Posted on October 17, 2023

Schools Cut Honors Classes to Address Racial Equity. It Isn’t a Quick Fix.

Sara Randazzo, Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2023

Before science teacher Rachel Richards’s Silicon Valley high school eliminated honors classes in her department, teaching the non-honors courses meant you were in for a year of behavioral problems, she recalled.

Now, students from across achievement levels are taught together, and Richards has noticed the teenagers try harder and pay more attention to lessons. {snip}

Menlo-Atherton High School, where Richards has worked for a decade, is among a number of high schools nationwide that are trying to reduce racial segregation on campuses by eliminating two-tiered systems of honors and regular classes, primarily during freshman year.

The theory goes that starting everyone on equal footing gives more students the confidence and skills needed to enroll in honors and Advanced Placement courses in later years. The changes typically target Black and Latino students, who are underrepresented in advanced courses in most states.

Districts in California and Illinois report mixed success in widening the pool for advanced classes after making changes to freshman-year offerings, recently released district data show. {snip}

Some students reported a decrease in rigor after the changes to honors classes.


In the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., the local high school is analyzing the first year of a revamped curriculum that enrolls almost all ninth-graders in honors classes for English, science, history and world languages. {snip}

Oak Park and River Forest High School officials pitched “honors-for-all” to the community for three years before implementing it. “I’m not willing to have my children succeed if it means they have to step on Black kids to do so,” Mary Anne Mohanraj, a board member for the high school, said in October 2021 before voting in favor, calling it a moral choice.

In the freshman class entering Oak Park in 2021-2022, a year before the new system, white students made up 54% of the class and at least 62% of those in honors classes; Black students were 18% of the class and 9% or less of honors enrollment.

In a district study released last month, the school points to a promising early sign: The proportion of courses that sophomores enrolled in this year that were honors or Advanced Placement rose by 8 percentage points, to 44%. In the four restructured subject areas, it rose 7 percentage points to 66%.

While more students across racial groups enrolled in advanced classes after the changes, differences by race persist. Among white sophomores, 77% of their core classes were at advanced levels, compared with 41% for Black students, 60% for Hispanic students and 85% for Asian students.

Five years ago, 66% of white sophomores’ core classes were honors or AP level, compared with 22% for Black sophomores, 42% for Hispanic sophomores and 62% for Asian sophomores.


At Menlo-Atherton, students can still pick from more than two dozen advanced courses. Last year, about a third of the school’s 2,100 students took an Advanced Placement class.

The school’s freshman honors English course—which assigned some 40 pages of nightly reading to complete the entirety of “The Odyssey”—had a reputation for causing stress and burnout, as well as intellectual awakenings. Two years ago, the school replaced honors with a single freshman course called Multicultural Literature and Voice, which pulls from a more diverse set of reading material.