Honors for all

Honors and Advanced Placement students at Evanston Township High, a large, very diverse school near Northwestern University, tend to be white and Asian. In hopes of preparing more black and Hispanic students for high-level classes, the school may eliminate honors-only freshman humanities classes for the top 5 percent of students, reports the Chicago Tribune.  Instead, teachers are supposed to teach the honors curriculum to all students; those who do well will get honors credit. If it works well, honors biology also will be eliminated.

The new humanities class would include all students able to read at the ninth-grade level, which the high school defines as scoring at or above the 40th percentile nationally on an achievement test given to eighth-graders.

A small number of students below the 40th percentile will be in a different class, to get more help. This year, 50 students are in that support class — about 8 percent of students enrolled in all freshman humanities courses.

Some parents of high achievers say top students won’t be challenged in classes with a wide range of abilities. Other parents complain their children are excluded from honors classes based on tests taken in eighth grade.

Evanston High spends more than $20,000 per student, one of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the state, reports the Trib. “But while white students have consistently scored high enough on state tests to meet the standards, black and Latino students lag far behind, according to state data.”

Without No Child Left Behind, which forces schools to break out the performance of racial and ethnic subgroups, Evanston High would look like a high-performing school, notes Alexander Russo.

My daughter was in a mixed English class in ninth grade at Palo Alto High. She did some extra work and got honors credit; a majority of students did not do the honors work.  It worked, mostly because the range of skills wasn’t all that wide.  However, if black and Hispanic students lag far behind in K-8, I doubt they’ll be transformed by sitting in class with honors students. It will take more work in K-8 to prepare students for true honors work.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Normally I poo-poo this sort of stuff, and on balance I’m fairly certain it’s a bad idea — at least for the honors kids. But, even with all that said, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of these sorts of programs to have a beneficial effect in that they allow peer groups to develop that include both traditional “honors” students and those whose peer groups might otherwise be hostile to academics.

    Peer groups count for a *lot* in terms of how seriously kids take school.

    The real joke here, though, is how we measure grade reading level. The NAEP isn’t a bad test — although some of the questions are really terrible in the sense that they’re basically ambiguous guess-what-the-author-of-the-question-is-thinking types of questions, and their authors (the questions’ authors) often assume things that aren’t necessarily either settled or true. You can see sample questions here:


    And the sort of quality and achievement needed to pass (i.e., “at or above basic”) the exam is nearly laughable; incomplete sentences with mismatched verbs that evince some rudimentary understanding of what some words in the passage mean typically are ranked as “full comprehension”. (When you’re looking at the at-or-above basic rates for different states and districts, always keep in mind that something like 2-4% of students are excluded from taking the test in the first place because of disability or ESL status). This suggests that a lot of students who are scored “proficient” by the exam are literate only in the barest sense.

    Those who think I’m exaggerating can look here:


    The following is a response that is “Full Comprehension” of how the speaker views nature after an alligator rushes out of the water, nearly colliding with her:

    The speaker views nature as it repairs itself after something. The water healed itself, the birds in the trees, and endless waterfall.

    An actual student wasted their graphite writing that, and it was giving full credit. It’s simply a joke: there is no comprehension of what is actually going on in the poem. The student is utterly clueless that the lines in question are about the ripples in the water dying down after the passage of the alligator, and has no clear understanding of what “healed” means in the context of the poem. I would bet my left foot that the student thinks there’s actually a waterfall in the poem. (Of course, the fact that it’s not really that great of a poem might have something to do with the confusion, but there’s no accounting for the taste of those who put these tests together.)

    And these are the students that you’re going to put into an honors curriculum, where they will be expected to read 8-10 novels in a single year (and that’s just the reading for the literature portion)? That’s… ambitious.

    (Query: Is the standard for high school honors English still 8-10 novels/plays a year for four years, plus poetry, vocab, etc.? I might be a dinosaur with outdated expectations…)

  2. “It will take more work in K-8 to prepare students for true honors work.”


    It will take more work BY the K-8 kids to prepare THEMSELVES for true honors work. Education is not something done TO the students, it’s something done BY the students, which is why the hardest working students tend to get into honors. You can whine all you like that the average black or Latino kid isn’t getting into honors, but the average white or Asian kid isn’t getting in either, just the hard working ones.

