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More Diversity in Honors Classes: An Update

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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In my post from March, I shared a little about what my school is doing to help a common problem, that of homogenous honors classes. With a school make up that is almost 50 percent Latino and 50 percent Asian, you would like to think that the honors classes are similar to that break down. Unfortunately, they are not.

There are, as I explain, many reasons for this, not the least of which is students' own assumption or discomfort that certain classes are reserved for certain races. We sought this spring to dissuade that myth. Today's post is an update of the results of that experiment, an experiment that is sure to become more permanent in future years as we continue to build on its small success.

The Day of the Writing Test...

To recap: we realized that many Latino students were not getting into our honors classes simply because they weren't applying for the classes themselves. So we began developing a different process of outreach so we could change the face of the applicant pool.

This year, the number of Latino students in the eighth grade English language arts honors class was roughly two out of approximately 70 honors kids. Yikes.

So we did the following:

  • I went around to all English language arts (ELA) classes, including English language development (ELD) classes, to talk about honors earlier in the school year
  • We personalized calls to families in their home language from both translators and the student's counselor encouraging them to apply and inviting them to a family workshop on the process
  • We held a Parent Education Workshop with translators focused on the application process
  • We asked AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) teachers to talk about the honors process during their periods

When the day finally came for the cold writing test, we were all holding our breath. It would be the first time we saw the pool of kids who were applying for the program. And the whole department was invested in what we were trying to do. We had teachers walk in to see if certain students they had encouraged to apply had made it there. There were a lot of waves from the tables and thumbs up and whispered "good lucks!" as the teachers made eye contact with those kids. The principal, assistant principals, and teachers all came in to see the group, walked around the tables, and wished kids good luck, hopeful of this first step.

We all believe that all students can achieve. There are just only so many things we can do by the time we get those students in middle school. This was our first, small step towards trying to balance out early tracking as we see it.

The Need for Multiple Measures

Now, you might ask why we don't just base our honors admissions on test scores and grades. I had a comment along those lines from my last post from a parent. It's a question I get frequently, and one that deserves a response. Here's what I said in my reply:

I know it sounds totally counter-intuitive, but in a way, having students apply and go through this process is far fairer than going by grades and/or even by test scores. This has to do with differences in teaching styles as well as bias and stereotyping in the tests themselves....

Putting aside the issue of race, however, one cannot totally trust alignment between teachers. One teacher focuses on Project Based Learning. One teacher only uses the district-adopted textbook. One teacher scores really hard and has more Fs than any other teacher in the school. Another recommends every kid as "highly recommended," and let's face it, how can all your students really be "highly recommended?" We use rubrics. We calibrate. Nevertheless, teachers are humans and there is some subjectivity.

In terms of using test scores like standardized tests, the fact is that the current tests stink. I mean they really stink. Sure, they might give an indication, but they are chronically biased in favor of certain demographics and are out of touch with today's kid. Having a student apply through a process that assesses by multiple measures is a fairer option because they can show us that the number of their test score does not represent them.

There is a merit checklist of sorts that goes into the equation. Grades + test scores + teacher rec + writing test equals a number. You fall above that number, you are in. The bottom line was, that since our goal was to get more diverse students to even apply, we achieved that goal. And, in the end, we didn't lower standards to accept different groups; we only had to reach out in targeted ways. We have a more diverse honors cohort, all of who deserved to be there AND went through the process of applying (a college and career ready skill, right?).

We didn't solve every problem, but we started with one and moved it ahead.

The Results

In the end, we are expanding our program to reflect the total amount of students who qualified. After all, my principal decided (and rightfully so) that if we have the number of students who are achieving high enough to open up three sections, then so be it.

And the new percentage, while not ideal, is headed in the right direction. For this school year, over 14 percent of the eighth grade ELA honors classes will be Latino. It's the biggest percentage we've had, and we hope it only gets better from there.

Another outcome was hat we had many more students apply from outside the current honors program. This bodes well for all demographics. In other words, while many times you get a huge percentage of current honors students applying for the next set of honors classes, this year we also had many more apply who were not currently in honors classes. This is also a good thing because whether the student gets in or not, the fact is that going through the application process demystifies it for that kid. Just going through it helps increase the possibility of his or her trying to get in to higher classes later on in high school or beyond.

Earlier in this post, I called our experiment a success. That is, of course, compared to what we had before. However, none of us are satisfied. Already, the talks are happening to start earlier, outreach better, and of course, continue to push teachers and parents and students beyond their assumptions and into a more positive perspective of what all our students can do.

What is your school doing to help make advanced classes more diverse? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

George Peternel's picture
George Peternel
Retired Principal

Way to go, Heather, but my experience with admitting underrepresented minorities into honors courses has taught me to be careful about using certain criteria in the admissions equation. My reaction to the equally-weighted "grades + test scores + teacher rec + writing test" formula is that kind-hearted teachers (which means all teachers except for a few very rigid ones) will recommend all or almost all minority students interested in honors courses. And contrary to the common myth test scores don't stink, but the threshold scores for admissions to honors courses are often higher than they need to be. These caveats aside, I applaud what Heather and her colleagues are doing.

David Loertscher's picture
David Loertscher
Professor, San Jose State University

As you move into this experiment, you might consider pairing up various learning experiences with a teacher librarian or a teacher technologist. If you have good ones at your school, they will be anxious to co-teach alongside you integrating a wealth of information sources, tech tools, and learning how to learn strategies alongside content learning. When two heads are co-teaching and coaching, the percentage of students who meet or succeed should rise dramatically. And, for every minority kid who is enthusiastic, engaged, and learns a great deal, they will bring their friends into similar courses. Keep us informed! Success to you.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Hey David!
I really like that you mentioned the following:
"And, for every minority kid who is enthusiastic, engaged, and learns a great deal, they will bring their friends into similar courses." I think that's dead on. Reputation with peers is what brings many kids to many different kinds of classes, and we want the honors classes on the lists of classes that all kids talk about.

Thanks so much for your comment!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Hey George,
Just to clarify, these aren't weighted the same. The writing test is weighed more heavily than others because it's the only element we know that is not subjective or hasn't been possibly touched by a parent. (We've had that happen before with portfolio submissions.) We have multiple readers assess these tests as well, and the kids are only identified by an assigned number.

It's not ideal, but it's a start!

Thanks for your comment!

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

JA's picture

We did away with honors classes after noticing two things. One, we didn't have enough students performing high enough to fill a true honors class. Two, our highest-performing kids grew the most and our lowest-performing kids grew the least, although you should expect the opposite - teachers were really teaching the honors classes, while just putting up with the lower-tracked classes.

When we got rid of honors classes, everyone benefited. Now we had students in each class who could lead a group, for example. And that's when the scores took off.

Ms. Hester Darcy, MSOD's picture

What a great example of seeing a gap, identifying barriers and then adjusting how the school operates to address them. I love that you involve parents in encouraging students to apply for the honors classes, as well. Congratulations on the great work!

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