Detracking With Vigilance

By opening the high-level doors to all, Rockville Centre closes the gap in achievement and diplomas by Delia Garrity

Can a diverse suburban high school on Long Island eliminate academic tracks and still produce high-achieving students?

The answer in Rockville Centre, N.Y., is decidedly yes. Statistics tell part of the story:

  • 60 percent of the senior class at South Side High School is enrolled in Advanced Placement calculus, including 40 percent of the school’s minority student population.

  • The percentage of low-income students earning a Regents diploma, the highest level offered in New York state, went from 22 percent to 71 percent just the third year after we eliminated homogeneous groupings.

  • The percentage of minority students in Rockville Centre who earned a Regents diploma last year surpassed the percentage of white and Asian students in New York State who did.

South Side’s principal, Carol Burris, in her 2003 doctoral study, “Providing Accelerated Mathematics to Heterogeneously Grouped Middle School Students,” found that a minority student in Rockville Centre is almost as likely as a white or Asian student in the school district to take calculus. Nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 12 percent of white students, 6.6 percent of African American students and 6.2 percent of Latino and Native American students enrolled in calculus in 2002.

We attribute our far greater success rate to our heterogeneously grouped accelerated math course that starts in 6th grade. We started this practice in 1995 when South Side Middle School eliminated all tracks in math. Prior to this universal acceleration, only 36 percent of the senior class took AP calculus.

Equity and Excellence

Gains in mathematics are only part of our story. Through detracking in all subject areas we have substantially narrowed the Regents diploma gap for minority, low socioeconomic status and special education students and elevated performance of all students on state, International Baccalaureate and AP exams. Perhaps most dramatically, minority students in Rockville Centre in 2003 surpassed the percentage of white and Asian students in New York State earning a Regents diploma, the most rigorous of three diplomas offered in the state, requiring students to pass eight state Regents exams: English, global history, American history, foreign language, two math exams and two science exams.

Our data have led us to firmly believe that ensuring equity in the classroom not only leads to excellence for previously underperforming students but also benefits those students who had been performing at high levels.

Rockville Centre is a diverse suburban district on Long Island that includes 20 percent minority, 15 percent low socioeconomic status and 11 percent special education students. We took the first steps of our detracking initiative in 1989. Previously South Side Middle School offered two to five tracks in each academic subject. Students qualified for the upper-level track based on standardized test scores and teacher recommendations. Students of color and poverty were over-represented in the lower tracks and there were achievement gaps between the tracks based on external assessments.

The gaps persisted throughout a student’s educational career. The middle school was thus the critical point at which the academic doors began to close. Too often counselors and parents selected the lower track rather than risk failure by placing the student in the most rigorous curriculum, prompting many never to choose a Regents diploma or attain the prerequisites for calculus.

The superintendent, William Johnson, examined the longitudinal data for each demographic group. He saw in the data that we were divided into the “haves” and “have nots” and considered that unacceptable. We weren’t closing the gap. We were keeping it wide open. He decided to take the initiative and set clear goals for all students: a Regents diploma and participation in AP calculus. To reach these goals, each student would have to have access to the most rigorous course of study.

Elementary Detracking

The first obstacle, a formidable one indeed, was the gifted and talented program in grade four. Students in this program fed the honors track at the middle school in academic subjects. The parents of the gifted students created a separate PTA as they believed that their children had unique educational needs. Parents demanded a challenging instructional program.

We addressed their mandate by offering this enriched curriculum to all students. The mantra in the district became “identify and nurture the gifts and talents of all students.” Over a four-year period, we were able to phase out the exclusive gifted and talented program and blend that curriculum into each elementary classroom, using a new districtwide enrichment program known as STELLAR (Success in Technology, Enrichment, Library, Literacy, and Research). Staffing at each elementary building includes a STELLAR teacher who supports each classroom teacher by enriching the grade-level curriculum. Students participate in both whole-class and small-group investigations that encourage in-depth study in areas of interest.

As this transition occurred, administrators and teachers carefully dismantled the tracking system in the middle school. In 1989, teachers of English and social studies redesigned the curriculum for grades 6-8 using the honors curriculum as the guide. The middle school scheduled students into heterogeneously grouped classes with an additional support class in reading and writing for students who struggled.

The school eliminated the entrance criteria for accelerated math and science in 1992, now allowing any motivated student to take the course. (By regulation, every district in New York State must offer accelerated math to some middle school students with an algebra-based state Regents exam in grade 8.) More than half of the class chose honors and the results on the Regents exams in grade 8 remained strong, but too many students were still being left behind. Realizing that this was happening largely because parents of students in the low track were not participating in the choice process, we decided to require accelerated math for all students.

