County Schools Move to “Unlevel” Most Classes

County Schools Move to “Unlevel” Most Classes

Albemarle county public schools have been working to “unlevel” course instruction across the curriculum for the past several years in an effort to increase equity and decrease the stigma around taking lower-level classes compared to one’s peers. After slow progress on the initiative during the pandemic-impacted school years, teachers are now fully implementing the division’s unleveling policy, and parents have lots of questions about how the plan is working.

A system of “leveled” instruction means that a school offers separate sections of a class—for example, Standard English and Honors English sections—for students of differing levels of readiness. Unleveling (or de-leveling) is the process of removing those options by pooling all students into single-level classes, each taught by one teacher. A decade ago, county high school core subject classes were offered at five levels: Practical, Standard, Advanced, Honors, and AP or Dual Enrollment. 

“My question is, why do we need so many levels?” said Director of Secondary Education Jay Thomas, who is also a former high school principal. “Why do we level in the first place? The reality is that whether you’re in a Standard, Advanced, or Honors class as we used to call them, it’s the same exact standards from the state that need to be taught.” Thomas says that offering so many levels creates problems for teachers with multiple class preps moving at different paces through the material.

“If you’re teaching, say, English 11 three different ways, that’s more preps, and more stress,” he said. “So [the reason for unleveling] is a combination of those things and just trying to have equitable opportunities regardless of the schools we’re in across our division, because at the end of the day, we’re one Albemarle County Public School system.”

Henley Middle School principal Beth Costa said unleveling has to start in elementary school to avoid labeling students based on early testing. “A second or third grader knows what group they’re in, and why that group is together,” she said. “They’re very savvy. They start to use words like ‘that kid’s smarter than I am,’ or ‘I’m in the dumb class,’ so they are making decisions about themselves as a learner because of these groupings.” Costa said that a leveled approach changes instruction for students who may not “get it” yet.

Henley Middle School principal Beth Costa. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

“What teachers do, with the best of intentions, is they slow down, and then it’s a train that students can’t get off,” she said. “If you start to lose out on curriculum because of the pacing at which you’re receiving grade level instruction, then you’re almost bound to be behind grade level, because you haven’t received the same instruction as your peers. It starts to put little ceilings on students. It’s just a dangerous model, separating kids based solely on readiness.”

Leveled instruction has also been decried by some education professionals as inherently inequitable because of imbalances in how students are assigned to lower-level classes and upper-level or advanced sections. The division’s anti-racism policy commits to “ending the predictive value of … race, class, or gender on student success,” and one of the school division’s 2019 Equity Report key goals is to “consider alternatives to removing struggling students from core instruction in the Tier 1 [top level] setting and provide more unleveled classes in secondary schools.”

Rise to the Challenge

Parents have begun voicing their concerns about the unleveling policy as it’s been implemented in practice in middle and high schools, chief among them the worry that more advanced students are no longer being challenged in school. “This initiative is leading to less rigorous academic opportunities for all our students in the subject areas of language arts, history and science and, as a result, less engagement in the classroom by the students,” said Katie Fusco, parent of a seventh and ninth grader, in a letter to the School Board.

Fusco’s letter listed several “negative educational outcomes as a result of unleveled classrooms,” including the re-use of books and films that have been taught in previous years, the grading of student work based on lowered expectations (e.g., grade level benchmarks vs. individual potential), and significant amounts of wasted time while other students are still learning class material. 

Tracy Betsworth, parent of a fifth grader, wondered about data or studies supporting unleveling. “It was difficult to get information from the middle school, but we finally did hear that classes like English would have no levels,” she said. “So, we connected with a group of other parents asking the same questions about data.” Division officials pointed one parent in the group to a 1992 study in support of the unleveling paradigm, but the study actually showed the opposite—it concluded that placing average-achieving eighth graders into (leveled) advanced math classes helped improve their math scores.

The school division says that to meet students’ needs successfully, an unleveled class requires a teacher who is adept at “differentiation,” a technique that uses flexible grouping and continuous assessments to tailor instruction to individual students. The teacher should be trained to group students creatively so they are not always clustered together with students of similar ability—perhaps grouped instead by interest or affinity or learning style—so that their in-class experiences are varied.

Henley Middle School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“Exposing children to children who may not have had the same experiences is a good thing,” said Henley eighth grade English teacher Elizabeth Sweatman. “Kids can learn from each other, and I don’t necessarily mean academically, I mean they can just learn about other perspectives. So there’s a diversity aspect, and even though we aren’t very racially diverse, we are diverse in other ways.” 

Sweatman also sees behavioral differences in her students under unleveling. “When kids struggle they tend to act out, trying to deflect from the fact that they can’t read well or are having trouble learning, and with all those kids in one [leveled] class we sometimes struggled to reach our goals,” she said. “Now that we’re unleveled, I have zero behavior problems because students who may want to act out do not have an audience the way they used to. My students are amazing, and I try to create an environment where every child can thrive, no matter their background or ability.”

Kristin Smith, parent of a sixth grader, wonders how one teacher can manage an unleveled classroom. “It requires so much of these teachers, to differentiate within a single classroom,” she said, “and I just don’t know how that can be successful for anyone, including the ones who need it the most. I think that it’s possible to be done well, and beautifully, but I think that it’s completely unrealistic to expect all teachers to have that level of talent and patience.”

Smith’s son is an advanced learner and reports “feeling bored and like school is a waste of time.” “He’s disappointed,” she said. “He’s becoming old enough to be able to think past this year and ask himself, ‘Am I going to be ready for high school?’ ‘Am I going to be ready to compete with the kids in college who are getting more than I’m getting at other schools?’ We don’t have time to waste—we don’t want to be the guinea pigs, and we can’t wait another four years to figure out that this isn’t working for us.”

