District 205 superintendent addresses plans to cut honors courses in memo to Board of Education
Editor’s note: At 4:17 p.m., Friday, Dec. 3, Mark Bonne, Rockford Public School District 205 chief communications officer, sent the following memo from District 205 Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield to the Rockford Board of Education in an e-mail to all area media outlets. The memo, which addresses District 205 administration’s plans to eliminate all honors courses, is presented here in its entirety.
Memo to Rockford Board of Education from Superintendent LaVonne M. Sheffield
Dear Board Members,
In reviewing the non-binding resolution approved at the Board of Education meeting of November 23, 2010, it is apparent to me that a lack of understanding exists around the difference, or lack thereof, between honors and general education courses and the actions of the Administration to improve the rigor of all academic offerings, while also maximizing class sizes in the interest of financial efficiency. This memo is to clarify matters and provide a better understanding.
There are several reasons why honors courses should be eliminated. As a matter of fact, an article in the November 23, 2010, edition of the Chicago Tribune discussed the move away from honors courses in Evanston, calling them “a byproduct of a century-old and controversial tradition of tracking, or sorting, students into different levels of classes.” To read the article, visit this web page http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/education/ct-met-detracking-20101123,0,6972214.story.
First, increased rigor for all students is the direction the whole country is heading, as can be seen in the Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards do not differentiate between honors and general education classes, rather the rigorous standards and expectations are the same for all students. All students deserve a rigorous and challenging curriculum that prepares them for the global society in which they live.
In addition, all students are expected to take the Prairie State Achievement Exam, which measures their proficiency on the current Career and College Readiness Standards and which also does not differentiate between expectations for honors and general education classes. All students are being assessed on their proficiency toward a common set of standards; therefore, all students need to be challenged and prepared to meet the rigor posed by this common set of standards.
A second key reason for eliminating honors classes is that there is currently no discernable difference between what we are teaching in an honors course and what we are teaching in a general education course. An audit of our curriculum shows that this is the case; for example, the only difference between the Honors Geometry curriculum and the Geometry curriculum is the teaching of geometric proofs at the honors level. Geometric proofs is an important concept for all students that should be a part of everyone’s curriculum; therefore, if you now put that concept into the curriculum for everyone, you have made the general curriculum more rigorous for all students and have eliminated the need for the honors label. In social studies, the audit revealed that the content of honors and the general classes for World History, US History, Government and Economics was the same; the materials used were at the same reading lexiles; and the curriculum outlines and maps were the exact same with the exception of this statement at the top of the map: “Honors differentiation throughout the course. All assignments, self-sufficiency, depth of support, level of mastery, and assessments at a more challenging level for every topic/concept.” Neither the curriculum map nor the outline distinguishes how that will be done. The only differences would be in who is teaching the course. We need all teachers to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all students in every social studies class, not just reserve that for those who are labeled as honors.
Math and social studies are not alone in lacking discernable and rigorous differences between the honors and general-level curricula. Honors Biology and Biology again have no real differences in content being presented to students. The listing of standards is the same for both courses with the exception of the Honors Biology having 2-3 more standards that students are exposed to in that course, which again begs the question: If these standards are important to the study of Biology, then why would we not expose all students to those additional 2-3 standards? When one looks at the English curriculum, the difference between honors and general-level classes rests in the novels that are read; however, the skills sets are the same. Having different levels of reading materials for different students is differentiation and can be built into a rigorous and demanding curriculum to meet all students where they are and bring them forward. In terms of writing and speaking tasks, the honors level curriculum was not different or more rigorous, it just called for students to do the same task more often; for example, rat her than writing 1 expository essay, students would be required to write 2-3 expository essays. What is important here is the skill of writing an expository essay, not the number of times that one writes an essay to justify having the label of honors. The honors PE class also has no discernable differences from a regular PE class, other than students are hand-chosen by the PE teacher for this class. Does an honors level push-up look different than in a push-up in a general PE class?
The curriculum audit clearly showed that what we are calling honors classes is really not different from, and certainly no more rigorous than, our general education classes. For students truly desiring more rigorous coursework, AP classes are available in these core content areas. There are a number of AP classes that do not have curriculums, including: AP English 11, AP English 12, AP Calculus (AB), AP Calculus (BC), AP Statistics, AP Computer Science, AP World History, AP European History, AP Microeconomics, AP Macroeconomics, AP United States Government, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP Physics, and AP Psychology. Michele Beach is working with teachers to write a complete curriculum for each course.
Third, instructional decisions are supposed to be based on what the data is showing, and the data from honors classes is showing no discernable or rigorous difference in student achievement. For example, honors English students from last year earned ACT composite scores ranging from 10-30; and their scores appear to have little to no relationship to the grades they received from their teachers. Students at Guilford in honors English 11 last year had a composite average ACT score of 21; at Auburn, students had an average ACT composite score of 19.9; East had an average composite ACT score of 18.8; and Jefferson had an average composite ACT score of 19.5. Clearly, honors classes are not impacting our students’ performance on the ACT.
