Continuing the efforts of School District 202 to “prepare students to take challenging courses during their four years in high school,” at the Oct. 24 School Board meeting Superintendent Eric Witherspoon recommended adoption of a “revised, more rigorous, more engaging earned-honors-credit biology course, which most students take their freshman year.”

Last year, the School Board voted to implement a similar approach to freshman humanities in which all students with reading scores on the EXPLORE or MAP tests (taken in eighth grade) above the 40th percentile (considered grade level at Evanston Township High School) are assigned to a single course that requires them to earn honors credit through a series of common assessments. Students with reading scores below the 40th percentile take freshman humanities as well, but are provided with additional supports.

The proposal to change the approach to freshman humanities included an intent to implement a similar structure for biology in the fall of the 2012-2013 school year.Rationale for the New Freshman
Biology Curriculum

“It’s unusual for the Board to vote on curriculum,” Board President Mark Metz reminded his colleagues. “It isn’t in our area of expertise, … but this [proposal] changes not only curriculum but who’s in what class – it goes directly to our goals … eliminating disparity of achievement by race.”

By placing all students who are reading at grade level and above in the same class and providing them with the same curriculum that requires them to earn honors credit through a series of common assessments evaluated against a standard rubric, administrators say they believe that minority students will not only seek to take more challenging courses later in high school but also improve their performance in those courses and on standardized tests, an objective that has eluded the District for decades.

“In [the] restructured biology classes, freshmen will earn honors credit based on the quality of their work throughout the semester,” Dr. Witherspoon elaborated. “The work we have done in earned-honors humanities informs our work. Previously, the designation of honors was based on placement criteria and did not take into consideration how students performed in class,” he said.

Currently, freshman biology has five levels: general, regular, mixed-level regular, mixed-level honors and honors. According to data provided at the Board meeting, the stand-alone honors level is composed of students testing above the 90th percentile and is about 76% white, significantly above the overall representation of white students in the school (45%). Mixed- level is made up of students above the 50th percentile: 55% of mixed-level honors students are white, as are 31% of mixed-level regular students. Only 11% of stand-alone regular-level students are white, as are 9% of general-level students.

Dr. Peter Bavis, associate principal for Teaching and Learning, and Terri Sowa, science department chair, both said they believed that being assigned to a regular level, even in a mixed-level class, fixed students with a label that was difficult to overcome. Students assigned to a regular level tended to stay at that level later in their high school career instead of moving into honors-level classes, they said.

“It goes to a [matter of] well-being,” said Ms. Sowa. “Anybody can do [honors work] with the right supports.” But she said that often students who were assigned to the regular level did not seek to do more and sometimes teachers would not expect it of them.

“We will ensure that the classroom will reflect [the] student body,” said Dr. Bavis, referring to the proposed structure of the new freshman biology course. “There will be enough ambiguity that will raise expectations [with] no more tags. … [We] won’t have preconceived notions about students if [they] are not assigned to [a particular] level.”

Marcus Campbell, director for Student Supports and Equity, further supported the value of the earned-honors model.

“It gets very frustrating to talk to a kid who wants to take higher-level science classes” but who has been assigned by eighth-grade test scores to a regular-level class,” Mr. Campbell said. “Having skills embedded freshman year makes it a whole lot easier,” he said.

Dr. Witherspoon outlined the components of the new curriculum in his memo to the Board. The new curriculum reflects national changes to the teaching of biology, as well, he said.

“It is critical to align our students’ first exposure to biology to what they can expect later on in high school, as well as gaining a lifelong understanding of science concepts” Dr. Witherspoon’s memo said. “To that end, this year we are aligning biology with the College Board’s newly revised Advanced Placement (AP) Biology course, focusing on the same “Big Ideas” as are taught in AP biology.”Four Big Ideas in AP Biology

The four Big Ideas in the AP biology curriculum, as outlined by Dr. Witherspoon are as follows:

• The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.

• Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.

• Living systems store, retrieve, transmit and respond to information essential to life processes.•

• Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties.Board Discussion

Board response to the new curriculum was generally positive, although some members were concerned about doing away with the different levels without data from the newly implemented freshman humanities program upon which the biology course was modeled.

“I’m a huge fan of the earned-honors-credit model,” said Board member Rachel Hayman. She said she supported the idea of merging the different levels. “We have seen what happens to kids when they are segregated … They look around … There’s an urgency that we have to do something innovative [and] change experience of freshmen in this building,” she added.

“All of us have to approach this from a different perspective,” said Board member Martha Burns. “The data is in that says that ETHS does not educate kids of color … With the money we have, with the level of education [of our teachers] – it doesn’t line up … There are white and black people still who don’t believe that kids of color can reach high levels of achievement. Since Dr. Witherspoon has come here … he is doing something that will change that.”

“I love the curriculum,” said Board member Scott Rochelle. “However, I have some concerns. Is our goal going to be to increase the number of students taking honors and AP classes or is our goal to increase the performance of students taking these courses?”

Mr. Rochelle also said he was concerned about the students at the lower end of the testing range. “I want to represent the students who may burn out. I haven’t seen data to convince me to change who is in the classes.” Board member Jonathan Baum agreed with Mr. Rochelle.

“We should have more rigor at every level,” he said, referring to the proposed changes in the curriculum, “but it’s not rigorous to replicate a model [before] we know it works. We could beef up the curriculum without making the other changes.”

Mr. Metz said the earned-honors-credit proposal was an integral part of the new curriculum and that this approach would not work under the current structure of awarding honors credit based on the level to which a student was assigned.

“This is a totally different concept,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “This is not a mixed-level proposal. [Our goal is] to challenge students [with a] very professionally designed [assessment process]. This is about how we set students up for more success,” he added. He told the Board, “If we get into the course and find students drowning,” changes would be made to the approach.

Mr. Metz said the freshman biology proposal was originally slated to appear for a vote at the Nov. 7 meeting, but he left the possibility open that there might be further discussion before bringing it to a vote.