A philosophical divide split the Evanston Township High School District 202 School Board that accepted a reluctant surrender Monday night by the administration over the fate of earned honors courses at the sophomore level.

“We respectfully withdraw our recommendation for incorporating the earned honors model in World History for Us All and Geometry in Construction,” announced Peter Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

His statement brought immediate praise from board member Jonathan Baum, an advocate for waiting to evaluate the concept before it is broadened to other courses at the school.

“I fully agree that it is unsound to extend elements of the freshman restructuring to other grade levels and subjects unless and until our outside evaluation, based on external measures, demonstrate these changes in fact increases student achievement for students at all ability levels,” Baum said.

Earned honors is a concept whereby regular and honors students are taught in the same classroom, but honors credit, which adds half a point when determining a student’s grade point average, is bestowed only upon those students who  do  extra work or perform at a higher level than the students earning regular credit.

The alternative is to designate in advance whether a student is in the class for honors or regular credit, based upon criteria such as scores on standardized tests, performance in earlier grades, and faculty recommendations.

The school had embarked on the earned-honors concept with Freshman Humanities in the 2010-2011 school year, following a lengthy public debate that occurred during the school board election campaign two years ago that generated heated comments from parents of incoming freshmen.

The theory was that many students, particularly racial minorities, are tracked at a lower level while they are still in middle school. By putting them in a mixed-ability classroom when they enter the high school as freshmen, they have the opportunity to overcome past experiences and can gain a foothold for success later in their high school careers.

The philosophical question that dogged the board was whether they should wait until they receive positive evidence that the new concept is working before it is expanded to other courses.

Board President Mark Metz favors what he calls a continuous-improvement model that calls for continually looking for ways to improve teaching, assessment, and curriculum while collecting evaluation information data “and keep improving as we go.”

Otherwise, he said, “we’re going back to a system that we know is flawed…that we know has serious problems” while waiting for the data to come in.

“I don’t see why we would want our administration to go to their backup plan,” he said, “rather than the plan that they believe…and our teachers believe…is in the best interests of our students.”

Baum countered that, without the data, “we don’t know if it is an improvement or not.”

As for the present, the wait-and-see faction has won the argument.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio...

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  1. Middle school tracking

    Quote:  "The theory was that many students, particularly racial minorities, are tracked at a lower level while they are still in middle school."

    Comment:  there is no tracking in the middle schools except for algebra 1.

  2. GPA Bump???

    Short memories.   It wasn't too long ago that an honors class actually had a curriculum that was beyond that which was required for the majority of students.   First ETHS eliminated any curriculum differences and the the administration  made the logical argument that if everyone was being taught the same curriculum, than everyone should have a chance to earn honors. 

    Next – restructuring Freshman year.   A strong a good case was made to give all students a clean slate freshman year and let everyone have the opportunity to access or produce honors level work.   The one rub is that students no longer have differing curriculum so to earn honors you have to perform well – sort of like get a B (one needs to get 80% of the possible earned honors points).

    In the earned honors Biology this year – the assessments, which are the same for everyone so everyone can have a chance to earn honors, assessed the students abilities to annotate and graph.  Skills needed in the study of Biology, but not Biology.

    The internship has also been eliminated.

    The message delivered has always been that we should give every child the same opportunity to pursue honors and AP courses at the High School and 9th grade is critical to making that option available.   Give students a fresh start and let them earn their opportunity to continue on in honors classes or not.

    I don't know the reasoning behind the administrations course recommendation for changing sophomore history.   My kid (and I ) appreciated the opportunity to learn in depth about major global regions such as Africa, Russia, Middle East and Latin America.   It afforded them the chance to pursue something they found interesting and allowed them to dig a bit deeper than would otherwise be possible.   I liked it.   Everyone I know liked it.  The kids liked it.

    However – it's easy to see with this much choice, it'd be hard to create consitency among grading and assessments.

    So the administration proposed offering all sophomores the same curriculum and then suggested since everyone was learning the same thing – why not continue with the earned honors model?

