The Madison School Board will “most likely” take two votes later this month on changes to the district’s high school honors learning program.
Board president Ali Muldrow said Friday that she expects the board will split the elimination of ninth and 10th grade standalone honors classes from an expansion of earned honors programming into two, separate decisions, rather than combining them into one vote at the Dec. 19 meeting. Until this point, the changes have been discussed in concert with each other.
But the first piece of the potential change — eliminating standalone honors for ninth and 10th grades — has proven much more controversial.
Administrators have proposed the move to a universal earned honors system in response to longstanding racial disparities among students who sign up for the standalone honors classes, with students of color underrepresented. The hope is that bringing honors programming into general education classrooms can create more diverse classroom experiences and allow a wider range of students to achieve honors designations.
The proposal would shift honors attainment from designated classes to solely earned honors, a program in which there is only one level of class offered with students allowed to complete additional or more challenging assignments to receive an honors designation. The high schools already have some earned honors offerings, though they are at different points of implementation.
Students would not have to self-select an honors class when signing up for classes. Instead, earning honors in one of the four core academic subjects would occur with the following:
• Earning a 90% or higher average on specific “performance assessment” tests and projects
• Maintain a C or higher grade in the course
Critics worry that it would instead reduce rigor and not provide a learning environment for students who learn at a faster pace. They have argued that rather than eliminating standalone honors, the district should work to reduce disparities by preparing students of color at earlier grades so they are ready to take advanced coursework in high school.
While some version of the change has been discussed for years, the board has never voted on it. Last year, when it was discussed in the spring, administrators decided to delay the plan.
Last week during an Instruction Work Group meeting, administrators revealed they had already changed course guides for the 2023-24 school year to reflect no standalone honors courses being offered for ninth graders. The change for 10th grade would come in 2024-25 under the current plan.
That staff had begun changes toward implementing the plan despite no board vote surprised at least one board member toward the end of a spirited two-hour discussion on the subject last Monday.
“I really hoped that there would be a plan that was ready that was coming to the board that we could vote on,” said Christina Gomez Schmidt, who has expressed opposition to eliminating the standalone honors classes.
District spokesperson Tim LeMonds wrote in an email last week that the district continues “to focus on accelerating grade level standards for students.”
“If the MMSD Board of Education decides to take it up for vote, and subsequently votes it down, the district would continue its work already in progress, however, would add back stand-alone courses as an option for next year, and communicate with families who may be interested in changing their course selection,” LeMonds wrote in response to a follow-up question.
The expansion of earned honors programming without eliminating standalone honors, which could happen with separate votes, would mean students would still have the choice to enroll in an honors class, but if they didn’t, they could still earn honors in a general education classroom.
For ninth grade, earned honors in algebra, English 1, U.S. history and biology/integrated science would be in place by the start of next school year. By the next fall, geometry, Algebra 2, English 2, world history and chemistry — all 10th grade classes — would follow.
According to the proposed implementation timeline, East, Memorial and West have already implemented earned honors across all four areas of ninth grade coursework. La Follette, however, has not started on algebra and has only partially implemented it for history and science.
For 10th grade classes, only West has already implemented earned honors across all four subjects. The other three high schools are at varying stages:
• East: Implemented for English, history, chemistry; not started for algebra, geometry
• La Follette: Implemented for English, chemistry; partial implementation for history; not started for algebra, geometry
• Memorial: Implemented for geometry; partial implementation for English, history, chemistry; not started for algebra
How we got here
Generally, the board wouldn’t vote on a course guide change, as that would be an operational decision based on factors like staff availability and student interest. But the board has a policy on “Talented and Gifted Learners” that makes its involvement on this subject more complicated.
“The BOARD recognizes its obligation to create and maintain a robust, culturally-responsive system for identifying, monitoring and serving advanced learners,” the policy states. “The BOARD recognizes that such students may have learning needs that require additional supports and interventions beyond the differentiated core instruction within a general education classroom.”
The board’s powers under state statute also include “Determin(ing) the school course of study.”
Prior to last Monday, the board had previously discussed a potential change to standalone honors courses in October during a broader conversation about expanding advanced learning opportunities. LeMonds contended that the administration presented its plan to the board “in October with our timeline.”
“The district has been working on this for many years, and we continue to support our teachers and schools who have been engaged in this work for some time,” LeMonds wrote.
Administrators said they planned not to have standalone honors for ninth graders in 2023-24 during that October meeting, including that they wanted to move forward on it by the time course guides were out. But they did not specifically mention taking any action in November, and board members Nicki Vander Meulen and Laura Simkin both asked directly for a vote on the elimination of standalone honors classes.
Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said in response to Vander Meulen that the district would “bring this back next month,” though the next discussion did not happen until December.
“It hasn’t been the case where the board has to vote on that, but if the board thinks that’s a serious enough issue to take a vote on it, then that’s the board’s pleasure,” Jenkins said.