Madison school district hits ‘pause’ on plan to end standalone honors classes

Dylan Brogan:

The Madison school district is delaying its plan to eliminate standalone honors classes at its high schools.

The district hasn’t publicly announced the policy shift or if it’s considering scrapping the plan entirely. At its Dec. 6 meeting, school board members were told by Director of Advanced Learning Sharon Alexander that the district was on track to end standalone honors classes for 9th graders starting in the 2022 fall semester and 10th graders in 2023. Isthmus learned the plan was being delayed from a high school teacher in January. It took district spokesperson Tim LeMonds three weeks to confirm what administrators had already told teachers. 

“Standalone and earned honors will still be available for 9th and 10th graders next year,” wrote LeMonds in a Feb. 8 email to Isthmus. “We have put a pause on the removal of standalone honors to allow for more time to review this strategy, obtain student and community input, and board involvement.” 

District administrators informed the Madison school board at an April 5, 2021, board meeting they were planning to phase out traditional honors classes for 9th and 10th graders. These courses are for core subject areas like biology, English, and history. There are no exams or other requirements to get into these classes and any student is allowed to enroll. Instead of standalone honors courses, the district was going to focus exclusively on the “Earned Honors” program. Begun in 2017, this program allows students to receive honors designation in non-honors classes if they complete “predetermined criteria.” 

Administrators at the April 5 meeting enthusiastically endorsed eliminating standalone honors classes. 

“This is an anti-racist strategy. Earned honors supports our commitment to truly becoming an anti-racist institution. It allows us to set a bar of excellence for all of our students, for 100 percent of our students,” said Kaylee Jackson, executive director for curriculum. “[Standalone honors classes] are an exclusionary practice in which only some students within our high schools are receiving this rigorous instruction and capable of receiving honors credit.”

According to the latest data from the district, 41 percent of students in standalone honors classes are students of color. White students represent 43 percent of the total student population in the district, but make up 59 percent of standalone honors classes. 

Most school board members expressed support at the meeting for eliminating standalone honors, although no vote was taken to either move forward or reject the idea. Board member Ananda Mirilli said she was “100 percent behind” the plan, a sentiment echoed by board member Savion Castro.

Chris Rickert:

Under a plan proposed by administrators last year, beginning with the 2022-23 school year, ninth-graders would only be able to earn honors credit through the district’s “earned honors” program, which places all students in the same classes but allows those who want to earn honors credit to do so if they meet a set of criteria showing mastery of the content. The same would apply to 10th-graders beginning in the 2023-24 school year.

The shift away from stand-alone honors classes was pitched by administrators as a way to boost racial equity, as students of color historically have been less likely to take honors-only classes, although they are open to all students. Those racial disparities have been closing in recent years.

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