Fourth, most colleges and universities place a high emphasis on academic ability. They weigh students’ academic performance toward graduation requirements in high school most heavily because this is statistically a strong predictor of success in college. Class rank, type and depth of coursework and the overall pattern of grades are also considered by college admissions committees. Other considerations for college acceptance are solid scores on standardized tests (SAT, ACT) that are consistent with high school performance.
Advanced Placement classes can bolster a high school transcript and improve the chances of being accepted into college. Honors courses are usually considered less rigorous than AP courses. Honors programs vary widely from school to school, and colleges recognize this. AP courses are governed by the College Board. Teachers have to teach specific topics that would typically be covered during freshman year of college. The College Board requires that all instructors for AP classes submit and have an approved syllabus. Therefore, many colleges will take into account the context of a high school’s accelerated programs; scrutinize closely how many AP courses are available to a student, as well as overall course load. In other words, you can take honors courses and receive straight A’s but score 13 on your ACT and not gain admission to college.
In case you don’t know, the average ACT score for a student in Rockford Public Schools is 18.1, which is the minimum score deemed acceptable for entrance into a community college. At a score of 17 or below, students are advised to retake the test. A score of 21 to 23 is considered to be acceptable for admission to a small liberal arts college, while students need scores of 24 to 27 to attend a good state university. Ivy League schools generally won’t accept students with scores below 30.
Another look at student achievement data suggests that curriculum and instructional methodology matter. Our elementary schools instituted a coordinated instructional plan in 2005 that provided for differentiated instruction on a core curriculum in heterogeneously structured classrooms. ISAT data clearly shows student achievement improved from the baseline in 2004 through 2010. Our middle schools also changed instruction and have seen dramatic increases. We moved from a Math curriculum that placed students into ability groups to Connected Math, which again provides for differentiated instruction on a core curriculum in heterogeneously structured classrooms. All of our middle schools scored higher on ISAT Math tests in 2010 versus 2004, the gains were all double digit except for West, which lost the Gifted population in 2008. Our middle school tier also demonstrated an increase in Reading scores over the span, albeit not as great as the Math increase. However, our scores have been on a plateau over the past 4 testing years. Research demonstrates the value of differentiated instruction on a core curriculum in heterogeneously-structured classrooms, which is why we adopted and implemented the new reading series this year, which is based on best practices.
Our high school tier, on the other hand, is in the midst of a decade-long slide in scores. (See table below [Editor’s note: The table is not included in this post]). Our instructional practices in high school have not seen the holistic reforms implemented at the lower two tiers. Students have enrolled in ability-based classes at the high school level, with levels including below basic, e.g. Math Applications, regular, honors and Advanced Placement. As mentioned earlier in this memo, there is no difference between the applications, regular and honor courses.
It is important to note that we also see a trend toward less heterogeneously grouped classes at the high school level. The overall high school enrollment shows about 40% Caucasian makeup, whereas in honors classes Caucasians represent over 52% of the students enrolled. The higher the grade level, the more disproportionate the enrollments become. The high school PSAE results demonstrate that what we have been doing is not working.
Where we have used a core curriculum in heterogeneously structured classrooms using differentiated instruction, student achievement has increased over time. Where we have not implemented that type of class structure and curriculum, scores have declined. Our data over the past seven years strongly suggest that Rockford students’ overall achievement – achievement demonstrated by ALL students – increases when we meet students’ needs in balanced classrooms with instruction based on learning standards.
Given the Board’s concerns as outlined in its nonbinding resolution and as part of the Administration’s ongoing effort to provide an instructionally sound and rigorous curriculum, we will offer honors classes in combination with our AP courses going forward. So if a student would like to take Honors English 11, he or she will be able to take AP/Honors English 11. The course work and curriculum will include the requirements by the College Board so the curriculum is truly challenging. Students taking the course for AP will be required to take the AP exam, and students taking honors will not be required to take the AP exam, but will be required to pass a common final examination created by the Administration. Courses being offered will include: English Literature, English Language, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Computer Science, Statistics, World History, US History, European History, Psychology, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, US Government and Politics, Statistics, Studio Art 2-D Design, Art Studio: Drawing, Studio Art: 3-D Design, Art History, and Spanish, and Music Theory.
In closing, we can offer a variety of challenging courses through the combination of honors and AP sections. At the same time, by filling courses to a minimum of 30 students, we can eliminate 46 FTEs and save $3.4 million. I hope this memo has been helpful in further explaining the sound rationale behind the Administration’s decision-making.
LaVonne M. Sheffield, Ph.D.
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