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Discussion of the new mixed-level Senior English class continued at the Sept. 22 School Board meeting with an after-the-fact presentation of the rationale for the move, including the results of a survey administered to participants in the pilot program of the course last year.
The mixed-level Senior English class prompted some controversy when it was broadly implemented by department chair Judith Ruhana this year without prior discussion with parents, students, the School Board or Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. A pilot program of eight mixed-level classes was conducted last year. That program was expanded this year to include all seniors not taking AP English or English electives. Students who thought they had registered for stand-alone honors or regular-level classes were included and only informed of the change during the first week of school. A similar program for Freshman Humanities implemented this year received substantial review at Board meetings and in public forums last spring.
After parent Libby Ester focused attention on the implementation during public comment at the Sept. 8 Board meeting, Dr. Witherspoon told the RoundTable that “there should have been opportunities for public discussion about changes in Senior English, and changes should have been communicated to parents and students sooner. I have taken steps to make sure that in the future, chairs follow our established process for making any significant changes in their department.”
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Laura Cooper, who worked with Ms. Ruhana on the mixed-level class, told the Board at their meeting on Sept. 22 that the reason for the change in Senior English was consistent with reasons for the change in Freshman Humanities — “that we restructure this high school . . . to ensure that all of our students, particularly our students of color, will be able to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) in the future.” She added, “We are responding to the Board’s expectations that we move more students of color . . . to have access to honors curriculum.”
Dr. Cooper further emphasized the importance of the mixed-level classes by acknowledging that “even with efforts we have made to dramatically increase rigor in regular-level classes, we have not seen improvement in achievement. We need to try other things . . . (including) an increase in the number of students in mixed-level classes.”
Finally, Dr. Cooper said the mixed-level classes would provide all students with “college readiness,” because “virtually of our students are going to post-secondary training, whether it be two-year college or four-year college.”
The decision to expand the program was based on what administrators termed a “successful” pilot consisting of 187 students in eight classes. Dr. Cooper acknowledged that “we did not see significant differences in grades achieved” between students in the mixed-level classes and those in the classes with separated levels.
However, Dr. Cooper did report on a survey that was administered to the participants in the mixed-level classes last spring. She said 75 percent of students completed the survey, which was both quantitative and qualitative in nature. She summarized both the quantitative and the qualitative results for the Board.
Although the public did not receive copies of the survey or its results at the Board meeting, as has been the case with previous analyses, the RoundTable obtained the quantitative results from administrators.
The demographics for the mixed level pilots were as follows:
White, 35%; Black, 38%; Native American 1%; Asian 8%; Hispanic, 11%; Multiracial 7%.
According to the ETHS website, District 202’s enrollment demographics are as follows: White, 47.4%; Black, 36.3%; Native American, .1%; Asian, 3.1%; Hispanic, 10.7% Multiracial, 2.9
Choice of Level
In a mixed-level class, students are permitted to change the level, regular or honors, in which they wish to be placed. Administration officials often say mixed classes encourage more students to choose honors-level work. However, this was not the case with the pilot.
According to the survey, when students first registered for the class, 30 percent of them registered for regular and 70 percent for honors credit. At the end of first semester 47 percent were registered for regular-level and only 53 percent for honors-level credit. Dr. Cooper attributed some of this trend to “senioritis.” In addition, Dr. Cooper said the honors-level credit had required a portfolio that “didn’t work so well.”
Students were asked, “How challenging would you rate your English class this year?”
Not at all challenging 2%
Only a little challenging 22%
Somewhat challenging 53%
Very challenging 23%
Students were asked, “How would you rate the effort you put forth for this English class?”
None at all 1%
They were also asked, “Compared to your junior English course (which could have been a straight honors or regular class, although those respondents were not identified) did this course require…”
Less effort 18%
Same effort 36%
More effort 47%
Board member Margaret Lurie asked if Dr. Cooper felt satisfied that honors students were sufficiently challenged in this class.
“I think we need to keep looking at that,” said Dr. Cooper. “All of the students need to be challenged to go deeper.”
Finally, students were asked if the course should be offered again as a mixed-level class.
Ms. Lurie commented that “whenever it (the advantages of mixed-level classes) is presented, it’s presented as something that is good for the low-achieving students. I just wanted to know what’s in it for the high-achieving students.”
“It comes up a lot, whether or not high-achieving students will lose something as a result of being in a mixed class,” said President Martha Burns. “I think they gain something in terms of the rich discussion that takes place in terms of broadening their perspective.”
Dr. Cooper remarked that “many of the students” did mention “the value of the diversity of the class” in their qualitative responses to the survey.
PTSA to Sponsor Forum on Mixed Level ClassesThe ETHS PTSA will host a program at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 6 on “”Mixed-Level and Honors-Only Classes at ETHS: The Past, The Present and The Future.””
PTSA Co-President Deborah Graham told the RoundTable she hoped the meeting would provide information and an opportunity for communication. “”There have been so many curriculum changes at ETHS recently that we wanted to provide an opportunity for parents to become more informed and also to provide input.””
This community forum will feature ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon and other ETHS faculty who will discuss the history of mixed-level classes and honors-only classes at ETHS (including research/data supporting the recent expansion of mixed-level classes); the current status of mixed-level and honors-only classes at ETHS (including the implementation of changes made this year to freshman humanities classes); and plans for the future.
Parents and other attendees will be able to ask questions of Dr. Witherspoon and other ETHS administrators and will have a chance to share their own experiences and perspectives.
The program will be held in Room A241 at ETHS.