The idea of a public high school is relatively new in the United States. During most of the 18th and 19th centuries, high schools were reserved for the elite. Towards the end of the 19th century as the country began to urbanize, more parents called for access to high schools. While working class parents hoped the new schools would help their children gain access to higher paying careers, middle-class families wanted to maintain the competitive edge that high school had given their children. Out of these competing desires, the new comprehensive high school was born. Students from all classes would attend the same schools, but they would be offered differing educations based on their race and class. Wealthier, whiter, students would be placed on an elite academic track while more low income students would be placed on a vocational track (Larabee, 2010).
In the beginning, students were explicitly sorted into tracks based on race. By the early 1900s, IQ testing had replaced phrenology as the preferred way to sort students into the appropriate tracks, so much so that by 1932 a survey of 150 districts found that 75% of them were using IQ tests to sort students (Goldstein, 2014). The IQ tests were far from objective as students were all tested in English, using a test based on middle class norms, even if they spoke no English. Proponents of the IQ test felt that the fact that 80% of immigrants tested qualified as “feeble minded” was justified (Oakes, 2005). At the same time, gifted programs began to emerge and, not surprisingly, only White and wealthy students were labelled as gifted (Stark, 2014).
While there had always been some resistance to tracking students, significant pushback began to emerge during the Civil Rights era (LaPrade, 2011). Following the Supreme Court’s recognition in Brown v Board of Education repudiation of educational segregation, parents began to push back against the segregation that they were seeing within schools. In 1967, in the court case Hobsen v Hansen the DC court ruled that Brown applied to tracking within schools as well and that the use of IQ testing on Black students was discriminatory. In 1976, the US Civil Rights Commission described ability grouping as a common cause of classroom segregation (Burris, 2014). In the 1980s, Jeannie Oakes released her seminal book on tracking and broadened the discussion of the harms of tracking. While tracking was not eliminated post Civil Rights era, the form of tracking practiced in schools did shift from explicitly placing students in pre-determined tracks to a model of flexible tracking, where students could take courses at different levels in different subjects. Unfortunately, the racial and class inequities of tracking have continued.