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School District D202 administrators recommended eliminating the straight-honors level class of Freshman Humanities beginning next fall. Instead, all incoming freshman who are reading at or above grade level will be placed in 1 Humanities, and those reading below grade level will be placed in 1 Humanities with Support. 

In addition, according to the proposal presented at the Nov. 8 School Board meeting, students will have to earn honors credit based on in-class assessments, rather than be guaranteed it by placement in an honors class or level as in the past.

Administrators also proposed the same approach for 1 Biology starting in fall, 2012.

More than 100 people attended the Board meeting, where Dr. Eric Witherspoon outlined the plan to expand the restructuring of Freshman Humanities begun two years ago.  Board President Rachel Hayman announced that the Board will discuss the proposal at two more meetings, on Nov. 22 and 29, before voting on it on Dec. 13. She also noted that all documents related to the proposal are posted on the school’s website at http://www.eths.k12.il.us/superintendent makes recommendation for freshman humanities/.

Rationale for and History of Honors-Level Designation

“This recommendation will set ETHS on even a stronger pathway to achieving the highest level of attainment here at our school and to actually make sure that we benefit all students … more students than we ever have been able to before,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “Our practice has been counter to what we believe and what we want to happen for all students.”

Two years ago, in an effort to expose more students to honors-level work, the administration eliminated the regular level of Freshman Humanities. All Evanston Township High School freshmen who scored between the 40th and 94th percentile on the EXPLORE and MAP tests were assigned to a mixed-level class where either honors or regular credit could be granted. Students with reading scores below the 40th percentile on these tests were assigned to Humanities Enriched, a remedial class, and students with reading scores above the 95th percentile were assigned to a straight-honors class.

Administrators say that the mixed-level class is taught the same curriculum as the straight honors-level class. “We have designed many common assessments. The common final exam, which is the straight-honors final exam, is the same final exam for the mixed-level classes,” says the administration’s proposal for the new approach. In previous years, regular-level students studied one curriculum, mixed-level students another, and straight-honors students yet another.

Dr. Witherspoon said that since both the straight-honors level and the mixed-level courses had the same curriculum, administrators concluded “Why wouldn’t we simply get rid of all of the strata and offer it [the curriculum] to all the students [in the same classroom]?”

He said that some students come in to the high school reading below grade level and that was the rationale for offering the course 1 Humanities with Support for those students.

Predetermination of Level Can Limit Opportunities for Advancement and Learning

Dr. Witherspoon said, “Using standardized tests to predetermine which eighth-grade students will be designated as ‘honors’ or ‘regular’ before they ever take a course at ETHS” has had the effect of excluding many students “from pathways to the high-powered advanced classes that are available to sophomores, juniors and seniors. The majority of these excluded students are non-white.”

Dr. Witherspoon emphasized that the new proposal will result in a school where “it will be harder and harder to predict how a student will do at ETHS … It won’t be based on race … but will result in high achievement for a large number of students.” 

Another advantage of the proposal will be for white students, Dr. Witherspoon said, because they will attend mixed-race classes. Those in straight honors classes tend to be predominantly white, he said, and “while they are  attending a school with a diverse student body, they are missing out on the opportunity to be in a class with students of all races, [to benefit from] the multiple perspectives that all students bring.”

Curriculum to Evolve

Board member Deborah Graham asked what kind of curriculum modifications would be made under the new proposal and challenged administrators on the topic of rigor.  “We have been talking rigor rather than walking the walk about rigor,” she said.

“We will be using the new Common Core Standards, which were just adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education [and] which are much more rigorous than before,” said Dr. Diep Ngyuen, assistant superintendent for curriculum and Instruction.

The administration’s proposal said that although much work has already been done to develop the curriculum for 1 Humanities, “additional curriculum development and curriculum mapping will be completed this year to strengthen [it].” 

According to the website of the Common Core Standards Initiative, www.corestandards.org, it is a “state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.”

The Standards “are not a curriculum,” according to the website. “They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.”

Board member Gretchen Livingston also said she agreed about the need for improved curriculum, but was “satisfied that we have a team of experts working on it.  I want to hear more about that.”

New Approach to Awarding Honors Credit

Ms. Graham also questioned the method by which honors credit will be awarded.  

Administrators said that under the new proposal, the framework used for students to earn honors credit will be based on the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) models.  Students in 1 Humanities will earn honors credit through their performance on a specific set of assessments. 

This is different from the current method of awarding honors credit. At present, students currently assigned to an honors-level class or to honors level within a mixed-level class get a “bump” of .5 points on their course grade, so an A is worth 4.5 points rather than 4.0.  Administrators say this model has “some flaws” because it “guarantees a .5 GPA enhancement independent of a student’s work … It is possible to earn an honors D.”

The proposal say two benchmark assessments will be incorporated into each quarter grade, “which will also help to determine honors credit at the end of each semester. In order for a student to earn honors credit, each benchmark assessment including the semester exam, must meet an ‘honors’-level cut score.” 

The proposal also has a requirement that “each assessment will align with the new common core standards and vertically align with Advanced Placement skills. All writing assignments will utilize 5-point trait rubrics. These rubrics, similar to those used in IB programs, articulate the depth and quality to which a student is expected to perform.  Teachers will work together with their department chairs to insure that their grading of these benchmark assessments is consistent.  This will make earning honors credit a true measure of what a student knows and is able to do.”

“We’ll be very clear about what those assessment standards are,” said Dr. Peter Bavis, associate principal, teaching/learning in response to Ms. Graham’s query.  “We will be transparent in terms of how the student will be evaluated. The teacher will scaffold instruction around what the student needs to be able to do [to earn honors credit].”

Other Board Response

Board members Mark Metz and Ms. Graham both expressed a concern about the need for differentiated instruction in a classroom with such a wide range of students.

“Any classroom teacher can tell you that there is always a spectrum of needs in a class no matter how narrowly you define it,” responded Dr. Witherspoon.  “We will provide teachers with whatever support they need to be able to successfully differentiate instruction in the classroom.”

Ms. Livingston said she had a concern about timing and process. She recalled that when Freshman Humanities was first modified two years ago, the administration had said it would be evaluated over three years. “We have had two reports,” she said. “Why aren’t we waiting to get that third report before we proceed with the recommendation?” 

“We will have had three years before we implement the new proposal,” responded Dr. Witherspoon. “We are right on schedule. I will be blunt. I believe there is an urgency to this issue. We have children coming to this school each year. We need to do better for them.”

Student Board member Joel Michael Schwartz said he had “deeply mixed” feelings about the proposal. He applauded its potential to reduce the school’s dependence on standardized tests as a placement tool, but was concerned about how the differing manner of awarding honors credit would appear on a transcript and whether or not it would be confusing to colleges.

Dr. Witherspoon said that the transcripts will look identical, but also pointed out that this might not be so much of an issue, as many colleges are not acknowledging weighted grades anymore.

 Board member Martha Burns pointed out that the Board and the District were currently engaged in discussions about race and equity and that the proposal was in part an outgrowth of this process. 

Public Comment

Public response to the proposal was mixed. Supporters of the program applauded its potential for “leveling the playing field” and “insuring that students enter ETHS on common ground.” In addition, supporters emphasized that more diverse classes have more potential for “more meaningful learning”.

Other speakers expressed support for the intent of the proposal, but questioned why the full three-year period of evaluation was not being completed before moving ahead.  Others protested “recommending a curriculum that no one has seen” and wondered about negative effects on high-achieving students. Some speakers pointed out that “not everybody makes the varsity team” or first chair in the orchestra and questioned why the classroom should be any different.