    Effort will tell. “Acting white” isn’t the answer. “Acting like a student” is.

    All that dropping honors will do is relieve the guidance department of the need to tell under-prepared students’ parents that their child isn’t ready. Once again, the challenge is eliminated, the honors are diluted and the advanced placement is trashed … all to save the guidance department from having to make a an unpleasant call. The overlayment of racism in many cases doesn’t help this national problem.

    Mediocrity wins again.

  3. Every public school that eliminates tracking is just pushing more and more families who actually care about education to go private or homeschool…

  4. The k-8 curriculum and instruction appear (tutoring may be an elephant in the room) to be sufficient to prepare kids for 9th grade honors courses, IF THE STUDENTS ARE WILLING TO WORK HARD ENOUGH. I have no patience with those kids/families who have not developed the habits and behaviors that enable success and who demand placement into inappropriate courses. Allowing such placement is grossly unfair to those who have worked for years to develop the skills and knowledge necessary for real honors/AP work. All kids should be told from the beginning what they need to do to prepare themselves; if they choose to slack off, they will pay the penalty

  5. Jay Matthews has often believed and preached that “the best education for the best is the best education for all.” There is a noble and applicable component of this belief. That is why my school has open access for all honors classes. That seems to be the most effective approach. In reality, we can’t all play at the varsity level, but we all deserve the chance to try.

  6. Michael– So you’re also in favor of allowing any one who wants to to be on the football team and get equal playing time?

  7. I think everyone should have the chance to take Honors classes regardlesss of test scores. However, students should have to prove that they will do the work, in order to stay in the class. Perhaps, at the six week mark, those that either can’t or won’t do the work should be dropped into a different class that requires less work.

  8. The graphs Alexander Russo posted are curious. The Advanced Placement figures for Black, Hispanic, White add up to 99.9%, and the honors figures add up to 100%. With 3.8% Asians, wouldn’t there be some Asian students in the honors courses?

    Placement into honors courses should be done in a thoughtful manner. In theory, if all students in a grade could do the work, they should all be placed in honors courses. In practice, tracking too often seems to be used to apportion scarce resources to the children with the pushiest parents, or to create an system of “star students” whose chances of admission to elite colleges have been artificially boosted. If I recall correctly, a school system in New Jersey was caught manipulating student grades to give honors students even more of a grade bonus.


    The investigation continues, but already officials say there is evidence that some of the school’s top students had their grades altered.

    Someone accessed a student database and re-worked transcripts. In some cases deleting a “B” and putting in an “A” instead. Perhaps for as many as 60 students over a 6 year period had altered grades.

    Leron Carmel, a junior at the school, said, “The principal always talks about how our School is really good and how many get into Ivy League schools.”

  9. Curriculum and placement are different things, though. There would be nothing preventing the high school from placing students into the same groupings of “top 5%” and “above 40th percentile,” and giving both groups the same curriculum. The next year, those who had the highest achievement in the standard curriculum could be placed in the Sophomore honors group.

    As you might be able to tell, I am skeptical of a system which perpetuates distinctions between students on the basis of middle school rankings. Far too many schools do not offer academic middle school curricula. If rankings were predicated on grades which were influenced by “extra credit” projects, or non-academic factors such as decorated notebooks, they don’t predict high school performance.

  10. Diedre, did you even read what I said? I expressly argued that we can’t all play varsity, and there is no place I mentioned “equal time.” I simply said all deserve the chance to try, and open enrollment allows that. But the standards of my AP class don’t change, regardless of who’s in it. And my 93% pass rate validates my standards. And I have a few drop each semester.

  11. One point: open enrollment in Honors or AP is not the equivalent of requiring enrollment in honors or AP.

  12. The problem with open enrollment in honors or AP courses, to increase “diversity” is that there is often pressure to maintain said diversity by refusing to drop kids who can’t and/or won’t do level-appropriate work. There is pressure to “allow all to succeed,” which can’t be done without watering down the course in terms of content and/or pace. Letting in/keeping in unprepared/unwilling kids is unfair to the prepared and willing and fosters an undeserved-entitlement mentality among the former and resentment among the latter.

