Eliminating honors classes in ninth grade isn't hurting high achievers, and it may be helping other students to succeed at college-acceptance-level courses, a Sequoia Union High School District report has found.
The so-called blended or "heterogeneous" classes lump students together in one classroom rather than having a two-tiered system of instruction that separates intellectual elites. The goal was to boost the grades and opportunities for less-advantaged students under the theory that all students working together would improve equity, cooperation and participation, thus improving student outcomes.
The program, which includes English language arts, mathematics and science classes and is aimed at fostering equity, has improved outcomes for students at all levels in the classroom without decreasing rigor for the "high fliers.” And while many students previously assigned to classes that didn't get them near the college track are now succeeding, not all students and parents approve of the idea.
During the Sept. 20 study session meeting, many students and parents spoke against the program in a three-hour public comment session urging the district's Board of Trustees to return to the old double-track classes.
The single-track classrooms discriminate against the more advanced students by holding them back, honors-class proponents claimed. The merged classes prevent the students from being further prepared for the advanced placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program classes, they said.
The district's report, titled "Streamlining Course Offerings and Creating More Diverse Learning Environments to Increase Student Access and Success," found that merging students into the same classes has increased the number of students overall who not only passed classes needed for college acceptance, but they later entered advanced-placement levels in some subjects. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students also improved significantly in some of the streamlined classes.
Diana Wilmot, director of program evaluation and research, acknowledged the study's limitations. Given just six weeks to complete the report, the study focused on student academic achievement in course enrollment, grades and test scores contributing to college entrance and high school graduation requirements. The study ignored other factors, such as socioeconomic status, prior academic achievement and the learning environment, she noted, adding that with academic rigor, the study could have taken many months to complete.
During the Sept. 20 school district board meeting, public speakers commented for nearly three hours about the pros and cons of continuing the merged classes.
"I think that AP classes should be brought back because many students are passionate about certain areas. Whether it's physics, math, English, science, they should have the opportunity to learn content that they are actually appropriately challenged for," a middle school student named Yoshi said.
Sushant, a senior in the district, said having honors courses early in high school is a vital step for preparation for college readiness and advanced classes later in high school.
"I've learned a myriad of indispensable skills from my advanced classes, such as analytical skills and critical thinking, and these are essential for college readiness,” Sushant said. “The focus should not simply be on test scores and grades because college readiness and learning are not always reflected in these metrics. I've seen countless examples where the grades between classes are the same, but the work that it took to get there was different.”
Candace Bolles, a history teacher at Menlo-Atherton High School with 20 years of educational experience, addressed concerns raised by the parent group Students First, which sent a letter to the trustees.
Contrary to their claim that merged classes harm students, Bolles stated that after the 2021-22 shift from tracked to detracked ninth-grade ethnic studies, the number of 10th graders in AP History doubled, with pass rates climbing to 98% for the AP World exam, Bolles said.
“Not only has the pass rate increased, (but) the distribution of scores has changed. More students than ever are scoring a four or a five on the AP exam. Last year, 60% of students scored a five on the AP World exam. It's clear that de-tracking the ninth-grade history courses has not harmed students but, in fact, has contributed to their academic advancement,” she added.
Rachel Richards, a biology and chemistry teacher at M-A, said she was initially apprehensive about teaching a blended course. She thought she would have to "dumb down" the curriculum. But her sentiments have changed 180 degrees, she said.
"I have watched students of all levels thrive in our blended classes. I think those who are opposed are afraid that opportunities for students are being removed,” Richards said. “This is a grave misconception. Instead, we are providing enriched opportunities for everyone in our blended courses.
"I teach the same rigorous curriculum to my students now as I did in my AS classes. The labs are the same; the subject matter is the same," she said.
The science standards have changed to allow students to access curricula from multiple points, such as designing an experiment, which allows advanced students to stretch while average students can still thrive in more tailored experiments, she said.
Sequoia Union High School District initially merged math classes in response to low algebra scores among certain groups of students on the California State Dashboard Indicators.
The district developed a pilot program placing students in University of California A-G math courses - ones that are mandatory for UC and California State University admissions.
Students were enrolled in combined science classes meeting UC standards.
The district streamlined language arts and some math and science course offerings for students by eliminating remedial courses and merging introductory “advanced” and “grade level” courses to promote classroom diversity, which would allow underserved students to access A-G coursework and demonstrate their ability to graduate and meet the University of California and California State University admissions requirements, according to the district.
The district said the move would improve outcomes for students not initially on the “advanced track,” opening up access to advanced courses such as AP or IB courses during their upperclassmen years. The change would maintain or increase high AP or IB course enrollments and test-pass rates for students who traditionally have started high school in the “advanced track," the district said.
