Des Moines Register
By Mary Stegmeir, email@example.com 6 a.m. CDT July 30, 2014
Advanced English and science classes will no longer be offered in Des Moines middle schools this year, a move that has some parents concerned that top performers won't be challenged.
Instead, students will have the option to complete honors-level assignments in all subjects within general education classrooms.
The shift coincides with the rollout of a new grading system that requires students to master specific concepts. Those who do so then move on to higher-level work, educators have said.
At least two other Iowa districts that switched to the new grading method continue to offer advanced classes. In Waukee, students can take accelerated English, math and science classes. Ankeny also offers advanced math and science courses at the middle-school level, officials said.
Des Moines' new grading format will open doors to students who have been shut out of advanced classes in the past, district officials said. However, some parents question the quality of instruction provided to the district's top students.
"In theory, you can tailor (instruction), but when you have such a diverse learning population, as a teacher, I think you would be naturally inclined to help the ones that are struggling more than advancing the students that can move through the information more quickly," said Natasha Newcomb, whose son took accelerated classes last year at Harding Middle School.
Newcomb began an online petition urging the district to return advanced classes to the middle schools. Fifty-eight parents and community members signed the document.
District officials say advanced students can be served within the traditional classroom. One exception: accelerated math classes will remain.
In addition, seventh- and eighth-grade students in Des Moines will continue to have access to accelerated courses at Central Campus, a magnet school near downtown Des Moines.
The decision to scrap advanced stand-alone courses in the middle schools represents a shift in philosophy, said Noelle Tichy, director of teaching and learning for secondary schools.
"Instead of having an advanced course that's only open to 25 students, we're saying that we want every kid — all 600 (students in a middle school building) — to have an opportunity to access advanced coursework," Tichy said. "They may not all get there, but they should at least all have the opportunity."
Five of Des Moines' 10 middle schools offered at least one advanced class for top performers in English or science in 2013-14. Callanan, Merrill, Brody and McCombs middle schools offered advanced English. Harding provided advanced courses in both English and science.
Last school year, 373 students, or about 6 percent of middle school students, were enrolled in advanced English classes at the five schools.
No district-wide criteria governed how students were selected for accelerated courses, officials said. Students identified as gifted or talented by the district were often enrolled. Other high-achieving students were also admitted.
Curriculum and academic expectations varied among schools, officials said. Yet across the board, minority and poor students were under-represented, officials said.
"This is an equity issue for us," Tichy said.
The standards-referenced grading system, by contrast, will allow all Des Moines students to study high-level concepts. Students with semester scores ranging from 3.5 to 4 on the new 4-point scale will receive an honors designation on their report cards.
Although the elimination of advanced courses for middle school students is a concern, top performers can be served within general education classrooms, said Matt Robie, president of the Iowa Talented and Gifted Association, based in Indianola.
"Studies show that working with intellectual peers at school increases ability, performance and comfort for the entire spectrum of student achievement and ability," he said. "I hope (Des Moines) will preserve clusters of high-ability students who are assigned to teachers that are appropriately trained to work with them."
Teachers will undergo training on how to recognize and encourage above-grade-level work, Des Moines officials said. Additional consultants will be added at the middle school level to increase support for gifted and talented children.
An overarching goal is to prepare more students for success in college-preparation classes, such as the Advanced Placement courses offered to high school students, Tichy said.
Under the prior system, too few students were granted access to challenging curriculum, Tichy said.
When the highest-performingstudents are removed from the classroom, expectations go down for the remaining students, district leaders said.
But parents of advanced students believe integrating high-achieving youngsters back into general education classrooms can also pose risks.
Advanced students benefit from learning alongside children with similar abilities, said Lisa Russell, a parent of three district students. The challenge ignites a passion for learning that can be dulled in courses that move too slowly for top students.
"Part of the disadvantage of the district not offering these advanced classes is that we are asking our brightest students to find ways of motivating themselves, when we, as adults, find that difficult," said Russell, Merrill Middle School's PTA president.
Teachers can alter instruction to keep advanced students engaged, said Jeff Danielian, a teacher resource specialist with the National Association for Gifted Children. Curriculum compacting and ability grouping are two such strategies.
With the first, students are given an opportunity to take tests or other assessments early on, he said. If they pass, they are excused from the week's regular instruction and can use that time to work on a project or tackle other advanced work in the subject.
Ability grouping allows the top performers within a class to work together on assignments that require higher-level thinking or computation skills, Danielian said.
Placing bright students in general education classrooms without such accommodations can undermine their academic progress, he said.
"The (advanced) students are going to bring up the grades in that class just because of their ability levels," Danielian said. "But kids like that, they often are left bored in the classroom."
School officials say the new grading system, which encourages teachers to prepare different types of lessons for different types of students, should help keep all kids focused and on-task in the classroom.
But several Des Moines parents want to see advanced classes continued to be offered.
Instead of eliminating separate classes for advanced students, they have asked the district to develop entrance requirements and curriculum standards for the courses.
They also want to see the classes offered at all middle schools.
"I'm really committed to the ideas of equality in education, but I would argue that sameness doesn't make things equal," said Renee Cramer, mom of an incoming fourth-grader at the Downtown School.
"... The disparities that we have with our students of color and students coming from poverty is not a reason to get rid of those (advanced) classes," she added. "It's a reason to work harder to identify students who are advanced and get them into that coursework."