A report on Evanston Township High School’s restructured freshman humanities and biology classes said it is too early to determine whether the earned-honors model is helping more students succeed in high school. The study found, however, that, to date, “not one subgroup is adversely affected by the implementation, but in fact all subgroups are equally challenged by the rigor of the course.”

An animated hour-long discussion followed the presentation at the April 21 meeting of the District 202 School Board, sparking debate on what “honors” means at ETHS and how the sophomore curriculum can be improved.

‘Restructured’ Freshman Year

This is the first year of “full implementation” of the restructured freshman year at ETHS, in which students scoring at or above certain percentiles (40th percentile in reading and 50th percentile in science) are assigned to an “earned-honors” class. Students in these classes all study the same curriculum; and students earn the honors ranking and a 0.5 bump in the grade by performing well on a series of assessments. To help students prepare for upper-level rigorous classes – honors or Advanced Placement or both – these assessments are aligned with the Common Core standards, the ACT college readiness standards and AP frameworks.  

In the freshman earned-honors program, a student who earns 320 of the possible 400 earned-honors credit points in a semester and receives a grade of C or higher for the semester will earn the honors grade bump.

Before the freshman restructuring, students were assigned to either “regular” or “honors” classes based upon their scores on the EXPLORE and MAP tests given in eighth grade.  A student in an honors class who received an A, B, C or D would receive a 0.5 bump in the grade point – making an A worth 4.5 instead of 4.0 points, for example. That same system is still followed in sophomore, junior and senior honors classes.

Carrie Levy, Ph.D., and Kate Julian, Ph.D., of the high school’s Research, Evaluation and Assessment Department prepared the report. It describes the high school’s “theory of action” – based on a problem-solving model developed at Harvard University – and “assesses progress toward realizing that theory.”

There are five components to the ETHS theory of action: 1) investment of time, personnel and resources; 2) implementation, such as “all students having the opportunity to earn honors credit”; 3) short-term outcomes, such as students’ being motivated; 4) medium-term outcomes, such as enrollment in honors classes and academic success in them; and 5) long-term outcomes, such as increased in enrollment in AP and honors classes and higher graduation rates, college acceptances and ACT and AP scores. 

Other findings of the study – based on data collected through focus groups with teachers, surveys of ninth-grade students and analyses of course enrollment, grades and test scores – were that “overall, 80% of the 2012-13 cohort earned an A, B or C in both semesters in English and history.”

The report broke down the grades by “percentile groups” for English, history and biology.

• In the “50th percentile and below” group, 76% of students earned an A, B or C in English in the first semester, and 67% earned an A, B or C in the second semester.

• In the “51st-69th percentile” group, 81 percent earned an A, B or C in English in the first semester, and 75% earned an A, B or C in the second semester.

• In the “70th-94th percentile” group and in the “95th percentile and above” group, more than 90% of students earned an A, B or C in English both semesters.

The results were similar in the history classes, Dr. Levy said.

Disaggregated by ethnicity, the data indicated that a majority of African American, Latino, and white students earned an A, B or C in both the first and second semesters in English and history, with some decreases from the first to the second semester.

• In English, the decrease was greatest for African American students – about 15 percentage points. For white and Latino students, the decrease in English was only about 2 percentage points. 

• In history, the decline between the two semesters for African American students was 9 percentage points; for Latino students, the decline was 6 percentage points and, for white students, 2 percentage points.

A majority of students who earned honors credit in at least one semester in English or history subsequently enrolled in an honors class in 10th grade, and nearly all students who earned honors credit both semesters are enrolled in an honors class, the report found.

In humanities classes, according to the report, the required amounts of reading, writing and “interacting with texts” have increased. In the biology classes, there was little evidence of differentiated instruction, and a need was seen for further professional development.

Two Board members said they appreciated the “candor” in the report.

“I appreciate the candor that, with biology teachers, there is limited evidence of the use of multiple strategies – kudos for putting that in,” said Doug Holt.

