District 202 Superintendent Witherspoon Monday recommended restructuring the freshman year at Evanston Township High School after significant review of student outcomes.

ETHS reviewed best practices and research from high schools that have made progress in reducing the racial predictability of academic achievement.

District 202 Superintendent Witherspoon Monday recommended restructuring the freshman year at Evanston Township High School after significant review of student outcomes.

ETHS reviewed best practices and research from high schools that have made progress in reducing the racial predictability of academic achievement.

By restructuring the freshman year, ETHS is striving to provide our most rigorous curriculum to as many students as possible so that we produce graduates who will be prepared to continue in higher education and careers in the world that awaits them.

One important part of the proposal is the “Earned Honors Credit” model which would be implemented in freshman classes.

Rationale for a new “Earned Honors Credit” model
Harvard professor Tony Wagner (2009) argues that even the schools that do the very best on standardized tests are doing a disservice to our students because they are not also preparing students for a collaborative, diverse world.

He writes, “Work, learning, and citizenship in the twenty-first century demand that we all know how to think—to reason, analyze, with evidence, problem-solve—and to communicate effectively” (xxiii). Our current program for 1 Humanities will be improved to fully respond to these challenges that face the 21st century learner.

Students in Freshman Humanities will have the opportunity to earn honors credit through class work. Requiring students to earn honors credit, through multiple assessments, is in alignment with research and data and will increase academic achievement for all students.

Teachers will focus their instruction on the skills necessary for students to earn honors credit. Assessments will be used to determine both core competencies and honors credit. By having students earn honors credit, we will recognize the work that they do in our classrooms to meet the highest standards.

Models for earned credit
The framework used for students to earn honors credit is based on the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement models. In IB schools, students who participate in IB courses are assessed “internally” at the classroom level. External evaluators are used to score specific exams.

Students who enroll in AP courses take externally graded AP exams. Students earning a “3” or higher (on a 1-5 scale) may be given college credit. In these systems both IB certificates and AP credit are determined by what students know and are able to do (Byrd, 2007).

New model for “Earned Honors Credit”
Our new model proposes that honors credit should place value on quality work. Similar to the models above, students in Humanities will earn honors credit through their performance on a specific set of assessments. ETHS teachers will utilize a combination of content specific assessments, writing assessments and semester exams as our honors credit benchmarks.

Anticipated outcomes

  • Requiring students to earn honors credit through multiple assessments will increase the academic achievement of students who do honors level work.
  • Requiring students to earn honors credit through multiple assessments will focus instruction on the skills necessary for students to earn honors credit. 
  • Vertically aligning assessments with AP skills and instruction to develop those skills will lead students to a clear pathway to AP courses as upperclassmen.
  • Requiring all students to take these rigorous assessments will allow all students to have the opportunity to earn honors credit and strive to achieve at the highest level.
  • Vertically aligning the curriculum with the skills and expectations of AP, preparing more students to take AP classes at ETHS. AP is equated with rigor for a variety of reasons: “Standards and expectations are high and known to all students; Assessments are comprehensive and well aligned to standards; Focus is both on content and critical thinking” (Byrd, 2007).

More information and citations to research studies can be found on the ETHS website.

Peter Bavis is associate principal for curriculum and instruction at Evanston Township High School.

Join the Conversation


  1. sums it up

    this quote sums it up for me:

    even the schools that do the very best on standardized tests are doing a disservice to our students because they are not also preparing students for a collaborative, diverse world.


  2. Beautiful on paper

    While the rationale and motivation is honorable, just,  and admirable, the reality of this change is that it will require an entirely new type of teaching  – and how long it will take to evolve to this, is the question. Just adding more rigorous pen and paper assessments does not create environments conducive to higher level thinking and skills. And it will never reward innovation and original thinking–the most essential skill necessary in this economy.  There is going to need to be a serious financial committment to staff development, teamwork and mentoring with this change.

    Deep work is a practice. My  current experience with classes of widely varying students which exist already at ETHS has been that the teacher gives "extra" assignments outside of class and on their own to the kids who already grasp the material, then works to bring the other students to the level that can excel on the assessments.  I have heard mixed reviews from the students themselves–some quick studies are glad for the easy A.  Some are frustrated. Some enjoy and welcome a chance to work with kids they ordinarily do not work with, but I have personally observed very uneven classes as teachers struggle to implement differentiated curricula. What we are asking the teachers to do is really difficult.  It can be done, it is being done, but they will need support.

    Perhaps this new model is an opportunity for all kinds of new teaching methodologies: group and collaborative projects as opposed to papers and tests, alternative authentic assessments, use of multiple intelligences to apprehend material. Perhaps we can teach to a child’s strengths instead of to some test.  Perhaps this new model calls for much smaller classes and more manageable class loads.  If the teaching and assessment methods are not radically changed, however, it will take a very long time to see the results hoped for.  And each student only has 4 years.

