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Education Reporter

Honors Class Flunks 'Diversity'
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After weeks of debate, an Illinois school board voted unanimously to drop an elite freshman humanities class reserved for the highest-achieving incoming freshman because too few minorities took the class. The honors course was open to students who outscored 95% of their peers nationally on eighth-grade tests. The problem? Almost all qualifying students were white.

Evanston Township High School (ETHS) is one of the most racially mixed schools in Illinois, with a student body that is 43% white, 32% black, and 17% Hispanic. The school has a mission of embracing diversity, promoting equity, and driving excellence for all students. Apparently the predominantly white honors class did not fit well with those first two priorities.

Starting next fall, high-achieving freshman will be combined with students who score at or above the 40th percentile on the national tests in a newly formatted class. Administrators insist the class will be taught at the honors level, and say all students will have an opportunity to earn honors credit based on their grades. The district will likely apply the same approach to freshman biology courses in 2012-2013.

The plan comes at a time when the high school is undergoing a major academic overhaul due to its repeated failure to meet federally mandated educational standards, despite spending more than $20,000 per student annually.

Some parents expressed skepticism. Mindy Wallis, parent of two honors students, presented the board with a petition signed by 442 people appealing to the board not to cut the elite class. She pointed out that the school already combines students of various academic levels in the required humanities course — except for those in the top 5%. Another parent, Karen Young, agreed and suggested the board wait until the district completed its evaluation of changes made to the humanities course just two years ago.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon urged the board to approve the measure, saying he looked forward to the end of racially segregated classes. He contended the plan would help meet the school board's stated commitment to "equity" while "eliminating the racial predictability of achievement." The board's published "Equity Statement" also expresses committment to ensuring all staff members "examine and eliminate institutional beliefs, policies, practices, and teaching that perpetuate racial disparities in achievement."

Research findings on combining students at different academic levels vary. Some studies say mixed-level initiatives have increased minority performance, but others find average and high-achieving students are harmed. A 2008 study conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago noted that average and high-ability students missed more class days after Chicago Public Schools eliminated remedial classes and required all students to take college-preparatory courses in 1997. (Chicago Tribune, 12-14-10 and 11-23-10)

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