What is de-tracking and why does it matter to me?  Some information for new parents

from https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=23010&picture=train-tracks-junction, public domain.

The following information is lengthy because it’s my attempt to share with parents the full extent of what I know.

What is “tracking”?

If you have a child in middle school, he or she may have been placed in a “track” for math class – algebra, geometry, or general math, for example.  At the high school level, generally speaking, these “tracks” expand to all four core classes:  students will take either Honors or regular Written and Oral Composition, Honors or regular biology, a math class based on their level, and AP or regular human geography, based on standardized test scores and 8th grade teacher recommendations.  Some students who need additional assistance will take a class which offers additional support.  (I admit that I don’t personally know much about how large a group they encompass.)  Some students will be recommended for all-honors, others for all-regular, and others still a mix of each.  While most students stay with the “tracks” they start with, that’s not always the case, and schools will accommodate a student who does well in the “regular” class moving up a level, or a student who is struggling with the honors level (or who simply needs a more balanced class schedule) moving down.  Very approximately, 1/3 to 1/2 of students are placed in the “honors” level class in any given subject.

What is “de-tracking”?

Having said that, at Meadows and at Elk Grove, that’s not the case, or at least not for all classes; instead, they are implementing what’s called “de-tracking,” removing these tracks.

At Meadows, for the current academic year, the freshman biology class is being run on an “earned honors” format, in which all students are placed together and students are given an “earned honors” designation for meeting certain benchmarks.  At Elk Grove, this applies to English for freshmen and sophomores, and geography and biology for freshmen.  This is being done in the name of “equity.”  The school district further asserts that these classes are being “taught at an honors level.”  (To be clear, this also means that the AP Human Geography class is no longer an option for freshmen; a student would have to choose this as an elective later on.)

And that’s about as much as is “officially” known.  There is no official announcement from the school district with respect to which additional classes may be changed to this format in the future, whether at RMHS or EGHS.  In fact, I personally spoke with Superintendent Schuler in April of 2021, and he assured me that this was a two year pilot program and was limited to one class at Meadows and one class at Elk Grove, and that it would not be expanded further without discussion by the school board.  Even at the time he told me this, however, plans were already underway to expand to the other classes at Elk Grove.

How does this work in practice?

I can state from our own experience that the biology class at Meadows is not merely the same class as in the past, with modifications to accommodate students of all academic levels.  The teachers have in fact written an entirely new curriculum, which appears to emphasize “think like a scientist” rather than content knowledge in the field of biology.  My son has described class activities which appear to emphasize “student engagement” rather than actually learning subject material.  In order to accommodate all levels, the students watch recorded videos and work on worksheets, choosing between a more or less difficult version.  They also have adopted certain “equity” grading ideas and have eliminated grades below a C, and have introduced the idea of “negotiating” your semester grade with the teacher at the end of the semester.  At the parent open house in the fall, the teachers indicated that the program would be evaluated by surveying “attitudes” about the class (that is, not by measuring student learning).

As to the Elk Grove English class, I spoke to a parent last year who reported that students appeared to nearly automatically be given the “honors” designation.  I also spoke with another individual who indicated that curriculum was not “honors level” and that the “earned honors” was given not for doing “honors” work but simply for meeting grade-level standards.

What information has the district withheld?

I have also attempted to find out more information on the “earned honors” curriculum, including any plans for evaluating the pilot program and the extent of the plans for these or other schools, through the FOIA process.  My request for further information was denied with the claim that all materials are exempt.  It turns out that any document in which any individual provides an opinion on a potential change is exempt from the law and at no point in the process did any staff member produce a document which simply outlined decisions and future plans without also adding in content which exempts the document.

It has been suggested to me that RMHS and Elk Grove have been singled out for Earned Honors because maladministration in District 59 resulted in significant learning gaps for students entering the district from those feeder schools.  If that is true, the other four schools are “safe” and those students will continue as usual.  If not, then all students may be subject to these curriculum changes.

Parents should also understand that the district’s implementation of these changes without any public discussion is not the norm.  I researched this and found that in each other instance of such a change locally, the school board voted on the change and the administration reported to the school board on plans from the start rather than, as is the case here, dodging this with the claim that a pilot program need not have a school board vote.  I published this research as a guest commentary at the Daily Herald.

So what’s the bottom line?

If you have a new student coming into Meadows or Elk Grove who would be working at an “honors” level, to the extent that these classes are simply covering the “regular” curriculum, your student will miss learning opportunities by the absence of an “honors” class.

If your student is a non-honors student and the school’s claim is true that these classes are taught “at an honors level,” your student will struggle to keep up.

If the school tries to fit all students together with more independent work, your student will miss out on the benefits of actual direct instruction, and students without a firm ability to work independently will fall behind.

And, again, the district’s track record of keeping this information from parents until decisions are already final means that parents at all six comprehensive schools must be concerned.  The parent letter notifying new families of the change to Freshman Composition at Elk Grove went out in August 2020, just before school was scheduled to start.  The parent letter notifying families of the expansion went out in April 2021.  (Clarification: the parent letter for Rolling Meadows was sent in February; as a parent, I read it and it did not register with me that there was anything unusual going on because this was happening at the same time as they were introducing the “Ag Bio” class.)  It may sound like hyperbole, but I do not believe that past statements can be relied upon without a firm commitment by the district and the school board, which they have not been willing to provide, despite pleas to do so during the public comment period at multiple school board meetings.

What can parents do about it?

The changes are being implemented for incoming freshmen so current D214 parents are largely indifferent.  It is important for middle school parents to be aware of what’s in store for them.  Unfortunately, the school board is not very responsive to the community, so it may take a significant number of parents speaking in opposition at school board meetings for them to take notice.


— Authored by Elizabeth Bauer


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *