‘You can get smarter’

Evanston is a Chicago suburb with one very large high school. It enrolls the children of doctors, lawyers and Northwestern professors. It enrolls students from low-income and working-class families. Half are white or Asian-American and half are black or Latino. 

When Eric Witherspoon took over as superintendent of the district, he saw a very integrated school with segregated classrooms, reports Sophie Quinton in National Journal. “Our Advanced Placement classes were disproportionately white, and our classes for struggling students were disproportionately nonwhite,” says Witherspoon.

Team ASAP (Access and Success in Advanced Placement) tout AP classes at Evanston High

Team ASAP (Access and Success in Advanced Placement) members encourage Evanston students to choose AP classes.

Evanston High has expanded academic supports, such as AVID, study centers, early morning and Saturday study sessions. In 2010, honors humanities was opened to all ninth graders. Those who do well earn honors credit and prepare for Advanced Placement work. Other students earn credit for a regular class.

My daughter’s ninth-grade English class (aka “Critical Thinking”) was an honors class for students who chose to do extra work and a regular class for others. It worked well — because the spread wasn’t all that great between the two groups.

Honor students’ parents protested, fearing the courses would be watered down, but “earned honors’ has expanded to ninth-grade science.

The school, which is very well funded, has invested in training teachers how to teach mixed-level classes and how to have “constructive conversations” about race. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has talked to staff about cultivating a “growth mindset,” the belief that you can improve, if you work hard enough.

The belief that “intelligence is malleable” has taken root, says Witherspoon.

“You can get smarter,” he says, banging his hands on the table for emphasis.

. . . Nine years ago, about 38 percent of juniors and seniors had taken at least one AP exam, and 77 percent of tests earned a passing grade or higher. Last year, 64 percent of juniors and seniors took at least one AP exam, and 71 percent of tests earned a passing grade or higher.

In the class of 2014, 88 percent of white graduates, 82 percent of Asians, 60 percent of Latinos and 44 percent of African-Americans took at least one AP exam.

Equal access — or punishing achievers?

In pushing for “equal access” to gifted classes, honors tracks and Advanced Placement, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is punishing achievement, charges Checker Finn in Education Next.  Even separating first graders into reading groups may be suspect. What if there are more Asian than Hispanic bluebirds?

 . . . the U.S. is already having huge trouble paying attention to high achievers (some say “gifted and talented”) when we’re preoccupied with low achievers and dire schools. Anything that discourages such attention is bad for American economic growth and competitiveness, not to mention unfair to kids who are ready, willing, and able to soar but have trouble getting the teacher’s attention.

“Old-style tracking led to a lot of dead ends,” Finn concedes. But not every students has the motivation or preparation to succeed in AP courses. Some would prefer “high-quality career and technical education,” if they had the choice.

. . . we want to see more minority kids succeed in AP classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, just as we want to see more boys succeed in English and girls in physics. Insofar as the education system is capable of achieving these goals, however, it needs to strive comprehensively from kindergarten (or preschool) onward. Swatting high schools because elementary schools didn’t send them an ethnically balanced collection of kids ready for AP and IB does not accomplish any educationally desirable end.

Integrated schools could lose their middle-class students, warns Finn. If advanced classes are watered down to accommodate less-prepared students, achievers’ parents will look for challenge elsewhere.

Tracking in Middle School can promote equity by better preparing low-income, black and Latino achievers for AP courses, argues Brookings’ researcher Tom Loveless.

At 19 Baltimore high schools, few AP Bio students pass the AP exam (Photo: Baltimore Sun)

In Baltimore, thousands of low-income students earn A’s and B’s in AP classes, then fail the AP exams and place into remedial courses in college, notes Loveless, citing a Baltimore Sun story. Students have access to AP, but not the preparation they need to succeed.

Accelerated and enriched classes help high achievers learn even more, his research has shown. Yet high-poverty middle schools typically leave achievers isn the same classes as low-performing students. “It’s an injustice,” said Loveless at Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference.

AP overload?