Similarly, Jonathan Baum thanked the researchers for their “candor in acknowledging that at this point we just don’t know yet if the restructuring is working or not.”

Mr. Baum referred to page 19 of the report, which said it will be important to observe the 11th-grade outcomes, and to page 13, which said, “the importance of earning honors credit in ninth grade is unknown at this time.”

Earned Honors or Not?

Mr. Baum said he felt the freshman humanities and biology classes were rigorous, but that they did not qualify as “honors” classes, because students who receive the honors grade-bump “haven’t been exposed to a greater body of knowledge,” as indicated in the College Board’s definition of an honors class. “We could simply say that we don’t do the honors thing,” he said.

The College Board states on its website: “Honors classes often offer the same curriculum as regular classes but are tailored for high-achieving students – covering additional topics or some topics in greater depth.”

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “That’s something that we will go back and talk to the teachers about.”

Assistant Superintendent Peter Bavis said, “We have to see what the long-term impacts of earning honors credit are. … The carrot of the 0.5 grade bump cannot be underestimated.”

 Dr. Bavis said in the earned-honors program certain things are “guaranteed”: literary analysis, document-based questions, writing to specific standards and a common grading scale – and “our semester exams are phenomenal. The statistical analysis puts them above the reliability of an AP exam.”

Mark Metz said, “It seems to me that every student is taking an honors course – so maybe every student ought to have it marked [e.g., with an asterisk on the transcript]. I’ve never been a fan of these grade-point bumps. But I wouldn’t want to throw it out until we understand whether this is a significant incentive that actually helps students and propels them to succeed at a higher level.”

Assistant Superintendent Marcus Campbell said that, when the courses were being designed, “the teachers wanted to make sure that, if we were going to call it ‘honors,’ the kids were mastering the writing and research skills to move on to the next level.” He said he believed there is an argument to be made “that a kid who demonstrated mastery of these assessments … had a deeper engagement with the curriculum [than] a student exposed to honors-level content but who did not master it.”

Board member Scott Rochelle said, “I hear a difference between the student who takes a different curriculum [as in sophomore honors classes] and a student who excels at a curriculum [as in the freshman earned-honors classes]. I’m trying to figure out what the school’s philosophy is. … [T]he kid who gets a D in [the earned-honors] class is in essence still taking the same course as the kid who gets an A. [I]n essence the kid still has gotten a D in an honors course [under the earned-honors program], but the kids who gets the A gets the 0.5.

“So, through the College Board’s idea, everyone should get the 0.5, because everyone’s taking that rigorous course. What I’m hearing is that the school’s perspective is that everyone is taking the same course but we’re giving an extra 0.5 to those who do better. Do you see that’s a difference in philosophies? I’m trying to pin down what our philosophy is on honors credit.”

Dr. Bavis said there are two philosophies at ETHS: one for freshmen and another for the other grades. “Our philosophy for freshman year is pretty clear. It’s how well you do with the course assessment and how well you do in the course as a whole. That’s not consistent when you get beyond freshman year [where students in honors classes get the bump regardless of the grade]. … One thing I can tell you is, through the alignment of those assessments to AP [standards] we are preparing more students. … We’ve been told to wait and see how it plays out with long-term objectives.”

A Slumping Sophomore Curriculum?

The earned-honors program currently covers only freshman year. Students are “sorted into sophomore year,” Dr. Bavis said, based on how they performed as freshmen.

“In history, we’re working with the old mixed-level model, with regular and honors students in the same classes and with no opportunity [for regular-level students] to earn honors credit,” Dr. Bavis said, but added the administration is strengthening the history curriculum, adding some research and more document-based questions.

Board member Pat Savage-Williams said she hoped that the sophomore curriculum offered enough rigor so students would keep the skills they learned freshman year and be prepared for honors and AP classes.

“If we’re going to expect kids [who do not go on to honors classes] to hold onto [skills gained freshman year]  we … have to be sure … staff will collaborate … and that teachers have the opportunity to take advantage of professional development,” Ms. Savage-Williams said.

