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Evanston's Difficult Freshman Transition

The idea behind detracking is every ability level accessing the same rigorous curriculum.  Well, there is a massive range of ability levels in most metropolitan schools across the country, including OPRF.  Today, OPRF reaches different ability groups with rigor through different curricula.  These are tracks.  No, not from a long-ago wagon train, but curricular tracks carefully chosen to match each ability group.  The research says matching curricula to ability level is best practice for maximizing growth.


Before detracking, Evanston (ETHS) used the EXPLORE test in 8th grade to guide incoming freshman into one of four curricular tracks best suited for their ability level.  Different schools have different ranges of ability, resources to reach those ability levels and consequently different numbers of tracks.  Evanston had used four: Regular being lowest and Honors highest.  Detracking is an attempt to deliver rigor to the full range of abilities using a single curriculum (all four groups at once).  OPRF is describing this single curriculum as earned-honors meaning the base is similar for all, and students can arrange with the teacher how extra work would result in honors credit.

The charts shows how Evanston freshman of all four ability groups performed when combined into one detracked earned-honors curriculum for each subject.  There are three or four years of incoming freshman data presented for each ability group across Biology, English and History.  These are multiple years of freshman experience grouped by their ability level as determined by testing in 8th grade.  The bars show % of incoming freshman for each ability group scoring D’s and F’s in the new detracked curriculum intended to challenge all students. 


The objective behind ETHS detracking is very similar to that described by OPRF.  To provide all freshman access to rigorous earned-honors curricula.  The theme: there are students who could be in honors not electing an honors track.  Despite already having access based on ability, it seems there are innumerable other reasons students may opt out of an honors level curricula.  How best to direct students toward the track that will deliver rigor is another way to address the same issue.


The ETHS report doesn’t contain percentages of students score C’s, B’s or A’s, only those below C.  As a result, these charts show a slice through the data based on the ETHS definition of mastery – scoring C or better.  It tends to focus the lens on lower ability groups which also corresponds with low-income and higher minority rate.  The look from this lens isn’t positive for the groups detracking was intended to serve.  Most in the Regular group scored D’s and F’s among all subjects suggesting the rigor was far above Regular ability.  With just this slice across mastery or not, it’s not possible to draw conclusions on how well rigor matched the Honors end of ability groups.  It's clear students that haven’t been prepared for this detracked earned-honors freshman year suffered academically.

At year end ETHS freshman are evaluated for being “on track” to graduate.  On track is having earned at least five full-year course credits (10 semester credits) and earning no more than one semester “F” in a core course (English, math, science, or social science). Freshmen on track can be a predictor of high school success. Students who finish the ninth-grade year on track are almost four times as likely to graduate from high school as students who are not on track (Source: Illinois Report Card).  Freshman on track to graduate at the end of the 13/14, 14/15 and 15/16 school years were 93.8%, 92.0% and 90.7%, respectively.


The literature on teaching according to ability level is dense.  It’s possible to find examples suggesting pros and cons.  What these ETHS results provide is an opportunity unique to public education.  Oak Park and River Forest can, without incurring any of the cost and none of the risk, use a prior attempt at detracking to build a better boat for students in the community. 


The report from which these data came can be found at the link below beginning on page 20.  The report does not include results for Biology 12/13 or for the Regular Group in History for 15/16.  This is the first and last report of its kind from ETHS using an interrupted time series approach for testing the effectiveness of detracking in reducing the racial predictability of achievement.

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