    I will admit that the issue of middle-school grades is valid, given the lack of academic focus at that level. I saw serious differences (not for the better) when my older kids’ 7-8 JHS became a 6-7-8 MS when my next kids arrived; all touchy-feely and artsy-crafty all the time. Maybe it’s time to look at something like the SSAT or ITBS for HS placement.

    Limetreee; a number of schools DO require honors and or AP placement, despite achievement levels far below grade-level, let alone honors. I strongly disagree with the Jay Mathews of the world that this helps such kids and harms none of the qualified.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    Maybe it’s time to look at something like the SSAT or ITBS for HS placement.

    Here’s a radical proposal. Don’t let anyone go to high school who hasn’t demonstrated that he or she can read, write, and do math at a high school level. I think this inability is the greatest frustration of my fellow high school teachers.

    However, it will do little good to just “retain” such students in eighth grade, to spend another year doing what didn’t work the year before. I would love to see an individualized transition year for all those who aren’t yet up to high school work.

  14. Cranberry said:
    “There would be nothing preventing the high school from placing students into the same groupings of “top 5%” and “above 40th percentile,” and giving both groups the same curriculum. The next year, those who had the highest achievement in the standard curriculum could be placed in the Sophomore honors group. ”

    This is exactly the situation at ETHS now. All freshman from the 40th percentile and above, including the honors track, have the same curriculum and the same teachers. This was to ensure that all students had a sufficiently rigorous curriculum. Apparently, not rigorous enough, because they are changing it again.

    It is quite apparent that they want to eliminate all honors tracks at all levels because it gives the appearance of equity. Whether it will actually help kids of color do any better is open to question.

  15. I’m sure that teachers can assign honors projects and give honors credits to students who go above and beyond, but I’m not convinced that they can teach honors subject matter to those honors students.

    My daughter is in an honors English class right now, and I can pretty much guarantee that the homework she’s doing tonight (analyzing snippets of literary criticism) is something that it would be an exercise in frustration to assign to a non-honors class, and that it would be pointless to assign to honors students without spending time in class teaching those skills prior to assigning it…the way I see it is: you can’t teach it to non-honors students (without making yourself crazy), and you can’t assign it to honors students without teaching it (they won’t get it without instruction, which you don’t have time to give, because there are all of those non honors students in the class). So, basically, this is an assignment and a skill that those honors students aren’t going to have/learn, and they will instead be given other challenging (but less substantive) assignments to do for their honors credit. The honors track will be weakened. Parents won’t notice (except for the very few who had older siblings go through the same program) because their children are still getting honors credit. The evidence won’t show up on any of the usual tests, so the administrators won’t wee a difference. The students have nothing to compare to (and are usually happier when it’s easier anyway), so they won’t know the difference (though their college teachers will). Only the teachers will know if the plan is really working or not, and they’ll be under pressure to claim that the new plan works fine.

    … I think I’m finding this plan rather depressing.

  16. Roger,

    I agree with your proposal to give 8th graders a high-stakes exit exam. As a 7th grade teacher, I would love to see a 4th grade exit exam –since a lot of my students are already egregiously unprepared for 7th grade work.

    Mom of 4,

    You are so right about the likelihood of a dumbing-down of open enrollment honors courses. In addition to the mechanisms you mention, kids have ways of exerting pressure on teachers to ease up on rigor. There’s whining. There’s the “wolf pack” –this happened in a college class I was in –where a faction of grumpy students malign the teacher outside of class and bring negative, destructive energy into the class. They can also sic their parents on the teacher –or on the principal, who is happy to tell the teacher to sacrifice rigor if it gets the parents off his back.

  17. Menlo Atherton High did something similar–instead of it being an honors class, they turned freshmen English and history classes heterogeneous. But same basic idea, which is to sacrifice the freshman class curriculum in the name of equity–that way they can claim they’ve given all kids a chance to access the honors track.

    It was a disaster; the advanced kids just counted the days until they could get into classes that didn’t have the low ability kids. I’m pretty sure the parents finally ended it, although it may still be in the protest stage.

