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On May 26 the District 202 School Board heard an evaluation of the new Freshman Humanities program at Evanston Township High School. The program was launched last fall after significant community discussion and Board deliberation.

“There are two overall goals of the Humanities program,” said Dr. Judith Levinson, director of research, evaluation and assessment: “to prepare more students for honors, particularly students of color, and to improve the achievement of all students in English and history.”

The report showed a substantial increase in the percentage of minority students exposed to honors-level work in the Freshman Humanities program, but only a modest increase in the percentage of those students taking the courses for honors credit.

Students and teacher views were mixed and, at time, conflicting, concerning the rigor of the work and the amount of student effort and motivation. Ninety-four percent of teachers said they believed the mixed-level classses were at least “somewhat effective.”

“This is year one of a three-year evaluation,” Dr. Levinson said. “It represents preliminary findings.”

Program Background

The Freshman Humanities program has three levels: straight honors, mixed-level and enriched. Students in straight honors have tested at the 95th percentile or above; students in enriched have tested below the 40th percentile. The rest of the students are assigned to mixed-level classes, where students can take the course for regular or honors credit.

In 2008-09, 177 students were in straight honors, 229 in mixed-level honors, 213 in mixed-level regular and 61 in enriched classes. Sixty-six other students either took a special education humanities curriculum or were enrolled in an ESL version of the course (66 students). A fourth level of Freshman Humanities, a stand-alone, regular-level class, was eliminated with the introduction of the new program.

The report focused only on the 619 students in the straight honors and mixed-level classes. It evaluated the program against ten objectives, as well as an additional measure, satisfaction. See sidebar.

Exposure to Honors Work, Minorities in Honors Level, Changing From Regular to Honors

Administrators maintain that by dropping the stand-alone regular level of the Freshman Humanities class and by including many of those students in a mixed-level class, more students would be “exposed” to honors-level work. The curriculum in the mixed-level classes is intended to be the same as is taught in the straight honors-level class.

The Opening School Report for 2008-2009 counts 865 freshmen: 42% were white, 38% black and 15% Hispanic. The Report does not document the number of low-income students, but the 2007-08 Illinois Report Card puts the District 202 low-income rate at 35.8%.

In the 2007-08 school year, says the Report, there were 229 students in mixed-level Humanities and 155 in straight honors – 49% of the freshmen class of 786 students. In the 2008-09 school year, 72% of the freshman class of 865 students were “exposed” to honors-level work, either in a mixed-level or a straight honors class – an increase of 23 percentage points as a result of the introduction of the new Freshman Humanities program.

The percentage of freshmen taking Humanities for honors credit also increased as a result of the new program, from 35% in 2007-08 to 47% in 2008-09.

In addition, in 2008-09 more minority and low-income students were in a classroom where honors work was being taught, even though they may not have taken the course for honors credit. From 2007-08 to 2008-09 enrollment of black students in the mixed-level course rose from 30 to 37%; Hispanic, from 12 to 14%; and low-income, from 25 to 43%.

Yet the percentage of minority students actually taking the class for honors credit in either setting did not increase significantly from 2007-08 to 2008-09. The percentage of honors students who were black remained static at 16%. The percentage of honors students who were Hispanic increased from 6 to 7%.

But over the last three years the percentage of minority students taking the course for honors credit did increase. In 2006-07, only 9% of honors students were black and 4% were Hispanic.

And the percentage of low-income students taking the course for honors credit increased over the last three years from 9% to 14% to 17%.

Diversity of Views

Students were surveyed about whether or not they thought the diversity of students in their classes exposed them “to a wide range of views,” one of the objectives of the program. Dr. Levinson said 97% of the students responded to the survey.

Almost three-quarters of students in mixed-level classes (which are 51% minority) believed the diversity of students in their class at least somewhat exposed them to a wide range of views. Only 38% of students in straight honors classes (which are 10% minority) responded that they felt this way.

All the teachers surveyed said the diversity of students had at least some effect on the diversity of views. Of 20 teachers surveyed, 90 % responded.

Rigorous, Honors-Level Curriculum For All

Administrators maintain that the Freshman Humanities class provides “the same honors-level curriculum to the mixed-level class as the straight honors class,” a situation which had not always been true in the past.

The student survey sought to determine how students rated the amount of work they were given. Most (72% to 91%) of the students in both honors and mixed-level classes reported that they were being given at least a moderate amount of work. The survey indicated the history part of the Humanities course was somewhat less demanding; 17% of mixed level and 28% of straight-honors level students said they were being given either only “some” or “very little” work.

Most students (63% to 72%), regardless of level or subject, responded in the survey that the class was at least moderately challenging. Administrators expressed some concern that one-third to one-quarter of students felt the class was either not at all challenging or only slightly challenging.

“This is something that bears more discussion,” said Dr. Levinson. “We’re not sure from this data what . . . students mean by challenge. We really need to talk to students and find out what this means for the program.”

Student Achievement and Motivation

Although one objective of the program is to improve student achievement, the concomitant introduction of an honors-level curriculum for all is believed to have had a depressing effect on initial grade results in Freshman Humanities. Data from only mixed-level classes was presented, but both honors and regular-level students in that group saw their grades drop at the end of first semester for both English and history compared to grades of students who took the course the previous year.

