The District 202 School Board may vote as early as next week on a proposal from the administration that would revamp the Freshman Humanities honors program beginning in 2011 and the Freshman Biology honors program the following year at Evanston Township High School.

The administration proposes to replace both the straight- and mixed-level honors classes in these courses with classes composed of students reading above the 40th percentile as measured on the eighth-grade EXPLORE test. Higher scores on that test – as well as student and parent preferences – are currently the basis for placement in straight-honors (the 95th percentile) and mixed-level classes for honors credit.

As the enormity of the proposal settles in on this community, support, praise, concern and fear have been expressed.

District 202 administrators, Board members, faculty and others who have praised the proposal have expressed their support in terms of “equity,” “race” and “access.” Concerns about the proposal have for the most part been expressed in terms of rigor and academic excellence.

Dr. Witherspoon and other ETHS administrators have said there are sufficient controls in place to ensure rigor in the classroom, uniform teaching and grading, and support for any student needing or requesting it. Differentiated instruction would be used to teach each student to his or her fullest potential.

Some aspects of the proposal concern us. One of these is whether differentiated instruction will be effectively provided to ensure a rigorous education for all students.

A recent national study sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found “more than eight in 10 (84 percent) teachers say that, in practice, differentiated instruction is difficult to implement. … From the perspective of teachers, it is easier said than done.”

If the Board approves the proposal, we think the Board and the administration have a duty to ensure that all students in the Humanities classes are in fact receiving high-level differentiated instruction. The District should continue providing teachers with professional development and ensure they have adequate common planning time to meet and consult with each other on ways to improve and enhance their instruction. The Board should also retain an independent consultant to assess the extent and the effectiveness of differentiated instruction taking place in the classrooms and to provide a report with suggestions on ways to improve it.

The Board should also determine how it will assess the program and should use formative assessments, such as the Measures of Academic Progress test, at the beginning and end of the school year to measure student progress; and it should insist on more nuanced reporting of the EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT tests, such as reporting the percentage of students, by ethnicity and income, at each scale score. The District should also start reporting the percentage of students, by ethnicity and income, meeting EXPLORE and ACT benchmarks for college readiness.

Even if initial results differ from expectations, candid, nuanced reporting and full disclosure will go far in building trust. After all, this is a pretty savvy community.

ETHS is under a restructuring mandate because not all its subgroups have met the adequate yearly progress (AYP) required by the No Child Left Behind Act. So far there has been no magic bullet to improve the performance of many low-income and minority students. This newest proposal presupposes a change of climate at ETHS (perhaps already under way there) that demands the utmost from every student and conveys that rigorous education is the best way to prepare for life after high school. A high-school diploma alone is not enough; it must be a first-class ticket to further education and training – whether college or professional or trade school or in the workforce.

ETHS is on the verge of a very bold step. With the cautions listed above, we say to the District 202 Board, “Go for it.”

Currently, substantial numbers of minority and low-income students leave District 65 not on track for college readiness, which in today’s world equates with career readiness. Likewise, substantial numbers of minority and low-income students are not on track for college or career readiness by the end of 11th grade at ETHS.

We urge District 65 and District 202 to map out a joint plan to address this urgent need. We further urge both School Boards to develop a common goal that our students be on track for college and career readiness when they graduate from District 65 and when they graduate from ETHS.

Our children deserve that much.