This was not an easy decision to sell to the teachers at first. However, we did have data to support us, beginning with the Regents exam data in the school. Also, we drew support from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which found that 8th graders successfully complete algebra in countries around the world.

We commenced our transition in 1995. Three years later we began to offer a lab science course to all 8th graders. We achieved teacher buy-in by reassuring them that if the courses were not successful, a re-evaluation of the program would occur.

The outcome data in each subject proved overwhelmingly supportive of the change. More students passed the Regents exam in grade 8 math than had passed previously with the higher track students in grade 8 and the lower track students in grade 9.

This became the story across all the subject areas as we detracked. We could only conclude that high-quality curriculum and instruction, not remediation, were the answers to authentic student achievement. But these factors were not enough by themselves. Rockville Centre maintained continuity of instructional leadership at the middle school and central office throughout the journey. Other factors critical to the success of our initiative were these: Teachers design rigorous curriculum and receive a stipend for their work; students who need additional support in reading, writing or math receive it every other day; students move in and out of support classes as needed; students attend a support class with their regular math or English teacher.

Other important characteristics included: Teachers have a common planning period each day by department and interdisciplinary cluster; teachers provide extra help after school four days per week as part of their contract; success is celebrated through data-sharing in public forums; and professional development activities occur during the school day and after school.

Secondary Detracking

South Side High School, an IB school designated by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, also began the movement to an all-Regents program in the late 1980s when multiple tracks based on ability were reduced to two tracks, Regents and Advanced.

As the middle school cohort of 1995 moved to the high school in 1998, the school replaced the two-track system with a single high-level course in 9th-grade English, social studies and foreign language. The following year, based on the change in middle school science, the high school offered a single high-level science course in 9th grade. Mathematics maintained two levels due to the demands of the IB program in math, but with open enrollment in either level.

In 2001, the high school changed the math curriculum in 9th grade to a heterogeneously grouped accelerated course typically offered to 10th- or 11th-grade students in other New York state schools. In 2003, all 10th-graders began to participate in pre-IB English and social studies. The remaining course offerings in grade 10 and all course offerings in grades 11 and 12 (Regents and IB) are open to all students.

In 1993, our Regents diploma rate was 58 percent. Our superintendent, William Johnson, set a goal of 75 percent by 2000. We achieved this rate two years earlier in 1998, surpassing our expectations for 2000 with a rate of 84 percent. When our Regents diploma rate continued to soar to 90 percent in 2003, we felt once again our data supported our belief that excellence doesn’t come at the expense of equity.

Professional Development

An important concept to understand is that the data not only prove our points in retrospect but help to drive our decisions. The administrators and teachers review overall achievement, specific item analyses and cohort growth from all external assessments. Professional development sessions then are designed to incorporate this analysis, not with a test-prep approach but rather with a dynamic one designed to inspire strategic instruction.

Often such workshops focus on the errors of the highest-achieving rather than the lowest-achieving students. On a recent state assessment of language arts, the highest-performing 8th graders had difficulty with reading comprehension when it related to the author’s purpose in poetry. Based upon this data, we conducted full-day workshops for teachers in grades 3-8 to help them experience and design lessons around the inferential skills necessary to appreciate and understand poetry. Teachers listened to and read sophisticated poems, analyzed poems in text-based seminars, then worked with partners to determine the author’s purpose. Based on their statements of author’s purpose, they wrote and shared poetry of their own, further consolidating their learning. Teachers were immersed in a model that intellectually challenged them and provided a sound plan for classroom instruction.

As a school district, we believe that for all students to be successful our teachers must be teachers of reading and writing. We are engaged in the second of a five-year professional development model on balanced literacy and differentiated instruction. Using a constructivist model in the workshops, the teachers experience the learning in the same manner they will use in their heterogeneous classes. Teachers analyze models, practice read-alouds and think-alouds, share directed free-writes and fully participate in the workshop model with guided and independent assignments.

As teachers across content areas implement these strategies, the instructional model shifts from predominately teacher-directed lessons to a balance of teacher facilitation and student-centered learning. Students learn to talk about their reading and writing in order to learn and connect concepts across disciplines. Classroom observations indicate that students regularly engage in shared directed free-writes, small group problem solving and think/pair/share activities.