For example, whereas 45% of students taking English for regular credit had an A or a B at the end of first semester in 2007-08, only 27% of that same category of students received an A or a B in the mixed-level course in 2008-09. The percentage of D/F/NC’s went from 27% to 40% for the same group.

The survey revealed big differences between student and teacher perceptions of student effort and motivation. Most students believed they had improved at least somewhat in areas such as effective effort, working in groups, organization, reading, writing and research. Most students also reported being motivated to do well and indicated that they had made at least some effort in their classes. There was relatively little difference between subject areas or between students in mixed-level or honors-only classes.

Teachers reported things quite differently. One-quarter of the teachers said their mixed-level regular-credit students were not too motivated and 70% said those same level students were only somewhat motivated. Teachers of honors-only level students characterized them as being very or extremely motivated.

A similar imbalance occurred when teachers were asked about students’ effort. Teachers judged straight honors level students to have put forth very much (30%) or a great deal of effort (70%). Only about one-third of teachers felt the mixed-level regular credit students were putting forth very much (31%) or a great deal (6%) of effort.

Finally, teachers felt that straight honors students were either very prepared or extremely prepared, whereas regular-level students were either not too prepared or only somewhat prepared.

Teachers of honors-credit students in mixed-level classes reported that those students, for the most part, fell between the regular-credit and the straight-honors students for motivation, effort and preparation.

“There needs to be some discussion … among faculty and between faculty and students about expectations and belief systems,” said Dr. Levinson, “what students believe about their own effort and performance and what teachers believe, because these are very different patterns.”

“Part of a teacher’s job is to evaluate students (and their) effort and motivation,” said Board member Deborah Graham. “Students may have a perception of themselves that’s not entirely in touch with their reality. I trust the teachers’ perspective on this issue.”

“It really occurs to me that there is a halo effect going on,” observed Board President Rachel Hayman, referring to the fact that teachers had rated the motivation of honors level students more highly than that of regular level students. “It’s hard for anybody to be objective under those circumstances. Placement tells them something. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“I do believe that students across the board are motivated in this school, they want to succeed, they want to get good grades,” said student board member Alex Block. “I just don’t know if they always know how to.”

Increase in Teacher Understanding And Use of Differentiated Instruction

Teachers in the Freshman Humanities program received 11 days of workshops on differentiated instruction. Slightly more than half of the teachers rated the professional development as “somewhat useful” About a quarter thought it was only a little useful. Most also seemed to feel that they needed more support to teach mixed-level classes.

Dr. Levinson acknowledged that the teacher survey indicated a need for more work on professional development in differentiation instruction. “The literature on professional development indicates that implementing a new teaching practice takes time and embedded support,” the evaluation report stated. “For this reason, literacy coaches and staff developers are included in the workshops and during the second half of the year, the teachers participated in lesson study which includes planning, observing and debriefing a lesson that models differentiated instruction.”

Both Dr. Levinson and Dr. Cooper announced that more detailed data on teacher experience with the professional development activities had just been received from Jessica Hockett, the consultant working with the District on differentiated instruction techniques and approaches. They said that information would be used to inform future professional development workshops and efforts.

Support Structures for Student Achievement

Several support structures were modified to help assist students in the new Humanities program, including the Freshman Reading class, Project EXCEL, AVID and STAE. “These supports focused on the pre-teaching of key concepts, explicit teaching of strategies, lessons on effective effort, and other skills needed to be successful in school,” said the report.

Teachers were surveyed about whether these supports, as well as the AM Support function of the System of Supports structure, helped students succeed in Freshman Humanities.

The most effective support was reading classes which 92% of teachers judged to be at least somewhat helpful. AVID, EXCEL, STAE and AM Support were also rated as at least somewhat helpful by between 67% and 82% of teachers responding.


Students were surveyed about their satisfaction with the course and with the level in which they were currently enrolled. On a five-point scale, with 5 being high, mixed level students’ average rating was 3.3 and honors-only students’ rating was 3.5.

Students in the stand-alone honors classes appeared to be more satisfied with their level. Their satisfaction rating averaged 4.5, while mixed-level students rated their satisfaction at 3.8. Students taking mixed-level Humanities for honors credit were more satisfied with their level (4.0) than mixed-level regular students (3.6).

Most teachers (94%) responded that the mixed-level model is at least “somewhat effective. More than half of them (59%) liked teaching mixed-level classes more than single-level classes.

Next steps

“We have begun sharing this feedback with the teachers,” stated Dr. Cooper in her introduction to the study. “The analysis of the report will support next steps including work this summer and in the next school year.”

“Our resolve is huge,” said Dr. Witherspoon, “and our collective brain power is dedicated to working on this. We think we have some good pieces, but we have work to do.”

Ten Objectives of the Freshman Humanities Program

• exposing more students to honors level classes;

• increasing the number of under-represented students in honors level classes;

• increasing the diversity of views;

• providing the same learning experience for students enrolled for regular or honors credit;

• easing the process of switching from regular level to honors level credit;

• increasing intellectual rigor;

• improving student achievement;

• encouraging and explicitly teaching students how to become successful in class;

• increasing teachers’ understanding and use of differentiated instruction;

• increasing support structures to help students achieve.