The District 65 School Board held a lively, at times contentious, discussion about a pilot program established this year at King Lab and Bessie Rhodes magnet schools. This year the pilot collapses Algebra I (viewed as an honors or accelerated math program) with Algebra 8.

In a memo to the Board, administrators say that with the adoption of the common core standards, “the learning goals for Algebra I and Algebra 8 are the same.” The memo continues, “Research indicates that achievement (ability) grouping has no effect on student outcomes if teachers treat mixed-ability groups as high ability groups, and some within-class achievement (ability) grouping is used.”

The pilot had not previously been discussed or approved by the Board, but the Board’s policy committee had discussed on two occasions the administration’s goals to limit acceleration to algebra placements at grades 7 and 8 in 2013-14, and to combine Algebra I and Algebra 8 in 2014-15. Some members of the Policy Committee opposed the plan. See article, “At District 65, A Tug-of-War on Math Acceleration,” June 21 issue of the RoundTable.

It appears that the pilot is a first step in a plan to limit acceleration in the math program and to collapse Algebra I and Algebra 8 throughout the District.

On Sept. 24, several Board members opposed eliminating an accelerated class for students and expressed concerns about the District’s ability to meet the needs of all students through differentiated instruction in classes that might consist of 30 students.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy staked out his position that ability grouping in math should end because, he said, it sets low expectations for students in the non-accelerated classes. He said the achievement gap would not be closed as long as there was ability grouping.

Some Board members questioned whether the new model would in fact benefit all students, including students who typically were in Algebra 8, the non-accelerated class. They asked for data that could be used to evaluate the pilot and made clear that they wanted to be involved in any decision to expand the program to the middle schools.

The Rational and the Concerns

The memo reports that 82% of the students who take Algebra I at District 65 enroll in Geometry Honors as their next course at the Evanston Township High School. By contrast,17% of the students who take Algebra 8 at District 65 take Geometry Honors as their next course at ETHS and 33% take Geometry; 11% take Algebra I Honors, 20% take Algebra I, and 29% take Algebra I with support.

The rationale for collapsing Algebra I and Algebra 8 at District 65 is that more students will be exposed to a rigorous algebra course, and more students who currently take Algebra 8 at District 65 would enroll in higher level math courses at ETHS.

Eileen Budde, a math teacher and member of the School Board, asked about the evaluation plan for the pilot program, and said she thought the plan should include an analysis of how students perform when they go to ETHS.

Susan Farrand, math curriculum coordinator, said, “The pilot is only three weeks old at this stage, so right now we’re just thinking about how we’re going to evaluate year one.” She said this year they would compare the achievement of students in the algebra pilot with the achievement of students who were not in pilot. “The next thing is when they are ETHS freshmen. Once they get there we can think about how we track them for a longer time,” said Ms. Farrand.

Ms. Budde said, “I’m struggling with imagining the Algebra 8 kids being able to handle the honors level algebra without a lot of scaffolding, a lot of extra attention. I wonder if we’ve thought through plans for that.”

“If learning goals are the same and we teach to the top, we recognize scaffolding will be necessary for some kids,” Ms. Farrand continued. “But our goal is to make sure we are teaching to the top with scaffolding, rather than teaching to the bottom.”

Board member Tracy Quattrocki raised a concern expressed in a report on the parent survey that differentiation of instruction is difficult in large classes and that differentiation in the middle schools is not meeting the needs of all students. She asked about the size of the classes in the pilot program.

“The range is 13 to 20 students,” said Ms. Farrand.

Nichols Middle School has algebra classes of 30 or more students, said Ms. Quattrocki, adding, “It will be difficult to extrapolate from the pilot to the bigger middle school classes, where we have classroom management issues and much bigger classes.”

“At the middle school level, we’re not seeing that differentiation, and it really does give you pause putting all those kids together when we’re not being as successful in differentiation in the middle schools as we are in the elementary schools,” Ms. Quattrocki continued. “We haven’t really tackled it in language arts, so I would be very worried to then try to address it in math before we have tackled it in language arts.”

Dr. Murphy said, “The idea here is the strategy for instruction has to shift. For students who we thought would not be capable of achieving and growing at a more rapid rate, the strategy is to teach to the top, which means there are high expectations for all students to begin with.”

Ms. Budde said, “But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have ability grouping. I think we’re taking an ideological stance against ability grouping. I’d like to see the research you cited that achievement ability grouping has no effect on student outcomes.”

“My experience as a teacher makes me worry about the chance of success,” said Ms. Budde. “When I teach an Algebra I course, I can teach it at a far higher level if I have a limited ability range, and I can do a lot more service for kids who struggle if they’re grouped together with their peers in terms of the scaffolding they need. It’s quite a challenge to differentiate the whole range of abilities. So I’m hoping we can be cautious.

“I’m glad it’s a pilot and we get the data and see how they succeed over the long term before we make any decisions that would potentially hurt the kids who might go on to be our scientists or engineers to save an ideological goal that everyone should be doing exactly this same thing,” Ms. Budde added.

Dr. Murphy responded, “I would be satisfied if the ideological goal would shift so that it’s not predictable who goes on to be scientists or engineers and who doesn’t.” He said, “The students who are accelerating are by and large not African American or Latino or on free- and reduced-fee lunch. What we’d like to do is change the distribution so, if we can do that, all students are accelerating. That’s obviously the goal. But if we can’t do that, we can at least change the disparity between what types of students are accelerating and those that are not.”

“I think acceleration should be color blind,” said Ms. Budde. “I don’t want to ruin the opportunity to accelerate any kid.” She suggested the District make sure it is preparing students at the second-, third- and fourth-grade levels.

Dr. Murphy made clear his desire to do away with ability grouping. “We won’t close the achievement gap until we do away with ability grouping,” he said. “Ability grouping is at the heart of expectations.

“What we’re talking about is an approach where we are not engaging in ability grouping and we’re giving all students the opportunity to be taught with the highest ability grouping and very challenging instruction,” Dr. Murphy added.

“It’s really about having a class of 30 students,” Ms. Quattrocki said. “We may not be able to do what we’re really intending to do.” She said if teachers teach to the top in large classes, struggling students may be held back, or maybe students in the middle may held back. “This is about every kid,” she said.

To assess the impact of ability-grouping, Ms. Quattrocki asked the District to provide an analysis comparing the achievement of District 65 middle-school students in language arts, where there is no ability grouping with their achievement in math where there is ability grouping.

On the 2011 ISATs, District 65 African American third-graders scored at the 38th percentile (among all Illinois students taking the test) in reading and the 41st percentile in math, and African American eighth-graders scored at the 53rd percentile in both reading and math.

Kim Weaver said, “I think your [Ms. Quattrocki’s] class-size piece is very well taken. We may decide the best class size for this is 15-20 students.”

Board President Katie Bailey said, “I’ve talked to math teachers who are whole-heartedly in support of this. I think it’s great.” She, too, though, expressed a concern about large class sizes.

She added, “What I’m hearing the Board say is yes they agree with the [pilot], but they want to make sure that we’re tracking achievement not just at one point in time, but we’re seeing how those children are doing while at the high school. … We think class sizes of 30 or 31 are too much.”

Dr. Murphy urged that the District not wait to examine student outcomes at the high school, because that would delay the expansion of the pilot to the middle schools.

The Board did not agree to that, but Ms. Bailey said Board members, as always, would be willing to discuss any proposal brought before them by the administration. Ms. Bailey said, though, that the Board wanted to see the achievement data, the research about ability grouping, and a plan for any expansion of the program that included class sizes and financial implications. She also said the Board wanted to be involved in any decision to expand the pilot.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...