Elementary teachers also participated in extensive professional development in mathematics. As the middle school accelerated all students, the elementary teachers implemented Investigations in Number, Data, and Space in grades K-4 and Level 6 Connected Math in grade 5. Before each unit of study, teachers on a grade level met for a half-day session to review the math content and practice the investigations. A middle school math teacher provided model lessons and team-teaching opportunities on a rotating basis in each elementary classroom.

The district’s professional development model offers a combination of full-day workshops with released time for teachers and afterschool workshops. Each teacher’s classroom is a laboratory for learning where teachers observe consultants or colleagues modeling lessons and then participate in “critical friends” conferences. Teachers have the precious commodity of time to work with their department or grade-level members to share successful lessons and instructional materials and to learn from each other.

The goal of each component of the district’s professional development model is to provide teachers with experiences to develop students who are deep, independent thinkers. Burris, the high school principal, notes, “As classes become more heterogeneous, teachers become more ingenious.”

Parent Roles

In our initiative, parents actively participated in the gradual transformation of the middle school and high school from their tracked environments to high-quality single courses of study in each academic subject area. Parents received test data, diploma rates and level of student participation in high-level classes via a number of forums. A teacher and a parent from each of the district’s seven schools participate in the PTA Curriculum Committee. The group meets monthly with the assistant superintendent for instruction to address curriculum concerns. The representatives share information regarding curriculum initiatives with the local PTA and bring curriculum concerns from the local group to the district committee.

The superintendent, who has maintained close attention to the initiative throughout, worked closely with the PTA council of local presidents to build a high-level understanding and support for detracking. Believing that community members needed a full understanding of the process and goals, he also informed the public at board of education meetings.

Fearing that the initiative was headed for a mediocre middle ground, parents expressed concern for the struggling students and the exceptional students alike. The administration and school board responded with the data showing the positive effects of detracking in all subjects for all students. In one telling moment, a parent who had originally been vociferously opposed to honors English and social studies for all students in grade 10 commented at a public meeting: “My child has never discussed literature at home with us, but last week she described the conflict and resolution in Macbeth in detail. I am a believer in an enriched curriculum for all.” Our initiative continues to create believers among the parents of our students.

Quality Results

Research by Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton in Teaching to Change the World refers to tracking as a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations, fewer opportunities and poor academic performance. Students in Rockville Centre hear the opposite and have clearly shown they can perform at an advanced level. Some students may receive an additional support class, but the bottom line is that all students receive the same high-quality curriculum and instruction and start on the path to calculus in grade 12.

As Rockville Centre opened and, in some cases, mandated enrollment in honors classes, those students identified in grade five on a standardized test as low achievers, average achievers and high achievers benefited from participation in heterogeneously grouped high-quality classes. Burris’ doctoral dissertation research on universal acceleration in math indicated:

  • Scores in AP Calculus for all students, including initial high achievers increased significantly;

  • More than three times as many African-American and Latino students now take accelerated math courses, including AP Calculus, substantially closing the gap with the white and Asian students;

  • As enrollment increased by 25 percent in AP Calculus, the percentage of students scoring above a 3 increased for both AB and BC Calculus; and

  • The percentage of students who completed trigonometry before graduating from high school showed a significant increase. Initial low achievers increased from 38 percent to 53 percent, initial average achievers increased from 81 percent to 91 percent and initial high achievers increased from 89 percent to 99 percent.

The higher standards encouraged students to continue in math, and more students, especially those who were African American or Latino, enrolled in math courses at higher levels than prior to detracking.

The evidence of higher achievement extends beyond math. In grade 9 with a single high-level course of study in heterogeneous classes, more students passed English and social studies. Similarly, the Regents passing rate in biology increased from 78 percent to 92 percent.

As more students chose to accept the challenge of the IB program in grades 11 and 12, achievement on state Regents and IB exams increased. In English 11 IB, the percentage of the students who elected to take the course grew from 53 percent to 66 percent from 2001 to 2003. The percentage of these students who scored at mastery level (85 percent) on the state English Regents climbed from 60 percent to 99 percent.

The data continue to support our decisions and allow us to conclude that high-quality curriculum and high-quality instruction for all students in heterogeneously grouped classes is essential to eliminate the achievement and diploma gaps for minority, low SES and special education students. Administrators must resist the arguments from some parents and teachers that even a small group must receive a different level or type of instruction. The longitudinal growth in achievement in Rockville Centre schools demonstrates that high achievers excel even as more students become high achievers. The combination of rigorous curriculum and heterogeneous classes benefit all students.

Delia Garrity is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Rockville Centre Union Free School District, 128 Shepherd St., Rockville Centre, NY 11570. E-mail: dgarrity@rvcschools.org