Transparency a concern as schools move to 'de-track' students

Should high school honors classes be ended, and those students be moved to the same classroom as their non-honors counterparts? Should struggling students be moved out of "remedial" classrooms into the same classroom as well? These changes, either individually or together, are called "de-tracking" and their implementation (or fears of such) has been reported on at Fox News (Virginia's new math curriculum) and the Washington Post (California, Boston, and elsewhere).

The intention behind these changes is noble, to reduce bias and create greater equity to counter the existing disparities between demographic groups. But many parents worry this change is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

And these changes, it turns out, are happening right here in the Chicago suburbs as well. To take three examples:

• De-tracking in the Chicago area first began with Evanston Township High School, where, beginning in the fall of 2011, freshmen were no longer split into multiple levels for the school's "humanities" class, after a vote by the school board in December of the prior year, which itself was preceded by presentations by staff and board discussion and public comment opportunities.

The school now limits accelerated classes only to classes specifically designed for AP tests in English and social studies/history as well as math and math-heavy science; however, the district's feeder district, Evanston District 65, is itself eliminating tracked math classes, so that any students wanting an accelerated math pathway in high school will be obliged to take a summer school class.

• In Oak Park/River Forest, plans to de-track the freshman curriculum were first announced in August of 2019, but implementation has not yet occurred and is slated for fall of 2022. In the meantime, there have been regular updates to the community, beginning with a public presentation at the August 2019 board meeting.

• More recently, Niles Township High School District 219 voted 6-1 to de-track freshman English classes effective in fall of 2021, at its May 4 board meeting, after staff members presented the plan at the prior April 27 meeting.

At the time, concerned parents objected in a petition that the April 27 presentation came at 11:15 at night and that the district set a window of a single hour in which public comments would be accepted by e-mail. However, candidates made clear their stance in favor of de-tracking in the run up to the April election, as part of a broader set of issues around racial bias, so it was hardly hidden from view.

Which brings me to Northwest Suburban Community High School District 214, where the district administration and school board have regrettably been following a different path; rather than the open, public process these other districts have followed, both in terms of the board meetings and the candidates' positions during the election, District 214 has been implementing its de-tracking initiative outside the public eye and without direct board of education authorization.

Specifically, for the school year 2020-21, freshmen at Elk Grove High School were de-tracked with respect to English class, with the opportunity instead to receive an honors GPA boost by meeting certain benchmarks during their ordinary coursework. For the school year 2021-22, freshmen at Rolling Meadows High School will have de-tracked biology classes with the same "earned honors" system. At the same time, at Elk Grove, sophomores will continue to have a de-tracked English class, and freshmen will have de-tracked English, biology, and human geography; the AP Human Geography class will instead become an elective to be taken later on/in addition. The degree of further implementation is unknown, all the more so as my own FOIA request for information was denied.

To be clear, I am not saying that high-achieving students are being wronged nor that they have a "right" to honors classes in specific subjects, let alone to GPA boosts due to that "honors" label. But any such changes simply must be made only with open and public discussion, a vote by the school board, the identification in advance of metrics to be used to evaluate changes, and an invitation for parents and students to provide feedback without fear of repercussion.

In District 214, none of these have happened.

• Elizabeth Bauer, of Arlington Heights, is a freelance writer and actuary, a former candidate for District 214 school board and mother of three District 214 graduates/students.

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