After much debate among Board members and significant support for the measure in public comment at the Nov. 21 meeting, the D202 School Board voted 5-2 to implement the earned honors credit model for biology for the fall of 2012. This completes Superintendent Eric Witherspoon’s initiative to “restructure the freshman experience” and to prepare “vastly more students … to take more rigorous courses and eliminate the racial predictability of achievement.”  Board members Deborah Graham and Jonathan Baum were the two negative votes.

Ms. Graham proposed an amendment that would have approved the measure, but delayed implementation for a year, because, she said, the delay would give the plan “a better chance of … success … We could see what’s working and what’s not working.” The proposal was voted down 5-2. 

Mr. Baum explained his opposition to the proposal. “I enthusiastically support the new curriculum … [and have] no objection to earned honors … [but] we have rejected the opportunity to learn from Freshman Humanities.”

“To approve it and then delay it for a year makes no sense,” said president Mark Metz. “We will find out things about the curriculum … and … about the classroom mix … on a continuous basis. We’re going to learn faster if we put this in place.”

Board member Gretchen Livingston supported Ms. Graham’s amendment to delay.  Although she ended up voting in favor of implementation, Ms. Livingston said she supported the delay because she believed it would provide more time for development of an evaluation plan.  However, Ms. Livingston’s influence was felt: The motion that did pass included a requirement that the Board review and approve a plan of evaluation to be developed by the administration in conjunction with outside consultants by the spring of 2012. 

Ms. Livingston announced that Professor David Figlio, the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy from Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research had agreed to assist with the evaluation plan and had already met with Dr. Witherspoon, Dr. Peter Bavis (Associate Principal for Teaching and Learning), and Board president Mark Metz. 

A striking example of support for the implementation of earned-honors biology came during public comment: Career and Technical Education and Fine Arts Department chair Shelley Gates was joined at the podium by senior District administrators as she read a statement, signed by 20 administrators, supporting “the restructuring of the freshman year in total.”

“We do this because our system is failing too many students,” Ms. Gates read.  “We do this because the earned-honors credit system rewards hard work and effective effort rather than placement and parent advocacy … because it is an innovative model that has student, teacher, administrator and Board accountability.”

Like the Freshman Humanities course implemented during the current school year, all students with reading scores on the EXPLORE or MAP tests (taken in 8th grade) at grade level and above will be assigned to a single Biology course, with a revised curriculum aligned to Advanced Placement standards, which will require them to earn honors credit through a series of common assessments.

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 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 which has eluded the District for decades.

Students assigned to the earned honors biology course will need to have EXPLORE or MAP scores that fall above the 50th percentile, whereas earned-honors humanities students includes students with scores at the 40th percentile and above. 

This change was proposed at the Nov. 7 meeting by Board member Scott Rochelle.  Administrators reviewed his recommendation and Dr. Bavis reported back on Monday that “while we continue to see the strength of the original proposal which raises expectations for all entering freshmen reading at or above grade level, we certainly can support the modifications recommended by Mr. Rochelle.”

Dr. Bavis recapped Mr. Rochelle’s justification for delaying biology for the small number of students with scores between the 40th and 49th percentiles.  “They will have freshman year to learn the expectations at the high school … as well as an additional year of reading instruction at ETHS … they will learn the importance of Effective Effort and academic perseverance … they will learn to navigate the high school … earned honors credit Humanities and how to effectively access the supports available to them at ETHS … And they will be developmentally a year older.” 

However Dr. Bavis cautioned that “we need to make sure we do not stigmatize these students who are reading at grade level by signaling to them that we have lower expectations for them. We want them to know that they will be taking our most rigorous earned honors biology curriculum as sophomores … Likewise, we know that a score from a one-time standardized test provides one measure of how a student can perform, but does not show the full potential of a student. Therefore, we should remain cautious about placing undue reliance on one standardized test.”