The classes had higher expectations and more specific teaching experiences for the different student needs. They were designed to create a greater sense of belonging for the students in more diverse classrooms, according to the report.
Teachers across the district have endorsed the benefits of these changes. The highest-achieving students' performance also remained strong. According to the staff report, teachers reported better learning environments for all, as students had more opportunities to get to know each other.
The report looked at English language arts, science and mathematics students on the district level and within four high schools, including Sequoia, Menlo-Atherton, Woodside and Carlmont.
Specifically, Sequoia High has seen an uptick in students taking IB English, with a notable 90% now meeting UC A-G requirements. There was no growth in the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students taking the IB class. The number of students who took IB English in their junior year increased from 167 for the class of 2017 to 228 for the class of 2024.
At Menlo-Atherton, the numbers were more significant for the more disadvantaged students. The study showed that the number of these students achieving a GPA of 3.5 or above tripled, with many more earning A grades. Menlo-Atherton disadvantaged students who enrolled in any variety of chemistry classes increased from 40 students from the class of 2017 to 157 from the class of 2023 – a nearly 300% increase, the study found.
Meanwhile, Sequoia's chemistry program, dominated by non-disadvantaged students, still shows overall benefits from the merged structure and the merged classes didn't negatively impact the "high-fliers," as more students received A grades, the study showed.
While the number of students who took AP Physics increased overall, disadvantaged chemistry students did not enroll in the AP Physics class in their junior year. Eleven students in the class of 2022 received top grades of four or five; that number rose to 36 in the class of 2023, and so far, for the class of 2024, 48% of students have received the highest grades. A full 81% of students in the AP Physics achieved passing grades, Wilmot said.
At Carlmont High, chemistry enrollments are lower, but top-grade students have increased, Principal Gay Buckland Murray said.
Districtwide, more socioeconomically disadvantaged first-year students are enrolling in above-grade-level math who are in the class of 2026, the report found. The number of disadvantaged students who achieved the UC algebra requirement (the "C" level out of the A-G requirements) rose from 212 among the class of 2017 to 368 among the class of 2026, a 74% increase, according to the report. Non-socioeconomically disadvantaged students met the requirement 80% of the time with a pass rate of more than 90%.
More students were also meeting the science requirements for UC and CSU, including a positive change for socioeconomically disadvantaged students after merging classes. Still, the numbers didn't translate into more of those students opting for the college-preparatory AP Biology class in the upper grades, the study found.
Mostly non-socioeconomically disadvantaged students participated in AP Biology, with the number of students increasing from 39 to 87 in two years. The number of juniors and seniors enrolling in AP/IB Biology courses more than doubled from 142 among the class of 2017 to 362 among the class of 2023, the report found.
Although no votes were taken during the study session, SUHSD trustees weighed in with their views.
Jacob Yuryov, one of two student trustees, said he spent the past couple of weeks discussing the merged classes with "every single student I can get my hands on, " including students at other schools.
"Everywhere, I asked them what they thought … Their response was almost unanimous. Almost every single student that I talked to gave me a resounding 'yes,' and explicitly stated their desire for the return of honors courses that have been taken away and explicitly stated their desire for the board not to take away any more courses,” Yuryov said, adding that his conversations included students who were not enrolled in advanced classes.
But some district teachers noted that preparation and the desire for a prestigious "honors" label during early high school years are not the same. The blended classes foster critical thinking skills and appreciation for different perspectives, which has been crucial to the growth of all students. Taking away the honors classes didn't change access to college-preparatory AP and IB classes, which might give a leg up to students going to college, they said.
Board trustee Sathvik Nori said it's still concerning that there wasn't an increase in underrepresented minorities taking higher-level AP courses. He quoted from an article he wrote when he was a senior in the school district.
"The problem of underrepresented minorities not taking honors classes is not something that is unique to the English department or even M-A for that regard. But if we continue to eliminate honors classes rather than addressing the root of the issue, we are doing a disservice to all students. Yes, there are inequities in the educational opportunities that students have across our district, especially in their feeder middle schools. But more worryingly, there's a culture that sees honors and AP classes as only for white and Asian students. If we look at any AP Chemistry, AP European History … AP Calculus or AP Physics class, you will see a demographic no different than that of formerly (what was) English 1. If anything, it is worse."
That institutionalized perspective that only a specific type of people are meant to take honors and AP courses must be deconstructed, Nori said.
"Because if we do not solve that problem, we will never solve the achievement gap," he added.