    I agree with those board members who want to make sure this is something other than a grading scale.  

    We should want honors to mean something.   We want to create an earned honors model that not only achieves it's intended goals, but has legitimacy.    It's the first of it's kind anywhere in the nation.   Colleges are aware of schools who designate the term honors to non honors work and they are watchful.    

    ETHS will benefit greatly from doing this well, versus rushing and creating something which just seems like a grading scale. If everyone is doing the same work – and you test well on the test set aside for honors assessments – than you get honors credit.

    What I'd like to understand better is: what does honors mean?   It used to mean a more challenging pace and different and broader content.   It doesn't mean that now at the freshman level.   So what does it mean?  All I can figure out is that if my kid does well on the same assessments that all students are given, then they get a GPA bump for honors.   

    Is that right?    Does anyone know what honors means anymore?  What does it mean?   

    Is seems that all it means is that you're doing well in the class.




    1. ETHS Earned Honors = “Participation Trophy”

      The ETHS administration has done a very poor job in communicating and demonstrating the reality and benefit of changes to the classroom structure, curriculum and Earned Honors Model in the Freshman Year.

      The HOPE is that every student is given a "fair" chance to earn honors. But as one person mentioned earlier, from K-8 the D65 classroom structure is all mixed, except for Math. Yet there is a wide achievement disparity due to multiple reasons. Sadly, both D65 & D202 are unwilling to dig into the underlying reasons and address the causes, too difficult of a conversation. This issue is pervasive throughout our country.

      ETHS has NOT proven that the curriculum offered in 9th grade is an Honors Curriculum.

      ETHS has NOT proven that the teaching in the classroom is being done at an Honors Level.

      Their approach is TRUST US!! We know better. Many in the community want the Administration to SHOW US.

      That's one of the reasons for the skepticism about the proposed changes suggested in Sophomore Year. Remember, that ~ 4 years ago on the 1st day of school that Seniors who registered for English Honors found out when they arrived at school that their class was changed from English Honors to an English Mixed class. NO NOTIFICATION to students or parents. And people wonder why there is a skepticism??

      The reality of the Freshman Restructuring so far is that some teachers are able to differentiate, but the pacing of the lectures is slower because of the composition in the classroom. That's a tradeoff that people should realize and you can debate its merits positively or negatively. But to ignore this issue is misleading.

      People still don't know if English, History, and Biology are being taught at an Honors Level and will it best prepare and enable all students to achieve their potential. It's an experiment, and a hope and a dream.

      But for the time being, students who show up to class, do their homework, study are being awarded "Honors Credit" – they get their participation trophy. Are they receiving an Honors Level education ? We don't know, parents don't know and the Administration isn't showing us the proof.

      1. In response to trophy


        I agree with all you say but think that parents (and students) do know "if English, History, and Biology are being taught at an Honors Level". When a short novel, that many students had already read in middle schoo, is read in class, everyday starting 10 pages or so before the group left off the previous day so that "we can all keep up", we know the class is not taught at an Honors Level.

        When teachers tell you during parent-teacher conferences that there is no way they can attend to the various levels of writing instruction that students need during class, as Writing Workshop would require (which was mentioned as THE hallmark of the new Humanities curriculum, so that teachers woud be able to reach all students), we know the class is not being taught at an Honors Level.

        When students say that half of the class does not complete homework, so time is spent in class completing it, we know. 

        It's interesting that after being forced to share data Freshmen performance with the Board (as some members of the Board requested–meeting after meeting–in order to make decisions about future curricular changes) the Adm. under the pretext of "soft data" (no proof) withdrew the recommendation to expand the model to sophomore classes. Yet, some Board members continue to push for change without any proof that the changes are an improvement, especially for those students the change was intented to help!

        We all know that many, many classes (perhaps a few include some Honors Level traits) are not taught at the Honors Level. We all know that many, many teachers are strongly discouraged, and so are many, many students. The Adm knows but the Band-Aid approach is easier. It also feels good, calming the non-minority guilt feeling: we have now opened Honors to all students, we are inclusive. If we really wanted to help close the gap–discussing D65's faults is meaningless as these kids are at ETHS now, we would need an overhaul that would require much more than showing up and doing the homework. 

