Academic Tracking and ADHD.  Should We Get Rid of It?


Should students be placed in classes based on similar abilities?  Low-level math? On-grade-level biology? What are the odds that same student can be in AP Physics?  Now try it again, only add students with ADHD. Not likely, but it does happen. Here’s how.

Students with ADHD have a smaller chance of being successful in high school.  They are 11% more likely to be expelled and more than 45% to be suspended. They also have the highest failure rate.  Of course, this doesn’t highlight their many attributes.

What is tracking?

Tracking formally assigns students to specific paths or academic coursework.  Typically the classifications include college prep, general, and vocational. Now these are somewhat less rigid.  However, students with ADHD are more likely to be assigned to different classes based on their perceived ability.

Modern tracking systems are designed based on curriculum differentiation.  Schools offer the same course at different levels. Similarly, classes are more or less rigorous.

The measure of ability typically begins the the elementary grades.  This is often based on traditional attributes.

  • IQ
  • Teacher-based screening
  • Early achievement
  • Student motivation
  • Parent advocacy

This lays a roadmap, a trajectory for 12 years of school.  Unfortunately these skew results. They do not always reflect their abilities, especially when accommodations are not available in early years.

There is a better way:  Remodel tracking systems.

Traveling in the WayBack Machine…

“Hey look, I’m here.  Cathy is out having a baby, and I get to teach again.  Now I’m at Forest Gaith for there months.”

In walks someone I know.  “Hi my name is Edie Brown.  I’ll be here for a long while and I’m so excited.  I miss being in the classroom.”

With a quick reply, the paraeducator Anna said something I could hear.  “Not for long!”

She was right.  About 30 seconds, maybe less.

The bell rang.  In ran 8 kids, screaming at the top of their lungs.  Later fighting.

“What’s that?”  I squeezed my mouth.

Anna replied, “Welcome to the Learning Center.  They’re low-level students with special needs.  It keeps the same kids together all day.”

Frightened, I say “Okay, do you mean the least successful in special ed.


Oh brother!

Identifying the challenges at the start of the process is key.  Language that teachers and administrators use can impede outcomes.  Being labeled as ADHD places “our kids” at higher levels of peril.

  • “Low” students
  • “Regular” students
  • “Advanced” students
  • “Honors” students
  • “Best” students

Analyzing grouping practices should take place in high schools, at the district level.  Discussions will help colleagues reflect upon, then communicate their beliefs.  Providing an equal opportunity runs parallel to obligations of schooling.  Clear, open, and exploratory conversations should take place.

  • Identify grade when first group for instructional level.
  • List reasons to begin at that particular level.
  • Determine the influence on later instructional grade level.
  • Understand the basis for placement decision.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness and validity of placement.

5 years after leaving the classroom…

“Hello, I’m Ms Brown.”

“My name is Victoria.”

“Have a seat.”  She did.

Rocking through the 45-minute period, there were fights everywhere.  Victoria just sat there, complaining that things weren’t fair. I had nothing to say.

Anna whispered, “Are you okay?”

I replied, “Yes, but I have a question.  Why is Victoria here? She’s smart, kind, and caring  others.”

It’s the word that every teacher dreads.


Students with ADHD are often affected by their dual-label.  Special care should be taken when assigning high school students.  They are often tied to an IEP/504 Plans at an early age. Grouping can reflect negative opinions about special ed.  The ultimate goal is to look at the entire person in a holistic way.

  • What is human intelligence?
  • Is intelligence one-dimensional?
  • What is more important, aptitude or hard work?
  • Is it possible to make lessons more accessible to all students?
  • Is it possible for students to show what they know in a variety of ways?

When is the best time?

Detracking is most successful in the 10th grade.  PSAT scores correlate strongly with general intelligence.  Maturity enables open exchanges between parents, teachers, and administrators.  Keep in mind, however, that supporters of the status quo are likely to become defensive.

Fast-forward 3 years…

Walking into my latest client’s house as an academic therapist, I got a surprise.  It was Victoria! Taller with a bigger smile than I remember, she waved her hand. Her loving parents spoke for Victoria, but I got the picture from when we were together.  She wanted to be in “regular” classes and go to college. We made a pact that she’d work hard and stay out of trouble. That was the only way. She was an awesome reader and writer, but being the classroom cop was her greatest skill.  She hated math so we’d focus there.

She failed Algebra 1 for the first semester, but we’d make it work for the following class.  Victoria and I helped to cater toward specific learning styles and how to use technology to foster understanding.  Her parents worked with the school to make a change in Victoria’s placement/track.

“Don’t give up.  Victoria will make the changes to move forward.  You will be able to help throughout the process.”

Moving forward, the pack of 3 achieved what they all hoped for.  Victoria passed Algebra 1, second semester. No one knew what to do.  The solution was there for all to see. Victoria took Algebra 1 first semester.  Geometry at the same time. You know that she passed both!

My job is done!

Their dreams came true.  Victoria moved to the college-bound classes, then graduated.  Now she’s in college. 

All things are available with the right supports.

What’s the best way to make transitions?

Whether changes are made school-wide as the individual, tracking changes should be thoughtful and exploratory.

  1. Begin where tracking starts (elementary, middle school, high school).
  2. Create a heterogeneous classroom.
  3. Choose voluntary teachers who are interested.
  4. Start with the lowest track.
  5. Focus on basic skills, behavior, and attentiveness.

For students with ADHD, note the labels that each teacher assigns to them.  Discuss how they affect day-to-day interactions with teachers and other students.  Low expectations that focus on “can’ts” should be replaced by strategies that create a blueprint for successful curriculum integration for all students.

What are your best strategies for thinking outside the box in school?





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