The impact of OPRF freshman detracking

Opinion: Columns

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By Ross Lissuzzo

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There are significant curriculum changes being proposed at OPRF, potentially impacting 90 percent of our freshman students. These changes will be voted on in the spring and fall of 2020 for the 2021-2022 freshman class. No matter what side of the detracking debate you fall on, it will prove beneficial for our entire community to learn as much as we can and understand the data as well as the potential benefits and risks. 

The proposal suggests combining two current levels of coursework, Honors and College Prep, into one with the promise of delivering a more rigorous course load that better serves all of our students and raises performance. Traditionally at OPRF, 45 percent of freshman students enroll in College Prep courses and 45 percent enroll in Honors courses while the remaining 10 percent enroll in support-level curriculum. To learn more, below are two links from OPRF messaging on the proposed freshman curriculum changes and the current strategic plan:

As a parent of three different types of learners, my gut feeling tells me that such a change will not impact, nor benefit, all of our students equally. In the past few months, I have come to understand that many in our community have different ideas of what the change actually entails, what comparable schools have tried this specific change, what the outcome has been at such schools, what earned honors credit means, what votes are necessary to enact such a change at OPRF, and how our administration is messaging and tackling this complicated topic. 

Detracking results are hardly consistent and all of our children are individuals with wonderful unique strengths and weaknesses, and learn at different speeds and in different ways. We all wish that a magic wand existed to wave over the entire U.S. educational system and raise the academic performance of all children. I don't believe offering a single-level coursework, for one year at the freshman level is that magic wand. 

A detracked curriculum philosophy at Evanston High School, which is highlighted on the OPRF website as a success, has been in motion for many years. According to the Illinois Report Card website, Evanston's composite ACT scores were 23 in 2012 and they were also 23 in 2017. If there were gains and losses, they were offset within the student body. The IRC website stopped publishing ACT scores in 2017, but began posting SAT scores. Evanston SAT scores for ELA (English, Language Arts) fell from 2017 to 2019: 561, 553, 540. Of significance, from 2017 to 2019 the percentage of 11th grade students who earned SAT scores in ELA of "Exceeds" fell 6 percent (31 to 25 percent). Students who scored "Meets" increased 1 percent (27 to 28 percent). The lowest two categories combined ("Partially Meets" and "Approaching") showed increases of 5 percent (42 to 47 percent). 

In summary, fewer students are now "Exceeding" while a higher percentage of students are performing in the lower two categories over the past three years. While test scores alone should not be the only factor in determining the overall health of any school, they still play a major part in college admissions whether we agree they should or not. 

Test scores, data and assessments helped OPRF determine where there are opportunities for growth. Hopefully such data will continue to be used to add insight into future decision making. 

OPRF is currently not limiting any student from taking any course level they want in freshman year. In fact, choice is what OPRF is providing now to all families. Ironically, this choice and flexibility to allow students to stretch and grow in different subject areas was highlighted as a benefit at the incoming freshman meeting held the week of Dec. 9. Did you know that when freshman families meet this winter with their OPRF counselors, no matter what course is recommended, families can select any course level they want — Honors or College Prep? If a student is recommended for a College Prep course, a family can choose Honors if they wish to nudge their child in a specific course subject. Alternatively, if a student is recommended for Honors, a family can choose College Prep to allow more time for sports, clubs or other interests. Tell everyone you know that this flexibility is built into curriculum planning now and allows all families and students to choose the subject level they wish. I struggle to see how removing course options for families and only offering a single level of classes, at the freshman grade level, for one year, across multiple subjects somehow better meets the social and academic needs of all of our learners and families during their short, but vitally important time at OPRF. 

Go Huskies!

Ross Lissuzzo is a resident of River Forest.

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Lori Brazil Gery  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 10:50 PM

I have always appreciated that oprf allows kids to take honors (or not), despite where they are placed via testing and previous performance. If the feeling is that students are not opting into stretch courses, perhaps we start by requiring every freshman to take one honors class in their greatest area of interest. See some success and go from there.

Roberta Brown Ferrante from River Forest  

Posted: January 12th, 2020 12:27 PM

As another 1987 Huskie, I completely with Ross' comments. High expectations for all the OPRF students is the right goal but having been involved in this school for 30+ years, I know this is not the first attempt in reducing the achievement gap. This options seems to be more drastic and has the potential to negatively impact more of the student body. As Ross points out, the option to place children into honors is left up to the parents where it should be. I hope that there are more meetings to ensure that all points of view are heard and many of the misperceptions are dispelled.

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