    I don’t like the “top 5%” as determined by grades, either. But grades can be rigged; test scores can’t. So my preference, a test before school starts, will never happen.

  18. The topic here is just a new twist on a old issue, since students all learn at different speeds, trying to make a ‘one size fits all/most’ usually winds up failing. If you look at many courses in high school/college, they have requirements that must be met before a student may enroll (passing is a different issue) in the course.

    I think that we as a society have diluted the concept of ‘honors’ so much that no one takes it seriously anymore (when I got a degree in 2002, I looked at my transcript, the final GPA was 3.88, so I received a high honors distinction), but in retrospect, the focus was on actually learning and applying the material, rather than what the grades were.

    As an example, what do you call the student who graduates last in his or her class from medical school (and passes the medical board exam)? Doctor of Medicine.

  19. Roger Sweeny says:

    I’d go along with that 4th grade exit exam. Years ago there was talk about “individualized instruction”: students would move along only as they mastered content. Kids would move ahead at different rates in different subjects, though some kids would be generally faster and some kids would be generally slower.

    No one talks about it anymore because 1) it would be a logistical nightmare, 2) a significant purpose of school is social life and day care, 3) blacks and latinos would be over-represented in the slower kids and under-represented in the faster kids.

  20. Ben and Roger; you’re both right. The only hope of regaining some sort of sanity (better curriculum and instruction and demanding student effort) at the k-8 level is to have real, standardized – NOT local or state – testing for advancement; something like ITBS or SSAT. Those that don’t pass, don’t enter 7th grade or HS. Send them off to an alternative placement for intensive remediation. Also drop the mandatory schooling age to 14 or passing the 8th-grade test (as opposed to the HS entrance test). It’s time we stopped pretending that everyone should go to college. We should, however, offer real vocational programs of the types that existed up to the 60s; they also should have serious admission standards.

    Neither ability nor motivation are distributed evenly across the population and it’s time we stopped pretending otherwise. As long as kids have a fair shot, it’s up to them and their families to put in the effort. Of course, they should be told what is required for advancement, honors etc., on a frequent and regular basis , and encouraged to get there.

  21. Roger Sweeny says:

    There is another, more subtle, mechanism by which courses are dumbed down.

    We teachers are basically nice people who want our students to succeed. If we teach something and then give a test where many students do poorly, we are not happy. What can we do? We can “reteach” and/or try to do things differently until everyone does well. Depending on how well the class is getting other things and depending on how much material has to be covered, this may or may not be possible. It will certainly not be possible for everything. Besides, for the kids who “got it,” this will be boring repetition (and we may not enjoy it much, either).

    We could take the students’ advice and “scale” the test, just add some points to everyone’s score.

    We can make the following tests easier to bring up their averages.

    Next year, we can give an easier test in that unit and not expect so much from them.

    Most of us simply aren’t hard asses who will say, “These are my standards, and if a third of my students fail and another third get Cs, those are the marks I will give them and I will sleep soundly at night.”

  22. Michael E. Lopez says:


    And even those of us who are such hard asses are often put into a position where we have to choose between sleeping the sleep of the just and sleeping the sleep of the employed.

    After all, if a third of your students are failing, but only 4% of Ms. Davenport’s students next door are failing, the problem MUST be with you, and could never be with Ms. Davenport. Because Ms. Davenport’s students are all succeeding! She’s doing something right because they’re all getting A’s an B’s.

    So, Mr. Toughie McHardass gets told to get his stuff together or there won’t be a spot for him next year. “We need teachers who bring about student success,” the principal says. “We need teachers who will make me… er… make us look good!”

  23. If Ms. Davenport’s students and Roger Sweeney’s students all sat the same term-ending exams, (at best, graded by a third teacher), it would be possible to correlate one teacher’s Bs to another’s Fs. This system would protect teachers from parents, to some degree, as the grading would not be the product of a lone teacher. Ms. Davenport’s angels might turn in markedly deficient test papers, while Roger Sweeney’s students performed at a higher level.

    Momof4, the Brits had A-levels and O-levels, although they amended the system to GCSEs. To judge from British newspapers, the use of such an exam system has not led to Paradise.