Dr. Bavis said teachers are collaborating on that level. He also said, “There is a different pace to freshman humanities classes, an underlying dynamic tension and sense of urgency because of the high stakes – of being able to earn honors credit – that is lacking in the classes where students already know whether or not they will receive honors credit.”

“I think we’re missing something if we don’t have that kind of challenge – an urgency, consistency, quality control – at 10th-grade level,” said Dr. Witherspoon. He said he did not think that the same high expectations for freshmen held true in sophomore year.

Board President Gretchen Livingston said she was “slightly mystified” by some of the comments made by Dr. Bavis and Dr. Witherspoon. She said that since shortly after she joined the Board, “I have complained ad nauseam about our deficiencies in our sophomore year.”

The complaints, she said, were “principally focused on the curriculum and the sort of vague notion of rigor, as that term is thrown around. … So I’m sitting here listening to some complaints from our administration about the sophomore year – which is interesting to hear because I haven’t heard them phrased quite the way I’m hearing them tonight, in the five years I’ve been on the Board.

“And I’m also sort of curious as to why we are not doing changes in our curriculum, why we aren’t doing the very kind of things you’ve identified. … This conversation has highlighted … sophomore year and what I think Jonathan has aptly identified as a problem in name [honors]. This earned-honors designation is confusing [and] troubling … but it’s promoted some good discussion.”

Enumerating some proposed changes in sophomore year, such as improved curriculum, grading, teacher collaboration and professional development, Ms. Livingston said, “Go for it. You should have done it three or four years ago in conjunction with the freshman [restructuring], in my view.”

Dr. Bavis responded that several improvements to the history curriculum have already been made.

“We have amped up the sophomore history curriculum. … We’ve prepared some [sophomore] students to take the World History AP exam. … What is missing, I would say, is that we have a focus for students in that freshman earned-honors credit model. … The earned-honors-credit model is the reason we’re having this conversation – and we don’t have it sophomore year. So we have to deal with that.”

Board member Bill Geiger asked administrators, “Do you have any recommendations for us, the Board, to implement this goal?”

Dr. Bavis said, “One of the things I think we need is continued resources for academic support programs [and] for professional development.”

What Success Looks Like

Mr. Holt asked what the administration thought success would look like.

Dr. David Figlio of Northwestern University, who consulted on the earned-honors evaluation and report, said, “Next year you’re going to start seeing some early indicators [about the success of the program]” and offered some things to consider.

“The outcomes we really do care about are the long-term outcomes: What is happening to the kids at the 95th percentile? We know they have succeeded at the high-school level. I suspect they’re going to … go to [highly selective] universities…. If, after the [freshman restructuring] those things are no longer true or are true to a lesser degree, then that is a concern.

“Look at the kids who were largely foreclosed from the opportunity to receive honors credit. Are we observing improvement? Are they taking AP courses? Are they succeeding in AP courses? Are they going to selective colleges? If the answer is no, that would be a concern. It would suggest that the short-term process and effects are there but the long-term evaluative effects are not,” Dr. Figlio said.

The ⁉nverse†Gender Gap

 “Do we cater to girls more than boys?” asked Board member Doug Holt. He was referring to the finding that “overall and across EXPLORE groups, a greater percent of female students earned an A, B or C in both semesters than male students in both English and history. In general, about 90% of females earned an A, B or C in the first semester and about 83% earned an A, B or C in the second semester; compared to 85% of males in the first semester and about 80% of males in the second semester.”

Assistant Superintendent Peter Bavis said, “I was kind of surprised by that. … The gender gap is persistent across the [classes]. It’s in inverse gender gap.”

Dr. David Figlio of Northwestern University’s School of Social Policy and Education, who served as a consultant on the evaluation report, said, “A gender gap where girls are outperforming boys is not [unique] to ETHS. … Girls are cleaning boys’ clocks around the world in these classrooms. When I look at the gender gap, I see these numbers as exposing a gap that was always present.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...