Science Curriculum Coordinator Ed Wiser said the science department is still in the preliminary stages of considering what an unleveled 9th grade physics class would look like. He said the science department has been at the forefront of rethinking what high school science education can look like across the nation.
According to Wiser, the approach of taking physics during freshman year instead of later grades has allowed for a more accessible, engaging curriculum and increased the heterogeneity of higher-level science courses.
McCormick said the physics team, funded by the Innovation Fund, has done extensive work to align the curriculums of the 9th grade college preparatory and honors levels of physics. Before this alignment, McCormick said the honors physics class was structured differently in terms of units and content.
“Now, [the honors and college prep courses] do [have] different complexities, but the courses are going through the same content at the same time. And so part of my hope is that because they’ve done that work of aligning the curriculum of the classes, now we can think about how to put a wider variety of students in the same room,” McCormick said.
Ninth graders can choose between Chinese, French, Japanese, Latin and Spanish for world language. Depending on the language, there are between one and four levels for 9th grade.
World Language Curriculum Coordinator Rachel Eio said although the world language department plans to reimagine the structure of levels by welcoming mixed-grade courses, removing all leveling in 9th grade is unrealistic because of the wide range of experiences with languages for incoming students.
“If we think about deleveling, what does it mean to put kids all together in a room, some who have intermediate level proficiency skills? We have students who can do really sophisticated things by the time they’re getting to 9th grade, particularly in Spanish and French, and then we have kids who have never studied Spanish at all,” Eio said. “You can’t put them in the same room; it makes no sense whatsoever. It’s not good for the students, it’s not good for the teachers.”
When students transition from 8th grade in the PSB, world language switches from a special subject to a core subject area, and the high school has a two-year language graduation requirement. Eio said this structure presents scheduling challenges in the middle schools, as students with special education needs are often taken out of language classes and enter the high school with limited language experience.
“The reality is that we have a broken system when we think about the ways in which kids are getting pulled from world language in K-8,” Eio said. “It’s creating really inequitable classes. Those are challenging classes, and kids can’t progress in the language that they’re studying because they’re starting so late.”
Eio said the department is in the beginning stages of developing a new program and will potentially launch a 9th grade pilot in Fall 2024. Based on levels of proficiency, the department hopes to reduce the number of levels across grades and introduce courses that will likely be thematic and include embedded honors options.
McCormick said that since students enter 9th grade with a multitude of language abilities, the department would have to extensively rework many courses to design an unleveled 9th grade course.
“We basically have to change every course in world language. That is a much bigger endeavor [than for English and science]. We’re not giving the department a specific timeline, but we’re sort of making sure everybody’s on the same train,” McCormick said.
When students enter the high school as freshmen, Math Department Chair Josh Paris said leveling in classes imposes labels that often stick with them throughout their four years. There are currently three levels of math for 9th graders: college preparatory, honors and advanced.
“As students come in from the middle schools, a lot of the message that we give to them is that high school is a chance to reinvent yourself, to reimagine who you are as students. And yet, before they even get here, we label them, which impacts their identities as students and as mathematicians. We make it so much more difficult for students to reimagine who they are,” Paris said.
Paris said the racial distribution across levels of 9th grade math courses has also motivated the movement to reconsider leveling.
In the 2020-21 school year, course enrollment data shows that of Black freshmen enrolled in a Geometry class, 47 percent were enrolled in college preparatory Geometry, 42 percent in Geometry Honors and 11 percent in Geometry Advanced. Of Asian freshmen in a Geometry class, nine percent were enrolled in college preparatory Geometry, 42 percent in Geometry Honors and 48 percent in Geometry Advanced.
“If you look at the racial breakdowns of our levels, students of color are underrepresented in both honors and advanced,” Paris said. “We have the Calculus Project, which has done a lot of work at the high school to combat that and to improve those numbers and with a lot of success, but that opportunity gap still remains. Our leveling structure creates racialized outcomes.”
According to Paris, the math department has worked on constructing new 9th grade programming for around six years. He said they initiated a pilot program merging levels during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years and hoped to have developed a new program along with the opening of 22 Tappan, until COVID-19 forced a shift in focus.
“We took a section of college prep, a section of honors, a section of advanced and remixed them and put them in more heterogeneously grouped classes. We really thought carefully about what a unit would look like taught to a heterogeneous population,” Paris said. “We learned a lot from that on how the students’ experiences differ in the various units and the work we need to do to create a program that serves all students well in order to reflect their differences.”
Paris said the math department is currently looking into embedded honors and similar models that could allow students to elect for an honors credit in a mixed-level classroom. However, he said the current structure of the 9th grade math program with three levels makes condensing levels more complicated.
“We don’t know what model we’re going to have, but we need to provide opportunities in 9th grade with whatever model we choose. We need to prepare students to be able to access honors and advanced level work beyond 9th grade. So part of the work we do in 9th grade will be to provide students access to get to that level of work,” Paris said.