“Some parents, educators and even university admissions officers are rethinking the role of AP classes,” reports the Baltimore Sun. Achievers are overloaded, while poorly prepared students at low-performing schools often “flounder and fail” when pushed into AP, writes the Sun.

“The relentless marketing effort by many principals to place a greater number of kids into a greater number of AP classes — all in a single semester, as early in a student’s career as possible — is backfiring,” said Mary Ellen Pease, a co-founder of Advocates for Better Course Choices in Baltimore County Public Schools and the parent of two recent county graduates.

Dulaney High offers 25 AP courses, but fewer honors classes. The remaining honors classes “often are too easy and are taken by students who are struggling to pass,” say AP students. 

Sixty percent of applicants to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have taken 10 to 12 AP classes. Freshmen-year grades go up for each AP course up to five, then level off, the university found. It’s telling applicants they’ll get no advantage from taking more than five APs.

(Admissions director Steve) Farmer hopes the new policy will encourage students to be more thoughtful about their high school education, taking advanced courses they care about while leaving time for “reading the newspaper or learning to play the banjo or becoming a healthier or more interesting person.”

The top reason for taking AP classes is to raise admission odds, not to save on college tuition, said students in a College Board survey. 



Honors programs cut college costs

Dual enrollment, AP classes and community college honors programs can curb college costs and raise graduation rates, writes Chris Romer, co-founder of American Honors.

Sixty percent of students seeking a bachelor’s degree reach their goal in eight years; 38 percent seeking an associate degree graduate in four years.

Teachers lay blame for finals failures

In a suburban Maryland county known for high-performing schools, 62 percent of students flunked their geometry finals in January, 57 percent failed their Algebra 2 exams and 48 percent earned F’s on the precalculus final, reports the Washington Post.

Montgomery County high schools give the same math exams:  For the last five years, results have been poor countywide, though worse at some schools.

Under county policy, students can fail the final but pass the course.

For example, with C’s in each of a semester’s two quarters, an E on the final exam would still result in a C for the course. A student with two B’s going into the final exam needs only a D or better on the test to maintain a B for the course, according to the chart. The exam, worth 25 percent of a course grade, holds sway but can be greatly outmatched by daily classroom performance over time.

“Maybe the teenagers are blowing it off because the district is blowing it off,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies student achievement. “If the district doesn’t take the exams seriously, I don’t understand why they give them.”

Failure rates are high in biology, English and history finals as well.

Math teachers at Poolesville High school start their list of causes with acceleration of students through math to meet “unrealistic targets.”  Too many students don’t fully understand math, the teachers write.

Honors math courses are not substantively different from regular courses (to allow greater upward mobility), and as many students as possible have been placed in honors.  The result is that higher-performing students lack sufficient challenge and the small percentage of students not in honors find themselves in classes with no peer role models and a culture of failure.

. .  .The ubiquitous use of calculators in the early grades has resulted in students who lack number sense and basic skills and thus struggle to make the leap to algebra.

In all content areas, Montgomery County has undercut students’ motivation to work hard, the Poolesville math teachers charge.

High school students know they can fail the final and pass the course. They can skip assignments and receive the minimum grade of 50 percent.  Absenteeism is up because students face no consequences for cutting class.

Should community colleges recruit the rich?

Community colleges increasingly are segregated by race and class, charges a new report, which urges public two-year colleges to start honors programs to lure affluent white students and high achievers. But others say community colleges enroll a wide range of students and should focus on educating the students they’ve already got.

The case for ability grouping

Let’s Go Back to Grouping Students By Ability writes Barry Garelick in The Atlantic. The drive for equity in the ’60s and ’70s eliminated tracking. Most K-8 schools now ask teachers to teach students of diverse backgrounds and abilities in the same classroom, using “differentiated instruction,” writes Garelick, who’s starting a second career as a math teacher. In high schools, what used to be “college prep” is now called “honors.” Courses labeled “college prep” are aimed at low achievers.