    I sympathise with your sentiment of “As long as kids have a fair shot, it’s up to them and their families to put in the effort.” Unfortunately, in many ways, different parents have different resources at their command. Those resources include a knowledge of what students should learn at different grade levels, a knowledge of the administrative structure of schooling, and how to redress grievances.

    If I were constructing a high school system of classes, I would favor open enrollment, with the original placement determined by tests administered in 8th grade. Any system which aims to shelter the “top x%” is not fair to the (x+1)%.

    The proposed changes at this high school may seem to make everything “fair,” but in my opinion, they won’t. The parents who can stretch to afford private or parochial schools will pull their previously “honors” children. The children who would have been in honors classes will contend with a different peer group than they might have had. No matter how charming the geeks are, 5% does not constitute a peer group. 95% does.

  24. Michael E. Lopez says:

    No matter how charming the geeks are, 5% does not constitute a peer group. 95% does.

    Actually, based on my own experience, at a high school with (at the time) about 1200 students, my peer group was comprised of four different circles of friends, plus some asociated background associates. The total was probably around 40 students who had any significant effect on my social life whatsoever. That’s just my own experience, though.

    I would think that what constitutes a peer group is probably an absolute measure, not a percentage measure. So if you have a school with 60 students, the whole school might be your peer group. If you have a school with 3,000 students, maybe only 2% are your peer group.


    On another matter entirely — namely that of 8th grade tests for determining initial placement in high school tracks/lanes/whatever — there’s something else to think about that I don’t think anyone’s really mentioned: honors-track classes (ideally) build on each other, so it doesn’t really matter if you do well in CP English I, when you transfer to Honors English II you’re not going to be quite prepared for the work because you didn’t do as much in CP1 as they did in Honors 1.

    And it’s only going to be harder if you try to transfer from CP2 into Honors 3. The difference will be at its most pronounced if you try to transfer from CP3 to Honors 4. Such a transfer might well be impossible, because at that point you’re probably a full year’s worth of work, background knowledge, and skill training behind your colleagues/fellow students.

    It’s the old “catch up” problem, but applied to classes instead of grades: formal education is a 12-year process. If you fall behind, then you’re behind. Period. Done. Only through extraordinary, unpleasant additional efforts are you ever going to catch up again, and then after all that heroic, unpleasant work, all you’ve done is pull yourself even. And whatever you’re working on – English, Math, whatever — it still probably won’t come as naturally to you as it does to your classmates who have grown organically into their curriculum.

  25. Michael E. Lopez, how did your high school determine placement into courses? In my high school, the “honors track” students shared most of their classes. In that setting, the 5% would be a peer group. They may still be a peer group, if the math and science departments are permitted to track, due to scheduling. This, of course, leaves the kids who are strong Humanities students, but middling math students, out of the “honors” peer groupings.

    Our local public high school makes a big deal of the fact that there are no Honors classes for the humanities, as it permits them to “mix” the kids. It’s hard to develop a peer group relationship with other students if you don’t have any classes with them, and may not even share a lunch block with them.

  26. Momof4, on another aspect of tracking, you’ve suggested moving students who don’t score well on an 8th grade placement test into vocational training. The trouble with that plan is, vocational training for the modern trades is much more expensive than academic coursework. A teacher who could start working as a plumber or electrician tomorrow is in a great position to negotiate appropriate wages. The equipment costs money, and the supplies are not pencils & paper. Agricultural workers and hairdressers may be less expensive to train, but many modern vocational high schools aim to train the workers our modern economy demands. Biotech workers and technical/engineering students are in demand.

  27. First, I am in no way suggesting that vocational programs should be dumping grounds, either in terms of ability or effort. Quite the contrary; admitted students should have real academic skills in both math and reading and should receive continuing coursework in both, as well as in history etc and they should have a solid work effort. However, the focus should be more practical and less abstract than college-prep work. The vocational HS where a relative was principal (retired in the 70s) offered auto mechanics, tool and die making, sheet metal, office skills, practical nursing (students took the LPN exam at the end of senior year), cosmetology and others. In the community where I live, there’s real demand for those kinds of programs – from employers and from prospective students, who now pay (heavily) for them after HS graduation.

