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Each school year brings new enthusiasm and new opportunities. With 98 percent of our graduating class now taking the ACT college entrance examination, compared to just 49 percent of the graduating seniors nationally, ACT achievement at Evanston Township High School continues to be very strong, some of the most notable ACT achievement in the history of our school. Even with our students in the bottom of their class now taking the college entrance exam, we exceed state and national results.

However, our results on the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) required by the State of Illinois have not been as notable. This state exam is Illinois’s academic barometer required by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The ACT results are half of the PSAE assessment, and our students do well on the ACT. But our students do not do as well on the WorkKeys assessment that is the other component of the PSAE calculation. The WorkKeys assessment is a different type of test, one that measures workplace readiness skills in reading and math. While some of our student groups have achieved gains since the inception of the PSAE in 2004, we continue to see discouraging dips and disappointing results with very little gain.

While one component of one standardized test should not be the only credible measure of student progress, these results must change. We have high expectations for every student to meet the WorkKeys proficiencies, but we, like many other schools, are still far from reaching that goal. At ETHS, we are determined to make the necessary changes so all our students achieve proficiency. We cannot keep doing what we have always done and expect better results. Therefore, we are making needed changes.

We have learned that adding more programs will not foster the high academic achievement we expect for all of our students. We must change structures at ETHS to increase expectations and opportunities for all students. We cannot continue to relegate many students to less-challenging courses and then expect them to reach high levels of proficiency on the PSAE by their junior year of high school. That doesn’t work.

The 2011-12 school year marks a breakthrough year in our freshman structure and curriculum, a significant systemic change aimed at empowering all students to achieve academically as our community expects. We have redesigned the freshman year. We have done groundbreaking curriculum-work to make ninth grade a more rigorous academic experience that prepares freshmen for a successful four-year high school learning experience, where more students will be prepared to successfully complete honors requirements.

Our new Freshman Humanities curriculum, which includes interdisciplinary English and history classes that all freshmen must take, is now tightly aligned with the demanding Common Core Standards being adopted by most states and with Advanced Placement (AP) expectations. This will better prepare our students to take more challenging classes during their four years at ETHS. By offering Freshman Humanities at the honors level, where honors credit must be earned, we are ratcheting up expectations for everyone and beginning to address the shortcomings of how honors credit was traditionally determined in mixed-level classes. 

To redesign Freshman Humanities, teachers used best practices to develop a curriculum aligned with rigorous Common Core Standards and AP expectations that builds multiple global perspectives. The new curriculum sets high standards for earning honors credit. Freshmen will take honors assessments that include document-based questions, research projects, essays, applied reading, analytic papers, and a writing competency assessment. Clear and challenging rubrics have been established with clear targets for earning honors credit. The new curriculum requires research, three novels instead of one, and the nationally validated World History for Us All. The curriculum is rigorous with differentiated instruction to support higher student achievement.

Our teachers have broken new ground in curriculum development at ETHS to make the freshman experience highly academic and challenging while clearly defining honors-level achievement. Our Freshman Humanities redesign will serve as a template for reinvigorating our curriculum and increasing expectations throughout ETHS in the coming years. Similar curricular upgrades are already well under development in biology, another course that many freshmen take, and our biology teachers are deeply engaged in in-depth curriculum work to further upgrade the freshman academic experience at ETHS. In the coming years, we can look forward to a restructured school where eventually an entire entering class of freshmen will experience three successive years of challenging classes and high impact learning before they take the PSAE as juniors.

This is, indeed, a breakthrough year. And all our students will be the beneficiaries.