    The current focus on testing has rewarded a certain type of teacher and a certain type of curriculum.   Even AP teachers teach to the test, and getting a good score there does not necessarily mean one has achieved the deep and wide skills needed to compete and succeed in a global economy.  And the current budget has pushed more kids into each classroom.  But there are many ways to reach a destination, and this reorganization is going to require serious brainstorming and innovation. Despite the beauty of this idea on paper, I think it will look very different when it goes "live" and it may have some serious unintended consequences unless it is backed up with well thought out professional development and smaller class sizes.  

    Finally, my experience is that teaching staff is very uneven in its willingness or ability to give extra help to students. While there is a very well designed System of Supports, sometimes it is the relationship between the teacher and the student that makes the real difference in success and rigor.  If the expectation is high, but the support provided is difficult, complicated or not sincere or not geared to what the student needs, success becomes less likely.  

  3. Proposed ETHS Changes-Great goals, questionable plan

    The proposed changes to Freshman Humanities next year and to Honors Biology the following year represent a significant change at ETHS.

    I fully support the Administration’s goals to raise academic achievement for all students at ETHS, but have many questions regarding the proposed plan. I too want to see all students achieve their academic potential and have many doors open to all students in the future.

    This specific proposal raises many questions. I am pleased to know that the Administration and Board have scheduled 4 meetings to discuss this topic so that we as a community can fully consider this issue and promote an environment where all students can thrive.

    I think it is helpful to put my questions and concerns into context. Bob Herbert, a noted NY Times columnist, on November 5th wrote, “Americans right now are riddled with fears and anxieties of many kinds. They are worried about the economic well-being of their families, the cost of securing a decent education for their children, their prospects for a comfortable retirement, the continuing threat of terrorism, and the debilitating effects of endless war. They worry that America’s best days may be in the past.”

    I also worry that America’s best days may be in the past.

    Education as many know is the cornerstone of our future… and recent reports and trends on the state of US education are troubling. We hear reports about how American students are falling behind versus students from other countries. We hear about the growth in Brazil, India and China. These concerns are real. Over the last 20+ years I have worked in this increasingly global and competitive environment. My business partners in Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia tell me about the focus and priority on education in their countries. These structural and permanent changes in the world would suggest that our country and our community should be raising academic standards and expectations. This proposal does not appear to accomplish this goal.

    I am thrilled that President Obama is so focused on education, but he doesn’t have a magic wand to wave and give all kids a great education. His personal experience demonstrates that opportunities are available to all children, from all backgrounds, to obtain a great education – his experience is an example for all children.  Recent events in Illinois and Evanston have made me more skeptical of educational changes, and lead me to really question any and all changes that are proposed. For example, it is now widely understood and accepted that the State of Illinois lowered the bar on ISAT Tests in order to better comply with No Child Left Behind. D65 finally acknowledged this issue. Locally, Judith Ruhana’s unilateral decision to eliminate senior honors English significantly reduced trust and confidence in ETHS. Her legacy remains. The performance of Mixed Classes, Systems of Support and AM Support have not fulfilled their stated goals. And lastly, a number of new families at ETHS, I’m one of them, have been anxiously and hopefully looking forward to experiencing the high standards and excellence for which ETHS is known and a welcomed change from our prior experience.

    So given all these factors, I think it is only appropriate and responsible to approach the proposed changes to the Freshman Humanities and Biology in an objective and skeptical manner.

    I am pleased to know that there will be 4 meetings to discuss this issue. My hope is that the entire Evanston community will use this issue as an opportunity to re-examine the role that education plays in our society, our community and our families. My hope is that people from all parts of Evanston will participate in a thoughtful, considerate manner that will best serve all of our children.

    Here are some questions regarding the proposed changes:

    1.     What are the secondary and tertiary implications ?

    2.     What are some of the potential unintended consequences and how are you planning to address them?

    3.     You discuss forward vertical alignment of the curriculum with AP Classes, but how are you planning to backward align the curriculum with 6th,7th, & 8th grade? Students need to be better prepared to succeed @ ETHS

    4.     What specific changes and coordination with D65 are planned?

    5.     How do you intend to engage parents and guardians in this process?

    6.     How will the Common Core Standards guidelines lead to a real honors curriculum and is it the best honors curriculum we can provide to our students? How does this honors curriculum compare to neighboring schools?

    7.     How will your proposed changes help students at ETHS compete with the best and brightest students from around the country and world?

    8.     How are you going to change student behavior, motivation, and attitude?

    9.     How will this new program be monitored and evaluated?

    10.                        Why does D202 Administration only use the Explore Test for placement decisions and impose an arbitrary 95% cutoff for Freshman Honors when there is significant qualitative and quantitative information available?

    Thank you and I look forward to future conversations.

    Jim Young


    1. U.S. Math Scores vrs. the World

       NBC Evening News had a story about the quality of math education in America.  Many of the comparisons have been stated before, but here they compare only white students and students from one of the best high school math programs, with students from other countries.

      Many reports compare US scores [where a much wider body of students are tested] with countries where admitance is select to schools and only the best may be tested.  This short news story gets around that.