    Regarding peer groups, it’s unlikely that kids of widely differing academic ability and/or motivation are going to be in the same peer group unless there is another factor at work. Perhaps it is a sport, or music or Dungeons and Dragons, but like tends to attract like. In my experience and the experiences of my kids, putting kids of widely varying ability and motivation in the same class is likely to lead to mutual disdain/resentment.

  28. The vocational HS where a relative was principal (retired in the 70s) offered auto mechanics, tool and die making, sheet metal, office skills, practical nursing (students took the LPN exam at the end of senior year), cosmetology and others. In the community where I live, there’s real demand for those kinds of programs – from employers and from prospective students, who now pay (heavily) for them after HS graduation.

    And there’s no reason why students shouldn’t pay heavily for them. Vocational ed is expensive, as noted. Besides, if kids aren’t ready for high school work, then they probably don’t have the skills for voc ed. They need intensive remediation work to get them to an 8th grade level, and we can spend two years getting them to be able to read newspapers, craft a basic essay, and understand business math.

    Then they can get a diploma declaring them ready for vocational ed, and they can apply for loans, just like any other post-grad applicant. Or they can work at Home Depot.

  29. The other problem with vocational training today is that more knowledge is needed to work on things today than 30 years ago. When a auto dealership hires an automotive tech, they aren’t interested in persons who can swap out parts, but persons who can analyze, troubleshoot, and fix problems (as the service manager points out, he can get anyone to swap out parts, it takes more to actually troubleshoot a complex problem).

    This gets back to the issue of mastering basic skills of reading, writing, and math (which are sorely lacking in many high school and college graduates today).

  30. Michael E. Lopez says:


    My high school, if I am recalling correctly, let anyone into any particular honors class so long as someone signed off on it.

    If your 8th grade LA teacher signed off on your entering Honors English I, then you were in Honors English 1. Likewise, you had to get your Algebra teacher to sign you off for Honors Geometry 1.

    I seem to recall that the signatures were pretty pro forma, and that one could get into whatever honors classes one wanted to.

    But my memory is notoriously vague on points I didn’t care about at the time, and I didn’t much care about the mechanics of tracking and so forth when I was 13.

  31. I was not suggesting that voc ed was for kids unable to do HS level work. Not at all. It’s a valid option for kids who aren’t “academic” in the college-prep sense, but have aptitudes in other directions. It’s better for such kids to be working hard in areas of their interest, as opposed to wasting time drifting through a watered-down college prep curriculum and emerging with no marketable skills and unprepared for college-level work. KIds who aren’t capable of HS-level work should get some remediation, if they’re willing to work hard, and get out of school if they’re not. Stop the babysitting and stop pretending that all students are intellectually capable of dealing with abstractions (algebra, literature etc).

  32. Momof4, an interesting pattern is forming in our state. In some areas, the vocational technical high schools are held to be better than the local public high schools. Thus, the schools are able to select their students, and they’re able to eject troublemakers. This creates a virtuous cycle, in which the vocs have a better peer group, and respectable academic offerings. The very top students at the competing public high schools may look forward to “good” college outcomes, but for many students, the vocs represent a better choice.

    Near us, some school districts use the local voc tech for very technical kids, and students who are not academic. Some children who have social skills deficits have chosen to attend the voc, as the local high school’s progressive curriculum places emphasis on social skills.

    Michael E. Lopez, I’d agree that the honors classes should build on each other, but I’m not convinced they do. At the simplest level, a discussion with a class which has done the reading would be more productive than a discussion in which a few students have done the reading. I also agree that learning should be cumulative. I’m not convinced, though, that a motivated student wouldn’t be able to transfer onto the honors track in the humanities.

    As a thought experiment, would parents agree to place their children in a more demanding class, if that honors placement were NOT recorded on the transcript? I would, as my children pay more attention, and do better, when more is demanded of them.

    I think we’re using “peer group” in different ways. When you speak of “peer groups,” you’re speaking of circles of friends. People you hung out with, whose parties you attended. I’m speaking of all the other students who shared your classes, whether or not you liked them, or shared extracurricular activities with them. The quiet kid in the corner, slowly falling apart because her parents have lost their jobs, is a part of the peer group of the year book editor, if they share classes, even if they never talk.