In a recent post on this blog, Stu Singer, The Teacher Leader, writes, "Jay Mathews has proposed a plan that he believes would increase rigor in schools. In a recent Washington Post article “Why not honors courses for all?” he addresses a concern of some parents that their school district is moving away from the traditional three tracks—regular, honors, and college level—by eliminating honors classes. Mr. Mathews’ solution is a different two-track approach: “Instead of insisting on the old three tracks, tell the schools to keep the honors option and eliminate the basic course.”" The Teacher Leader goes on to propose that a better solution would be not be a choice between basic or the honors classes, but, rather, making the current three options more appropriate.
What is tracking?
There are several different forms of tracking or grouping of students:
- "Within-class ability grouping" is typically found in elementary schools and not in high schools.
- "Between-class grouping" – Students spend most of the day in “high,” “middle,” or “low” classes and use the same or similar curricula.
- "Formal Tracks or Levels" – Students spend most of the day in ability tracks and use curricula substantially adjusted to their ability levels.
Many schools and school systems have already or are actively eliminating the third form of grouping students, a system of "formal tracks or levels," because research has shown that this form of grouping actually harms poor, disadvantaged, under-resourced, and struggling learners.
It is on the second method of grouping students–"between class grouping" in which most of a student’s core course work is taken in groupings identified as basic, honors, and college-level–that Jay Mathews and Stu Singer disagree. This method has been shown to benefit high achievers but does no harm to low achievers.
My Take On Grouping
First, Stu Singer and I worked in the same school, and, from my perspective, we had only two groupings–standard and advanced. While we had three different labels, in the end, we only had two levels of rigor at each grade level from which students could choose. Courses that fell under the "advanced" label included some courses specifically labeled as "advanced" such as Advanced Algebra I, and, since we were an International Baccalaureate school, pre-IB courses. Pre-IB courses would have been labeled "advanced" or "honors" or pre-AP (Advanced Placement) in most high schools. "Advanced" or "honors" courses, and here is the key, were only offered at the ninth and tenth grades and never in competition with IB courses, which were the only "advanced" courses offered in grades 11 and 12. So, our students were enrolled either in standard-level or advanced-level courses in which enrollment was open to all students. It is also important to note that students self-selected into standard or advanced-level courses. A student could be enrolled in and IB English class, but a standard Algebra II course.
Readiness not Ability
In a perfect world, I would prefer only one grouping and that would be "advanced." However, like most high schools less than 20% of our students arrived at our doors in ninth grade on-target for college. Like my good friend Jay, most proponents of eliminating groupings forget the realities.
The tragedy is that the off-target students had the ability, but for a variety of reasons were barely capable of doing high school level work let alone college-level work. In fact, our initial school wide reading diagnostic assessment revealed that 76% of our students read more than one standard deviation below average, which meant that they would have difficulty comprehending their high school textbooks. Some of these students were so far behind that graduation from high school, not college, was our goal for them.
Simply placing unprepared students into college-level courses would be like throwing a group of beginning swimmers into the river and telling them to swim across. Admittedly, a few would make it, but many would drown. Throwing capable but unprepared students into Advanced Placement or IB courses, as many schools do, is tantamount to malpractice and is akin to colleges admitting students who they know have little or no chance of graduating. They gladly accept their money and send them home saddled in debt. To put it bluntly, this practice of setting students and teachers up to fail is both unethical and immoral.
No honor in "honors"
A while back, at a district-wide high school principals’ meeting, one of my colleagues proposed that his school be allowed to create a third course level by offering "honors" courses to eleventh and twelfth graders as an alternative to Advanced Placement courses.
My response was to the point. "First, these so-called honors courses are merely a way to segregate students because their parents don’t want them in classrooms with "those kids." Second, unless you have a curriculum, and common formative and summative assessments, there is no way to ensure that honors courses are any more rigorous than standard courses. They are honors in name only. Third, allowing students to choose the less rigorous honors course instead of an AP or IB course deludes parents into believing that we are preparing their child for college when we know that all we are doing is placating them and their child. Finally, AP and IB courses are college-level, but they proceed at half speed compared to their college counterparts. If a student cannot succeed in an AP course at half speed, what will happen when that student takes the course at full speed in September?
"Honors" as an alternative to AP or IB courses at the junior and senior level is a big lie. In no way are honors courses preparing students to do college-level work next year. The only way that I would agree to such a proposal is if these courses were externally moderated. They would have a standard course description and syllabus with accompanying district-wide common and formative assessments, which would make the whole idea very expensive. If you really had the best interests of your students in mind, you would ensure that they were adequately prepared to succeed in the most rigorous courses that we could offer them.
Next: Building a Pipeline