicago High School, who had unique insight into these powerful outcomes of detracking.
“I think that is the best thing we do in AVID, where we kind of bridge that gap between maybe underperforming students and high-performing students. The high-performing students are able to take a leadership role and help some of the other students who might not be as academically gifted through processes. That way they gain confidence, and they understand that there are other people in the room who want to help them,” he explains.
Takeaway No. 2: Success runs in the “family”
Students in the study participated in a daily elective AVID class, where they worked with teachers who provided not only academic skills coaching but also facilitated the development of student agency. AVID defines student agency as a state in which students believe in themselves and “act intentionally to build relationships, persist through obstacles and develop their academic, social, emotional and professional skills to reach their potential.”
AVID’s classroom culture, which many describe as a family, emphasizes the student/teacher relationship and enables participants to develop skills including problem-solving, persistence-building in the face of challenges, and coping skills.
“Really, it’s a family, and we use that term a lot with AVID, but it’s not a cliche. It’s a family atmosphere within the classroom because of the opportunities that the kids have to get to know one another and work collaboratively,” Kempski says.
Kempski adds that if one group is particularly benefiting from detracking and AVID family values, it’s the boys. The AVID classroom bond, he explains, makes the boys feel “like they have a community of people that they can lean on.”
“The AVID [elective] gave us the opportunity to focus on building these relationships,” Kempski says. “And we saw such positive growth, which made sense, because the boys were surrounded by people who genuinely cared about their well-being.”
Participation in the detracking study and the AVID program not only decreased student stress levels and increased levels of self-efficacy and school engagement, but it also minimized students’ use of substances and delinquent behaviors. Kempski credits this to the fact that AVID students build strong bonds as they navigate multiple years of school together.
“A lot of times, the kids travel together — so they loop with one another from freshman through senior year in AVID. I think that definitely contributes to building that community of learners and building positive relationships,” he says.
Takeaway No. 3: Ensure schools have the resources
All students deserve access to a school environment that supports their physical and mental well-being. Our study shows that the social network and health implications of academic tracking may be substantial and need to be considered.
Although not studied here, it is possible that all students might benefit not only from the AVID program but also from increased access to rigorous college preparatory courses. Expanding opportunities by providing access to these courses for all students may be key to facilitating healthy social connections and achieving education and health equity more broadly.
This is particularly important in light of critiques that low-income, Black and Latinx students may be less likely to gain access to advanced academic tracks. Applying AVID schoolwide may be one strategy for building a campus community that nourishes relationships while keeping academic rigor at the forefront.
Detracking for better outcomes
Identifying the health effects of academic detracking can provide important insights into the public health implications of education tracking policies. More broadly, our study suggests that an academic program aimed at increasing educational opportunities for under-represented and economically disadvantaged students has a positive effect on students’ social networks, psychosocial outcomes and health behaviors. Working to implement the three takeaways above, educators can help to close the opportunity gap and prepare all students for successful postsecondary paths in college, careers and life.
Rebecca Dudovitz, M.D., is an associate professor in general pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine. Dudovitz completed her residency training in the UCLA Pediatric Community Health and Advocacy Training program in 2008, later entered a health services research fellowship through the UCLA Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars program and received a master’s degree in health services from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. In addition to seeing patients, she supervises resident physicians and medical students and directs health services research for the Department of Pediatrics. Her research focuses on school health and how academic achievement and school environments influence health behaviors.
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