        1. Honesty in the achievement gap

          ETHS (and D65 middle schools) continue to pump dollars and resources into these band-aid programs because no one is willing to put themselves out there to talk about some of the real reasons behind the achievement gap.

          There exists a cultural divide between a good part of the black and white communities (at least in Evanston) that affects everything from homework completion to in school behavior, and whether you believe that institutional racism has played a part or not, the not-so-simple fact is, until a better relationship is formed between the schools and the black community, and success in education becomes a larger (more accepted) part of that culture,  then we will continue to see the same problems.

          I certainly don't have the answers, but we may want to try and be more honest about where we stand, and realize that many of these struggling students didn't just start struggling in HS, or even middle school.  Take a look at the kindergarden and first grade classes throughout the district.  Even though it is very much a "feel good" atmosphere, many of the teachers, parents and students can already tell you who the struggling kids are, and it would probably be no surprise that they aren't getting the educational support at home.

          As those students progress (are socially promoted) through elementary, they become easier to identify (and self identify) and by the time they are in middle school, have fallen so far behind that they lose complete confidence in their education.

          Add in peer pressure, cultural identification, and a growing distrust of the system itself, where even their parents aren't willing to come in to the school.  The teachers are then faced with the problem of either lowering the bar, so these students have some level of success as they graduate, or pushing these students to keep up with their more prepared peers, and risk losing them altogether (although they will still graduate D65.)

          It is one thing to boast about improved test scores and college readiness, but it is quite another to look beyond political correctness, and propose some fresh solutions (or even simply initiate discussions) that might provide some real gains in education for the students who are being left behind.

          How about some talk about early education programs, parenting programs, 5th Ward charter school, etc?  Maybe 202 and 65 should form and fund a joint organization tasked with finding ways to better prepare some of our young Evanston children before they fall behind.  Wouldn't all that "band-aid" program money be better spent?

    2. What is the difference between…

      What is the difference between the highest Regular student and the lowest Honors student in a earned honors class? Perhaps as little as a couple of points on one assessment!

      One gets a B- with regular GPA The other gets a B- with a GPA "bump" as if an A-      Bonus GPA for being just a little better in the same class, on the same material!

      "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"

      1. Bad Placement Policy

        One of the reasons used during the debate about the Freshman Restructuring was that it wasn't "fair" to determine the future of students based on one test. Therefore, eliminate honors and adopt the restructuring proposal.

        Of course it's not "fair" or "sensible" to determine placement on one test. So why did ETHS do this? Bad management is the answer! Placement can be made on MULTIPLE factors, trend in grades & teacher recommendations for example in addition to a test. Many students have the ability to perform honors level work, but many of these students aren't prepared or aren't willing to put in the time and effort. ETHS needs to address the underlying issues, instead of making excuses.

        The issue is that the ETHS Administration uses "fairness" or "equity" as a way to advance their unproven agenda.

        ETHS spends a lot of time and money on support programs like AVID, STAE, AM Support, Writing Labs, Science Labs, Math Labs and Wildkit Academy. I fully support these efforts. These extra resources are available to ALL students. However, are they delivering the intended results? Are students, especially students who need extra help using these resources? I'd like to see some data.


  3. Earned Honors Program

    All we know for sure is that the Earned Honors courses have detracked classrooms.  There isn't additional work or content required to earn Honors credit for the classes.  The way to earn Honors credit is to garner 80%+ of the total points available over the course of a semester on the Earned Honors Assessments, which all students take.  How is that any different than a grade for the course?  

    Let's call a spade a spade and eliminate "Honors" from these entry-level courses.  Who are you kidding, except a few college admissions counselors that don't really understand what's NOT going on here at ETHS?

    As for "Wait and See", my understanding was that performance in the freshman year would give ALL students the opportunity to enter Honors and AP courses in their Sophomore, Junior and Senior years by demonstrating the academic ability to handle rigorous coursework as defined by ETHS and not D65, via the EXPLORE exam.