Unfortunately, the efforts and philosophies of otherwise well-meaning individuals have eliminated the achievement gap by eliminating achievement. Exercises in grammar have declined to the point that they are virtually extinct. Book reports are often assigned in the form of a book jacket or poster instead of a written analysis. Essays now are “student-centered” — even history assignments often call upon students to describe how they feel about past events rather than apply factual analysis.

Math classes are now more about math appreciation and being able to explain how a procedure works rather than the mastery of skills and procedures necessary to solve problems.

Gifted programs can relegate late bloomers to the non-honors track as early as third grade, he writes. By contrast, ability grouping can be flexible, letting students move up quickly when they’re ready.

A recent analysis of Dallas students found sorting by previous performance “significantly improves students’ math and reading scores” and helps “both high and low performing students,” including gifted and talented students, special education students, and those with limited English proficiency.

Schools are reviving ability grouping and tracking, according to Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.

He suggests a few possible reasons for the reversal: The emphasis on accountability, started by No Child Left Behind, may have motivated teachers to group struggling students together. The rise of computer-aided learning might make it easier for them to instruct students who learn at different rates.

Differentiating instruction for students of widely varying abilities — not to mention motivation and English fluency — is exceptionally challenging.  The “2008 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher reports that many teachers simply find mixed-ability classes difficult to teach,” notes Garelick.

Algebra 1 for all — but it’s not always algebra

Nearly all high graduates in the class of ’05 passed Algebra I — or a course labeled Algebra I, concludes a new federal study. But fewer than one in four studied the challenging algebra topics needed to prepare for college-level math, the National Assessment of Educational Progress study found. Most geometry and “integrated math” also were watered down. From Education Week.

Education watchers hoping to close persistent achievement gaps among students of different racial and ethnic groups long have pushed for all students to take “college-ready” class schedules, including at least four years of high school math, including Algebra I and II, Geometry, and Calculus. Here, at least, the transcript study shows this push has paid off: Graduates in 2005 earned on average 3.8 credits in math, significantly more than the average of 3.2 credits earned by graduates in 1990. Moreover, from 1990 to 2005, black graduates closed a six-percentage-point gap with white graduates in the percentages of students earning at least three math credits, including in algebra and geometry.

Two thirds of Algebra I and Geometry courses covered core content topics. However, the quality of courses varied widely. Only a third of algebra students spent 60 percent of their time on challenging topics such as functions and advanced number theory. Only a fifth of geometry students primarily studied rigorous material.

“We found that there is very little truth-in-labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses,” said Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the NCES commissioner, in a statement on the study.

“Honors” meant nothing in algebra:  “Regular” Algebra I classes were more likely to be rigorous than “honors” classes. Geometry honors classes were more likely to be rigorous, but only a third of honors geometry classes contained challenging material, compared with 19 percent of regular geometry classes.

Researchers analyzed the textbooks used; it’s possible teachers added more challenging supplemental material. However, “students who took classes that covered more rigorous topics in algebra and geometry scored significantly higher on the NAEP than those who studied beginner topics, regardless of the course’s title,” Ed Week reports.

It’s no wonder so many high school graduates are placed in remedial math in college, despite passing high school math courses, often with B’s and C’s.

2-year colleges try online honors program

Known for low tuition — and low prestige — community colleges hope to attract top students by offering an online honors program in partnership with a for-profit company. Students will have to compete for spots in “American Honors” and pay more for smaller classes and better advising.

Bronx students can’t get English, math classes

Students are begging for math and English classes at the Bronx High School for Medical Science, a magnet school. While honors students can take enough classes to graduate after three years, juniors in the non-honors track are being told they’ll be able to make up core classes — eventually — and earn enough credits to graduate.

Two juniors, Eddie Duarte and Kavoy Mayne, met with a guidance counselor, who also insisted that the school was short on teachers, the students said.

Duarte even asked his wrestling coach, who teaches math and science at another school in the Taft Educational Campus where Medical Science is located, if the coach could teach him trigonometry.

“Our SATs are coming up,” Eddie said. “I don’t understand how we’re supposed to be ready for those without math or English.”

The school employs five English teachers and six math teachers for its 460 students, which should be enough, says the school district. Do they have tiny classes for the honors students?