The Onus on Teachers

The school division says it is committed to training teachers on differentiation techniques, though only two of Henley’s teachers attended a summer seminar in 2019 at UVA on differentiation in the classroom. (School division officials were unable to provide the total number of county teachers who have attended external training sessions on the subject.) Other teachers have participated in weekly or monthly online Professional Learning Community meetings with their school and county peers, and Kristina Doubet, an education professor at James Madison University who specializes in flexible grouping, has provided support at some of those meetings. 

“Teachers weren’t alone in this process,” said Megan Wood, principal of Lakeside Middle School. “It wasn’t like, okay, we’re de-leveling and good luck. Extensive professional learning was put in place to support de-leveling. For instance, in English this year our teachers are focused on incorporating literature circles into the classes as part of English curriculum strategies, so that students can pick texts that are related to a common theme, but then be challenged by what they are reading.”

Ashby Johnson, principal of Jouett Middle School, echoed Jay Thomas’ point about grade level standards being the same no matter the readiness level of the student. “The SOL’s [required standardized testing] are the same by grade, so even if you have a reader that is a tenth grade level reader, they can be working on the same standard as a second grade level reader, but they might have different passages,” she said. “Passages are leveled differently so that they’re able to focus on the skill, but also achieve that and master that grade level standard.”

During the pandemic school year (2020-21), progress on unleveling courses was stalled, and this year teachers have been playing catch-up while also navigating new policies that radically shift gifted student identification and grading practices. “This year we’ve done more with culturally responsive teaching, trying to get teachers to evaluate their curriculum and assessment through a culturally responsive lens,” said Costa. “That’s a form of differentiating too—the two ideas intersect. I’m trying to be mindful of everything I’m asking teachers to do, trying not to burden them with too much in terms of training.” 

Henley Middle School English teachers Jenna Magistro, Elizabeth Sweatman, and Andrew West. Photo: Lisa Martin

Teachers also have less control over who is in their classes, because in recent years the school division dropped mandatory prerequisites for most classes, and teacher recommendations regarding which class a student is ready to take next—and at what level— are no longer required to be followed. So, students may choose to enroll in whatever level class they or their parents prefer, including AP classes. Though the division’s goal is to increase enrollment of underrepresented demographic groups in upper level classes, the pace of such classes can cause complications for all students.

A junior at Western Albemarle High School described the problem. “In my AP Calculus class, a lot of students who might fare better in a slower-paced class do not do well on the tests and assignments, so my teacher has to go over those topics again,” he said. “Now my teacher says that it is going to be tough to get in all the content before the AP exam in May. Because there aren’t other levels of advanced math [offered], students are put into this class where they require a slower pace to better understand the material, which takes away from the students who took AP Calculus to have a faster-paced class.”

Future Perfect

At this point, only math instruction provides advanced options, partly because of the nature of defined instructional strands in math such as Algebra and Geometry. “At the middle school level, accelerated learning opportunities are limited to the area of [leveled] math instruction,” said Fusco in her letter, noting that the rest of the curriculum does not benefit students who learn new concepts quickly or are interested in more challenging materials. “Students need the opportunity to be challenged in the classroom, by their regular teacher, on an ongoing basis.”

School administrators dispute the idea that access to more class material sooner is better for advanced learners. “One thing that kind of gets conflated is that acceleration equals enrichment,” said Wood. “Just because you’re moving faster through content, does it mean that your kids are getting a deeper understanding of the information—acceleration doesn’t always equal enrichment.”

Western Albemarle High School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Costa said that teachers are working to build a database of sorts within the online Schoology learning platform that will allow students to have greater access to more advanced materials. “We don’t have a gifted model anymore, and I don’t want students ever sitting in class biding their time,” she said. “So, the part that I am heartened about is that once we have everything in Schoology, I can give kids lots of choice and action and depth to work on if they’re finished or if they want to go further than their peers. It takes time to develop those resources.”

Costa said that more county teachers will attend a Curriculum Assessment and Instruction Institute at UVA in June, where a team of specialists will work with teachers from across the country on differentiation skills, and there’s a waitlist for teachers from Henley who wish to attend. “[Looking ahead to next year,] we’re going to sort of recommit to this whole idea [of unleveling],” she said. “If we’re going to unlevel, and we told families and kids and the division that we’re changing the instructional model, we really have to do that. You can’t teach ‘whole class’ in an unleveled class, you just can’t, and there is [still] a lot of that happening.”

Measures of Success

Many parents say they would have appreciated more transparent discussion about the policy and its implementation over the last few years. “We were not really aware that [unleveling] was happening, and we just wanted to understand why,” said Betsworth. “When we asked questions, we were told by administrators and teachers that ‘oh, your child will be fine,’ but I’m not okay with ‘fine.’ I want to ensure that my child is given every opportunity to rise and I just don’t feel confident that he’s going to in Albemarle county right now.” 

Measures of the success of the policy, such as improved SOL scores for underrepresented groups, will take a while to untangle from the pandemic era’s learning losses, though school officials see glimmers of progress on other fronts. “Anecdotally, people have said that the classroom or the school culture is improved because students aren’t moving from class to class in terms of cohorts,” said Wood. “We have a variety of students that are engaging with each other, and they know more of their classmates, and teachers report that the classroom community has actually improved.”

But Smith says that prioritizing education can’t wait, and will have withdrawn all of her three children from the system by next year. “I feel like there’s a mass exodus—half of our neighborhood is going private,” she said. “I think that the explanation [for unleveling] is that they’ve been tasked with the goal of narrowing the achievement gap, and they think this is the answer. And they’re probably right—I agree that this is probably going to narrow the achievement gap because the kids at the top are leaving.” 



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