    Earned Honors wasn't proposed as the first step in detracking the entire ETHS curriculum.  Kudos to those Board Members that are sticking to the original proposal and waiting to see if detracking results in greater student achievement for ALL students at ETHS.

  4. Not loving the earned honors assessment model

    My current junior took mixed honors humanities because that was the appropriate level for him. My current freshman would have excelled in honors, but is in mixed because it's the only option for her. She has the same teachers her brother had. I don't see any increase in the rigor between the two classes. And my daughter's biggest complaint is that a lot of time is spent preparing for, taking, and reviewing the earned honors assessments (there are eight of them), taking weeks of class time away that could have been spent on the curriculum.

    Her mixed honors biology class is definitely at a much lower level than the honors biology class her brother took. They spent most of the first quarter on scientific method, not really getting down to the bio curriculum (which so far has been repetitive with the middle school curriculum) until the end of the quarter. The previous honors biology curriculum focused on microbiology.

    And my junior registered for honors US History only to discover on his first day of class that it was a mixed honors class. This is a subject he is very interested in and if he knew the level of discourse in the class would be at a lower level (one student in his class didn't even know who had won the Civil War), he would have taken AP instead.

    1. If your son was uphappy

      If your son was uphappy in his mixed-honors class, a simple phone call to the department chair would have switched him into AP. 

      1. Not so easy to switch into AP

        It  is not quite that easy to switch from honors level to to AP after the first day.   In AP classes there are required summer assignments so you are already behind!  Also, students in Honors level don't even know their in mixed classess unless they ask or find out how far behind some of the other students are (often don't find this out until 1-2 weeks in the class).  The subject/ pace of class of the mixed history and breadth of the material of the mixed history class isn't even close to that in AP.  The mixed history class isn't even close to an "honors" level.  I know I have kids that have been both!

  5. Where’s the accountability for 65?

    This should be District 65's issue, cut and dry.  ETHS shouldn't have to limit the scholarship of high performing students because folks in 65 can't keep it together.  We're not talking about 10s of thousands of students here.  There should be no reason each student can't be evaluated properly to set them up for success at ETHS.  202 needs to hold 65 to higher standards and utilize the public's outrage to root out unfairness in our elementary and middle schools.

    Perhaps jointly funded transition and one-on-one programs are in order to give struggling students a boost but the last thing we need to be doing is cutting honors classes.  That's what ETHS is known for, after all; In lieu of a quality duel enrollment program with Oakton (again, Oakton’s fault, not 202), they pump out AP test offerings to get students a few steps ahead in college.  Without the honors track it's nearly impossible (especially in low-support households) to get deep enough into the subject matter to get those high scores.

    Like I said, the injustice is kids not being ready for that level of learning after leaving 65, not that 202 is selective in honors classes.  Just because 202 is moving towards a more vocational model doesn’t mean kids can’t take honors courses and be exceptionally intelligent, even in a “blue collar” career.  There’s space for success without college, too but it takes exceptional creativity and natural leadership skills.

  6. Earned honors a “template”?

    There has been NO EVALUATION of the freshman humanities earned honors course, nor of the freshman biology earned honors restructuring, and the ETHS Administration has repeated over and over again that it is too soon to conduct an evaluation process that would be meaningful…not enough data, they say. 

    Because there is not adequate data to conduct an evaluation of these two courses, at their Dec 10th meeting, the ETHS School Board voted NO on the Administration's proposal to expand the earned honors model to sophomore year.

    And nevertheless, Superintendent Witherspoon sent out a very slick "Report" to all Evanston/Skokie residents (I got mine yesterday), announcing that the freshman earned honors model was a "template" to be expanded to the rest of the school.

    I can only conclude the Superintendent had this written and off to the printer before the vote, and without any consultation with the School Board.  Eric Witherspoon has been Superintendent long enough to know that this is a policy decision, the Board's prerogative, not his purview.   This is an important issue that should definitely be front and center in the upcoming April School Board election!

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