A recent feature story in the Quad City Times discusses a new "integration" program at North Scott High School that did away with honors classes for freshmen. In their place, students at varying levels of preparation take classes together. Teachers are charged with differentiating within the class. As one teacher puts it, her kids can choose "straightforward" or "hilly" or "mountainous" work. You can read the article (worthwhile, by the way) by following this link.
As long-time readers of this blog may guess, the results have been...mixed. Teachers who have done a lot of training in differentiation, and who are teaching subjects where it's more possible (like social studies) do OK with it. Others struggle quite a bit. As the language arts teacher points out, the most obvious way to differentiate would be to have everyone read the same novel then do different projects with it. But she has such varying reading levels within her class that this is hard to pull off. And some students, as she notes, aren't that into class. Dealing with those discipline issues holds everyone back.
What I find fascinating is the rationale for this de-tracking experiment. According to the article, "Administrators are hoping the end result will be more students signing up for Advanced Placement, or AP, classes." In the past, apparently, only the kids in the honors classes would take AP classes. But why is the solution to this to do away with such classes? An equally obvious solution, to me, would have been to offer more rigorous preparation within the other tracks. It doesn't seem clear why the presence of honors students in general classes would suddenly inspire others to sign up for AP classes later on in their high school careers. More, this seems to me like another excuse to get rid of the readiness grouping which many educators dislike anyway. By framing it in terms of increasing enrollment in AP it gives the movement a little push. But I'd be fascinated to see if rates of students scoring above a 4 or 5 on the AP tests they take go up significantly.