The hidden connection between on-level classes and systemic racism
The “all honors” program is aimed at helping students of color with the achievement gap by removing regular on-level classes and allowing all classes to be an honors class. “All honors” is a program built on removing the effects of systemic racism in the education system. Overall, the “all honors” program is beneficial to all MCPS schools because it reduces academic tracking, closes the opportunity gap, and different students are able to interact with one another.
According to a demographic census by Synergy at Montgomery Blair High School, Black and Latinx students are not equally represented in honors classes compared to the total number of students in the class. Assistant Principal for the class of 2025 Rahman Culver and other Blair staff began to question these statistics. “Is it that Black and Latinx students just can't cut it? Or are we doing something that is creating barriers for them to be able to engage in those kinds of classroom experiences?” he says.
This program has raised questions among parents if “all honors” is a disadvantage for students. Parents from all over the county are questioning if their children can even call their classes an honors class after recent changes to several MCPS schools.
Academic tracking is the act of dividing students based on their test scores and skill levels. Its premise is that a student's test scores and their teacher's evaluation determine their abilities in the classroom. This method hinders the students' potential and doesn’t fully consider a student's strengths because under academic tracking, students are judged by records and untrustworthy evaluations. Records refers to the data the school has on a student based on their test scores and academic achievement. These records don’t reveal the true potential of a student, which therefore causes inaccurate evaluations. A person is not able to physically acknowledge the strengths of a student because they have already been predetermined.
Academic tracking contributes to the effects of systemic racism. Gifted programs or honors classes have been shown to create a racial division within schools. The Century Foundation is an organization specially designed to conduct research and change on issues such as race and gender. According to Halley Potter, a senior at The Century Foundation that specializes in public policy solutions for addressing educational inequality explains that these practices “lead not only to a separation of students based on achievement levels but also to geographic stratification that mirrors racial and socioeconomic segregation.” Students of color are primarily excluded from these honors and gifted programs.
The “all honors” program was enforced after the principal, Renay Johnson and other Blair staff noticed there was an uneven number of students of color in on-level classes and honors classes. At Montgomery Blair High School, data was collected after the “all honors” program was implemented during the 2020-2021 school year.
Culver explained that the data recorded showed progress from before. “When we looked at the achievement data, it was pretty comparable to what it was prior to,” indicating that the “all honors” program allowed for significant changes in these numbers. Students of color were beginning to excel in these honors classes more than before.
This academic tracking ultimately adds to the opportunity gap. The system is designed so that students of color stay in on-level classes and are disadvantaged from the resources that mostly white students gain in honors classes. The Century Foundation further explains that “when rich and poor students, white students and students of color, are by and large in different academic programs, the equalizing power of integration—which helps to promote equitable distribution of resources—is weakened.”
This obvious opportunity gap causes students of color to experience a watered down curriculum. “Students in lower-track classes tend to receive less rigorous instruction focused on rote skills,” U.S. News reports. By being placed in classes fit to their presumed intelligence, students in lower tracks aren’t able to gain new challenges that align better with what they will face in college. Therefore, students of color in the on-level track will have a more difficult time in college than students in honors classes.
Students put on these on-level classes lack the opportunity to reach their full potential as well. Rebecca Hughes, a social studies resource teacher at Montgomery Blair, emphasizes the great potential of her on-level students. “I knew that the students in my class were full of magic and full of creativity and amazing things. And maybe they needed a few more scaffolds to write an essay, but they could absolutely get to the point of writing the essay,” she explains.
These students' biggest disadvantage is their inability to take honors classes. According to Hughes, by giving them the chance, they will be able to achieve their potential.
Allowing on-level students the same opportunities to reach their potentials as honors students and implementing “all honors” in turn allows for more diversity among classes. The Century Foundation further explains that “when classrooms are skewed by race and class, students are robbed of some of the peer interactions and access to social networks that diversity can provide.” Implementing all honors classes allows for a diversity that isn’t commonly shown.
“All honors” allows students and staff to acknowledge their differences and embraces them. EducationWeek emphasizes that “this approach places opportunity at the core of a classroom where teachers, students, parents, families, and communities recognize students’ diverse and dynamic assets.” Teachers will be able to experience students with a wide variety of strengths and students will be able to collaborate and learn from each other because of their differences.
Dr. Celita Lewis Davis, the former diversity and inclusion coordinator at Blair explains how teachers hope to implement this program to promote diversity but worry if they will be properly trained. Many think that on-level students tend to be more troublesome and would therefore cause difficulty for teachers if they were mixed up in various classes.
“I think one of the things that teachers wish for is to be able to use that course[honors classes] as a way to bring different students together but some teachers really need training because they’ve never taught a variety of students in one class,” Lewis Davis says.
Opponents of “all honors” may also argue that these classes will be watered down or made easier. However, this is far from the case. Hughes further explains the lack of difference between on-level and honors classes.
“There was no difference in curriculum between honors and on level. So it didn’t really make sense for us to have them separated,” she says. The only real difference between honors and on-level classes was the assignments and projects honors classes completed, with most of them including more in depth research. Both honors and on-level show a very similar curriculum so separating these classes based solely on assignments becomes pointless and unethical.
Additional arguments may arise that these differently leveled classes allow teachers to give more attention to students. This is incorrect because academic tracking allows teachers to give more attention usually because these classes are smaller. Rethinking Schools, a a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization explains that “when tracked classes do provide more individual attention, it is because classes are smaller and teachers are using a wider variety of strategies, not because the students are at similar 'levels.'”
There is no use of forcing students of color on this preset path if even the classes themselves offer similar curriculums. It’s time for students of color to be set on a new path, one that is not predetermined. “All honors” benefits all students of color because of its decrease in academic tracking, assistance with the opportunity gap, and by allowing students to gain insight from different peers.
Bethel Ameha. Hi, my name is Bethel Ameha and I'm on both the writer and photo staff. I play two sports at Blair, both soccer and volleyball. I enjoy reading and listening to music. I love going out with my friends as well! More »