  4. Ignoring the real issue

     Reviewing all the discussion over the proposed changes at D202 I am struck by the omission of the variable that has the greatest impact: D65.  To expect D202 to make up for what D65 does not achieve is not being realistic. Our educational oligopoly needs a 2×4 to the head to take them out of their dazed state. It is not money, at $20K and $15K per student we are talking real money.

    Illinois has one of the shortest school years. Texas, over 12 years has almost 3 more years in actual school hours!

    Get real, start at the beginning!

    1. One bureaucracy for all.

      This is another good reason to merge D65 and D202. One district would be accountable for ALL Evanston public school students.

      And the savings of the merger could be spent on the students and not fat cat bureaucrats.

      One bureaucracy for all.

  5. Harvard Prof likes small schools

      Tony Wagner "favors accountability systems that focus on what students can do with their knowledge, rather than what they can remember for a test; localized authority that holds teachers and administrators accountable for student learning, but allows them choice in curriculum and methodology; and smaller schools, where teachers and students know each other and children feel valued. None of these ideas is revolutionary; each has merit in the struggle to make schools places of genuine, relevant learning." 

    If I’m understanding the proposal, there is no talk about eliminating standardized tests and certainly none about breaking the school into smaller sub-schools.

    I also haven’t heard anything about class sizes.    

    Brookline MA HS uses tracking successfully.   The top 2 tracks are bigger and more accessible.   Parents and children can ask to participate in the top tracks and they are given that opportunity.   If the kids can cut it, they stay, if it’s not a good fit, they move down.   It’s done frequently and has little stigma attached.

    The top classes also have larger class sizes and are run more like a university class.   The middle tiers which have been combined – have smaller class sizes (around 17) and the strongest teachers the school has to offer.

    The kids in the middle are getting the best the school has to offer.   

    That could work here as well.

    Brookline MA is part of the Minority Student Achievement Network.   We can work with them.





  6. ALL Children

    In regards to a comment above regarding the "variable that has the greatest impact".  I disagree, it’s not D 65.  D 65 has in the balance, better than average teachers and some of them are outstanding.  By in large the students who are near the bottom of the curve have gone through the same school district and many of the same teachers as the honor students.

    Addressing the "racial predictability of academic achievement" is nothing new in Evanston.  It has been a concern for many decades.  Despite tireless efforts by many extremely capable and committed people there has been little real progress made.  It’s time to stop pointing fingers blaming talented, hard working and committed teachers and start looking in the mirror.  Success in all aspects of life starts with personal responsibility not blame.  A paradigm of empowerment not victimization. 

    I’m all for the practical application and usage of knowledge vs. book smarts.  However, I too sense this sounds better in theory than in reality. 

    While in the bowels of the rhetoric around these proposed changes includes an, "uh, oh yea this will be good for honor students too" it has the stench of the kind of political correctedness that briefly makes us feel good while we go nowhere or worse, backwards.

    My prediction is those that will suffer from these changes will be the honor students.  More casualties of the teach to the middle mentality.   There may be politically pressures to "reduce the racial predictability of academic achievement", but aren’t our kids more important than politics?   The real task at hand is to bring ALL students’ achievements up not punish our honor students so the powers that be can acquiesce to political pressures.

  7. Right Problem, Crazy Solution

    This proposal seems like a real disservice to the highest performing students and the lowest performing students.  I am concerned about the environment of throwing students of all levels together, then magically expecting the same classroom environment and the same level of teaching.  While parents may place a high value on having a high performing child, not all students value education equally.  When high performing students are in the minority in a classroom, there is a lot of pressure to not speak up in front of their peers and be a "teacher’s pet".  The same is true if you flip it around. When students that struggle are a minority in a classroom, they feel pressured not to speak for fear of sounding stupid to their classmates. 

    Over and over again I have seen that students that are not challenged in a class frequently are bored and don’t do as well as they could.  Students that are overchallenged are frustrated and don’t perform as well as they could.

    If the concern is that one test is determining whether or not students are tracked to honors, why not just make the placement based on things like teacher evaluations and other tests as well (goodness knows, they take enough standardized tests in D65!).

    If the concern is the quality of teaching available to the non-honors classes, then improve the quality of teaching.

    Throwing everyone together and expecting a great learning environment (and of course the best students will want to do extra work on their own outside of class anyway…) is just crazy.  This sounds like the D65 experiment in mediocrity is spreading upward.

    1. Can’t district 65 and 202

      Can’t district 65 and 202 figure this out?

      Why do we need to put children in mixed classes? In district 65 we have children who have little educational background and support mixed with children who are levels beyond their grade all in one room. Parents of "gifted" students are demanding their student’s needs be met while the struggling students are struggling to get to school on time and locate their next meal. How is a teacher supposed to meet the needs of a classroom like this, professional or not? Put students in classrooms with students who are at the same level. Let their curriculum be rich. Let their teachers be strong. Then we will see learning take place that is challenging for everyone. Why do we insist on pretending to meet everyone’s needs? Why do we demand teachers to handle this in one room and then criticize them for failing grades or closing a gap? Why does educational philosophy knock common sense out? Why doesn’t the community rally to achieve this?

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