Before a 9th grade pilot of alternative leveling, Paris said the department plans to conduct student polls to better understand 9th graders’ experiences in their current math classes.
“We definitely plan to involve all stakeholders in thinking through why we’re doing this and what it would look like,” Paris said. “I’ll have a group of teachers that will teach 9th grade that will be taking the lead, but we want to make sure that we involve parents in the process and students because it’s the students’ experiences that we are hoping to improve, and we want to hear from students about their experiences.”
Freshman Alya Barsky-Elnour said the speed and structure of her college preparatory Geometry class have allowed her to gain confidence in her mathematical abilities, and she now is considering moving to honors for sophomore year math.
“Being in this math class this year has really helped me feel more secure,” Barsky-Elnour said. “They’re recommending me for honors, so I might give that a go.”
Barsky-Elnour said students in college preparatory Geometry may be constricted by a negative mindset.
“For a lot of kids, and a lot of them are kids of color, they feel like they can’t move up. I think that I’m lucky to not be one of those people,” Barsky-Elnour, who is Black, said. “I think some kids are too comfortable where they are. They think they can’t do better. A lot of students don’t believe in their brain and don’t think they’re smart enough.”
Both Barsky-Elnour and freshman Jackson Musto, who is taking Advanced Geometry, said they enjoy the dynamics of their math courses this year, especially in contrast with their unleveled 8th grade courses.
“It’s a really welcoming environment, way more than my 8th grade year was. They are really welcoming when you’re wrong,” Barsky-Elnour said. “I think it’s a really nice and more calm environment in which I feel a lot more comfortable raising my hand, and I’m not ashamed of being wrong.”
If an unleveled Geometry option had been available, Barsky-Elnour said she likely still would have elected to take the college preparatory Geometry course.
“I don’t think I would have jumped at that opportunity just because that’s how it was in middle school; it was the same three people who were always the ones answering. I think that’s what contributed to my thinking that I wasn’t in the place that was for me,” Barsky-Elnour said.
One of the challenges in creating a new math program is that 9th grade lays the foundation for future levels, eventually leading to more advanced math courses offered to juniors and seniors. Paris said he aims to have more students enroll in math courses of higher levels as upperclassmen.
“If you group all students together, and we don’t know what the plan is going to be, [but] there’s a danger we’ll teach the kids in the middle. But if you do that, then the students with stronger math backgrounds don’t get their academic needs met, nor do the students who have more math and academic challenges,” Paris said. “The goal is to make sure that all students, wherever they are mathematically, are challenged and supported. I think that’ll be the basis of the way we design the courses.”
The advanced track of math culminates with AP BC Calculus. The course covers the college courses of Calculus I and Calculus II at a college-level pace. Senior Amit Piryatinsky, who is in AP BC Calculus, said he has enjoyed advanced math and appreciates how it has prepared him for his future.
“[AP BC Calculus] is a challenging course, but I enjoy learning math and that is why I am in advanced,” Piryatinsky said. “Diving deep into math and into what, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting parts of math, is enabled by not only the speed and rigor of the course, but also the environment.”
Piryatinsky pointed out that a majority of people who enroll in advanced math in 9th grade engaged in supplemental math education in middle school. This can be challenging for students in advanced math who have not had access to auxiliary math education.
Musto said he would not have chosen to take an unleveled Geometry option because of the slower pace it would likely assume compared to the advanced level.
“I think what makes Advanced [Geometry] a good class is that it moves at a very quick pace that the people who are supposed to be taking [the class] can keep up with,” Musto said.
Piryatinsky said deleveling may limit advanced track students from reaching their full potential.
“I think the idea of deleveling is a good one, but I fear that it could lead to this idea of, instead of nobody left behind it ends up being nobody running ahead, that [deleveling] kind of restricts people from excelling,” Piryatinsky said.
Shiffman said some class blocks of WHISP do not have a truly varied selection of students, especially in regard to students who require co-teaching support as part of their IEPs.
“Co-teaching is a limited resource, so what we’ve ended up doing is forcing a whole bunch of kids who have learning disabilities into particular sections,” Shiffman said. “There are parts of the scheduling process that exacerbate that… [some blocks] aren’t heterogeneous: they’re homogeneous with a lot of kids with high needs, and that’s a problem.”
Shiffman said prior to the creation of WHISP, the distinction of taking an honors class was not meaningful, with close to 70 percent of freshmen taking honors social studies.
Shiffman said he remembers observing a 9th grade college preparatory social studies class in which two students were discussing a series of documents. He said he saw their enthusiasm and intelligence in the small group but that during the whole class discussion, their demeanor was “cavalier.”
“What’s going on is [the students are] comfortable here. I would like them to be a little less comfortable and rise up to the expectations they deserve to have for themselves,” Shiffman said. “I just started thinking if these kids were in an honors class, they would do fine. And I just started to think, why exactly are they in this level, not at that level?”