Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

At their Sept. 12 meeting, School District 202 Board members heard a report about the third year of the Freshman Humanities course model implemented in 2008. It seemed almost anticlimactic, since a totally new approach to the course is already being implemented this fall.

Some in the community had advocated last year that the Board wait for the third year evaluation before instituting the new approach, which, among other things, eliminated the stand-alone honors level of the course, but the School Board voted last December, amidst much controversy, to proceed. (See evanstonroundtable.com for an article about the new curriculum and the plan to evaluate it, also presented at the Sept. 12 meeting.)

The Freshman Humanities model that was in place from 2008 through this past spring eliminated the regular level of the course and limited students assigned to the stand-alone honors level to those testing at the 95th percentile or above on placement tests taken in eighth grade. All students testing from the 40th through the 94th percentile were assigned to a mixed-level class that some took for honors credit and others took for regular credit. Students testing below the 40th percentile (reading below grade level) were assigned to a Freshman Humanities course that incorporated significant literacy supports.

The Board made the decision to implement the model in 2008 in order to “prepare more students, particularly students of color, to take honors level classes and to improve the achievement of all students in English and History.” Reports at the time had indicated that the enrollment of minority students in honors classes did not reflect their representation in the overall student population. The model was then evaluated against 10 different objectives over a three-year period. The Sept. 12 report was the last of the three.

Dr. Judith Levinson, director of research, evaluation and assessment, presented the report, which did not include many revelations or differences from the evaluations of the first two years.

“Overall we’ve seen positive outcomes,” said Dr. Levinson. As a result of the model implemented over the last three years, Dr. Levinson said, more freshmen took honors level humanities, more were “exposed to the honors curriculum,” the classes were more diverse racially and socio-economically, and students who took the course for honors credit showed more improvement on standardized tests than honors students in mixed-level classes before 2008. However, student achievement, as indicated by comparing scores by each year’s cohort on standardized tests (EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT), did not improve across the board, particularly for those students taking the course for regular credit in the mixed-level class.

“It looks like the data indicates that we’re exactly in the same place for the mixed-level regular cohort particularly,” said Board member Gretchen Livingston. “My main concern revolves around achievement. That really drives what we do as a Board. We’re not doing so great with respect to that goal.” She also criticized the fact that the achievement data had not been broken down by race or socio-economic level for the presentation. “That makes it even harder to tease out where the issues are. I hope we can get some follow-up,” she said.

Dr. Levinson said the data was available and could be shared with the Board. “I have to express my frustration that we are engaging in the review after we did the restructuring,” said Board member Jonathan Baum, reflecting a position he stated last year. “There’s a lot in this report supporting the honors-only classes.”

Mr. Baum also said he was concerned that only a small number of students (26% and 18%, respectively) in support programs such as AVID and STAE seem to feel that the programs help them do well in the Humanities course.

Marcus Campbell, director of Equity and Student Supports, said this was not a surprise to him. “Students [in freshman year] lean really hard on us for math and science,” he said. “We find students set these as their priority.” However, he pointed out that the AVID and STAE programs “have a really low attrition rate” over the four years of high school, which indicated students valued the programs’ offerings.

Board member Deborah Graham said she was concerned about student motivation and teacher comfort with differentiated instruction. In particular she focused on the revised and more rigorous curriculum implemented this fall that requires students to earn honors credit thorugh academic work.

Throughout the three-year evaluation, teachers have reported that students in the mixed-level class taking the course for regular credit tended to be “somewhat motivated” (53%) or “very motivated” (35%), but no faculty members reported that regular-level students were “extremely motivated.” This was in contrast to students in the honors-only class, whom teachers described as either “very motivated” (64%) or “extremely motivated” (27%). Students in the stand-alone honors class and honors credit students in the mixed-level class were also judged to be putting forth more effort than students electing regular credit.

“When you have an earned-honors system, what are you going to do to ensure that students will be motivated enough to do what’s required?” asked Ms. Graham. “The mixed-level regular results [on motivation] are disappointing.” She also pointed out that, while two-thirds of teachers had reported they felt comfortable with their ability to differentiate instruction, the question remained: “What’s going to be done to get the people [proficient who are not now] proficient ?”

Dr. Peter Bavis, Associate Principal for Teaching and Learning, said a special strand of professional development is in place to ensure “every teacher” gets support on differentiated instruction.

Mr. Campbell said the new curriculum will address issues of student effort through “skills embedded in the course.” Previously, these were only taught in special support classes, he explained. “This helps all students,” he concluded.