This year 41% of all Black sophomores at Oak Park and River Forest High School are taking an Honors or Advanced Placement course. That compares to 36 percent of Black sophomores at OPRF one year ago. That increase is probably mostly accountable to last year’s implementation of the Honors for All freshman curriculum at OPRF.
At the Sept. 7 Committee of the Whole Meeting of the OPRF school board, the school administration presented a one year evaluation of the revised freshman curriculum which eliminated the College Prep level for most freshman courses. In the subjects of English, World History, Physics and French or Spanish I OPRF freshman are enrolled in either an Honors class or a Transitions or remedial class with the great majority of freshmen being placed in Honors classes. The goal of Honors for All is to give more Black and Hispanic students, and more students in general, access to rigorous Honors and AP classes.
The 32-page report by the administration reported that the school had maintained similar achievement patterns and made what the report refers to as “small gains” in increased access to Honors courses. The changed curriculum is commonly referred to as detracking.
But the disparity among Black and white sophomores at OPRF is still great. Some 77% of white sophomores, and 85% of Asian sophomores are taking Honors or AP classes this year compared to 41% of Black sophomores and 60% of Hispanic sophomores.
Under the Honors for All curriculum last year many more OPRF freshman took Honors classes than ever before. According to the report the percentage of freshmen earning at least one Honors credit last year increased from 69% to 88% and the percentage of freshmen earning the maximum possible five Honors credits nearly doubled, increasing from 15% in the 2021-22 school year to 29% last year.
But not all students thrived in the Honors for All Curriculum. Among the Black freshmen enrolled in Honors Freshman English last year at OPRF 14% received grades of D (6%) or F (8%). The previous year, when many fewer Black students were enrolled in Honors Freshman English only 3% of the Black students taking Honors Freshman English received a D and none received a F. Last year 13 students, (all either Black or Hispanic) received F’s in Honors Freshman English compared to just one student the year before. The greater frequency of poor grades was not completely unexpected since many more Black students (106) freshman took Honors English last year than the year before (33). But administrators and school board members said the struggles that some students are having with the Honors freshman classes indicate a need for some finetuning and developing more interventions and supports for struggling students.
“To fail a class is not good for anybody,” said Tom Cofsky, OPRF school board president. “That tells us we’ve got work to do.”
Fred Arkin, school board vice-president, was also concerned.
“Maybe those individuals should have been in the Transitions course or were very marginal and needed different supports or maybe the supports we did give them weren’t as effective,” Arkin said.
“There’s a lot of questions. It’s the job of our administration to look at that number and come back to us with a conclusion.”
But both Arkin and Cofsky were generally pleased with the data presented in the report. Arkin said his view of the first year of Honors for All was one of “guarded optimism.”
“The sky didn’t fall and there are some positive notes to it,” Arkin said pointing to the increase in Black enrollment in Honors courses.
Both Arkin and Cofsky said there was no evidence that the performance of high academic achievers suffered.
“I think we’re staying the course,” Cofsky said. “We’ve achieved one goal, which is a more representative classroom and, you know, the results will come over time. There’s some data that is promising, more kids taking more challenges. We realize that when you push kids into honors you need to make sure you can support them.”
Cofsky also said the cutoff line between Honors and Transitions courses for freshmen might have to be adjusted a bit.
“That line, we might have missed it by a little bit,” Cofsky said.
Cofsky said the performance in the expanded Honors classes was a mixed bag.
“Some are thriving but some are failing,” Cofsky said. “Some got moved into this and they did not succeed and we’ve got to course adjust and we’ve got to say why.”
OPRF teachers and administrators are constantly tweaking instructional and assessment practices to improve results and meet students where they are.
“One example is history, where teachers implemented a new assessment format, a scored discussion instead of a project,” said Karin Sullivan, OPRF’s communications chief, in an email. “Teachers realized that discussion and academic talk was more successful. Students were more engaged and had rich discussions demonstrating their understanding in new ways.”
Across the board there was a wider distribution of grades last year in the freshman Honors classes as enrollment in Honors classes greatly expanded. Last year 51% of the grades in Honors Freshman English were A’s, 29% were B’s, 13% were C’s, 5 percent were D’s and 2 percent F’s. Some 639 students were enrolled in Honors Freshman English compared to 403 the year before when 72% of the grades in Honors Freshman English were A’s. The number of Black freshmen taking Honors English more than tripled and the number of Hispanic freshmen taking Honors English more than doubled (from 47 to 108).
The report also included results from the PSAT 8/9 test that is given to all OPRF freshman in the spring of their freshman year. The report states that the PSAT scores showed similar results as in recent years and that differences were not statistically significant although it did note that last year’s scores in evidence-based reading and writing were the lowest in four years.
“The scores (on evidence-based reading and writing) were the lowest in four years; however, the differential is not statistically significant,” the report states.
A total of 84% of OPRF freshmen met or exceeded the EBRW standard while 4% approached the standard and 12% fell into the lowest category. Sullivan said the College Board, which administers the PSAT, does not break out percentages that exceed the standard from those that meet the standard.
One concern that some have expressed about the Honors for All curriculum is that the expanded Honors enrollment could end up slowing down the pace and reducing the rigor of the freshman Honors classes and this might harm the most advanced students. But administrators and Cofsky and Arkin said they have seen no evidence of that.
“There’s been nothing to say that there’s been any detriment to the students who were already thriving,” Cofsky said.
Overall Cofsky said he was pleased with the results in the first year of Honors for All.
“I’m very positive with the results,” Cofsky said.
John Duffy, a co-chair of the Committee for Equity and Excellence and Education, a group which pushed for years to detrack the OPRF curriculum and expand access to more rigorous courses, said he was generally pleased with the results thus far.
“They’re moving forward, they’re moving forward in ways that people refused to even consider for, I’d say at least 30 years, so I’d say this is a real step, a step towards equity, kids to have the opportunity, not to be denied high status learning for various reasons that have been used over time,” Duffy said.
Cofsky noted the Honors for All curriculum is still very new and that it will take some time to judge its impact.
“It is a long journey,” Cofsky said.