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Does bias in secondary school track recommendations change over time?

Anneke C Timmermans Hester de Boer Hilda T A Amsing Margaretha P C van der Werf

Tracked educational systems, such as many European systems for secondary education, are frequently associated with higher levels of educational inequity compared with comprehensive systems. ‘Tracking’, in education, refers to the placement of students into different school tracks, hierarchically structured by performance: students attend classes only with students whose overall academic achievement is the same as their own. The educational system in the Netherlands is highly tracked, with four vocational and two academic tracks to which students are assigned at age 12. To facilitate track placement decisions, a recommendation has to be made by the teacher at the end of primary education with regards to which secondary school track optimally fits the student, given that student’s potential. Secondary schools usually consider these recommendations carefully when assigning students to a track. Therefore, track recommendations play a decisive role: they determine future educational opportunities as well as career options. Basing track assignment decisions on teacher recommendations is a frequently debated practice among scholars, as several studies have indicated that teachers appear to be biased in their recommendations (Timmermans et al 2015; Pit‐ten Cate et al 2016). They consider not only student performance but also the students’ gender, socioeconomic status (SES) and migrant background. Bias in track recommendations may therefore be an important mechanism that contributes to educational inequity.

‘Track recommendations determine future educational opportunities and career options. Basing track assignment decisions on teacher recommendations is much-debated among scholars: studies have indicated that teachers appear to be biased in their recommendations.’

If bias in track recommendations could change over time, inequity in the educational and societal system could also change as a result. Our research team at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands therefore investigated whether bias in track recommendations in favour or against particular groups of students (according to gender, migrant background and parental education [SES]) is stable over time, or fluctuates with educational and societal developments. Our study (Timmermans et al 2018),* published in the British Educational Research Journal, was based on nine cohorts of Dutch students, numbering 63,405 in total, who were in their final year of primary education during the period from 1995–2014. Whether a recommendation was biased was determined by comparing the recommendation to the students’ performance on a standardised high-stakes achievement test.

We found average track recommendations increasing over time, while average student performance remained stable. This implied that for students with equal performance records, a student in 2014 received a higher recommendation compared with a student in 1995.

The initial positive bias towards students with a migrant background largely decreased over time. It was not so much that the recommendations received by students with migrant backgrounds decreased in absolute terms, but that the recommendations for students of Dutch origin steadily increased. The initially higher recommendations for students with migrant backgrounds could be due to positive discrimination, or to the perceived developmental potential for this group of students. Potential explanations for the later disappearance of positive bias toward minority students include growing intolerance towards Muslims and other minority groups, and the fact that policies that aimed to reduce inequity stopped considering minority students as a specific target group (after the period 1985–2007).

While girls received track recommendations that were higher than boys in 1995, this difference was very close to zero in 2014. The decrease in gender bias could be explained by a growing awareness of the ‘feminisation’ of education and the greater attention being paid to the talents and needs of boys – also known in the Netherlands as ‘the boys problem’.

With respect to SES, track recommendation bias appeared rather stable over time. Given equal performance, students from low-SES families consistently had fewer opportunities to enter the higher secondary education tracks. Differences in track recommendations may result from teachers taking into account parents’ ability and resources to support their children, and the limited power of low-SES parents’ interactions with educational professionals. Parents from higher social classes exert greater pressure on teachers to obtain recommendations for academic tracks for their children.

The previous findings of increasingly high recommendations, and the closing of the gap in recommendations related to gender and minority status, over this 20-year period have several implications. First, because of the effects on the initial placement in secondary education, the instability in track recommendation bias requires continuous monitoring. Second, the instability in track recommendation bias may also indicate that even within tracked educational systems, levels of inequity may change and are not fully caused by the system of tracking per se. Third, track recommendation bias appears very robust with respect to parental education. Without further action, teachers cannot be expected to reduce this bias just by being aware of it. And finally, it questions the practice of making placement decisions based, even in part, on teachers’ recommendations, and warrants the use of objective measures as an important source of information for placement decisions.

*This blog post is based on the article ‘Track recommendation bias: Gender, migration background and SES bias over a 20-year period in the Dutch context’ by Anneke Timmermans, Hester de Boer, Hilda Amsing and Greetje van der Werf, which is published open-access in the British Educational Research Journal.


Pit‐ten Cate I M, Krolak‐Schwerdt S and Glock S (2016) ‘Accuracy of teachers’ tracking decisions: Short‐ and long‐term effects of accountability’, European Journal of Psychology of Education 31: 225–243.

Timmermans A C, Kuyper H and van der Werf M P C (2015) ‘Accurate, inaccurate or biased teacher expectations: Do Dutch teachers differ in their expectations at the end of primary education?, British Journal of Educational Psychology 85 (4): 459–478

Timmermans A C, de Boer H, Amsing H T A and van der Werf M P C (2018) ‘Track recommendation bias: Gender, migration background and SES bias over a 20‐year period in the Dutch context’, British Educational Research Journal.