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What You Need to Know About Deleveling

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
April 11, 2021

Deleveling, Equity, and Increasing Access to Advanced Coursework 

I would like you to visualize a school system that is both inclusive and equitable - one that provides equal access, opportunities, expectations, and hope for all learners. How would your school or district have to change to reach that vision?

We know that inclusive classrooms don’t always win popularity contests and we want to address that head-on. Too many individuals and schools support oppressive and ableist structures where access to advanced coursework is a privilege that students have to earn. Too many organizations hold rigorous, engaging instruction as a carrot. Access to these courses is transactional as in, “You can access these opportunities IF you perform above grade-level, speak English, behave…” It needs to be said. Teaching and learning are not transactional. All students deserve opportunities to access grade-level instruction and become expert learners and this is not possible when we continue to track students in different levels based on antiquated models of school success.

The brilliant Shelley Moore said this best in her video, The Importance of Presuming Competence from her series, “5 Moore Minutes”. When talking about presuming competence she notes, “We need to understand that students do not need to prove their ability or show that they are ready to access learning, curriculum or inclusion.

At Novak Education, we are allies for equitable and inclusive practices and are vocal about an antecedent to this work: inclusive placement. Too often, schools and districts discuss the importance of inclusive practice and equitable opportunities to learn and support structures that prevent all students from learning at high levels and accessing advanced coursework. One of these structures is the leveling, or tracking of learners. Leveling can be assigned within the classroom (within class groups) or by assigning students of different levels in different classes. Both these systems prevent many learners from accessing advanced coursework with their peers. 

What is Deleveling?

Deleveling or detracking is the process of consciously avoiding placing students with different needs in different “levels” of courses. The intent is to keep all students, regardless of strengths, needs, and identity in courses together.  These inclusive classes have the same high expectations for all learners. To account for variability within the class, students are provided additional supports and/or challenges if they need them.

Oftentimes, when educators, families, or communities are against inclusive placement or de-leveling, they are advocating to get their students what they need. This is based on a traditional system that is one-size-fits-all that doesn’t work for anyone. We agree that students should not be bored in our classrooms, overwhelmed, or held back from meeting their full potential as learners. When we embrace Universal Design for Learning (UDL), however, all students can work toward or exceed grade-level expectations while building critical skills in self-awareness, self-direction, and flexible thinking without leveling.

The Benefits of Inclusive Placement

Equitable classrooms are classrooms where the student body, in all its beautiful variability, is represented. In these classrooms, all students are safe and welcomed and academic progress is not only possible but probable. Deleveling embraces student variability, promotes equity and inclusion, and helps students to build deeper learning competencies. 

Our students have unique strengths, needs and interests and these change based on context. In many schools and districts where leveling or tracking is implemented, students are selected based upon some predetermined ability, test score or grade placement, and offered “advanced”, “extended”, and “honors'' programs. Other schools create “gifted” programs and provide advanced programs for them. This system has created a very uneven playing field. When students are “leveled” it creates a system where students are only expected to perform to a certain level. Not all students are treated  expected to achieve with high standards and are therefore not expected to reach beyond their assigned “level”. Also, in these classrooms, students can’t don’t have to be self-directed, as teachers alone provide the chosen level of challenge, often creating dependent learners who struggle to work and excel independently - skills critical to future success.  

Don’t get us wrong. We recognize that some learners need additional support and some learners need additional challenges including enrichment and acceleration. We are not advocating for the elimination of special education programming or advanced programming. Rather, we caution creating a gifted or special education program, or location, where a handful of students are provided with a “one-size-fits-all” experience as if they are all the same. Even within small groups, there is incredible variability and honoring that through design is critical for students' success. 

Oftentimes, variability and barriers are not considered when students are leveled. This process affects many students, but especially our black and brown students.  According to the Atlantic, “Black and Latino students make up 37 percent of high school students but only 27 percent of students taking an AP class and 18 percent of students passing AP exams, according to the Education Department.”   Now, AP courses do follow a slightly different process than traditional honors courses.  According to the College Board that offers and manages AP courses “the AP Program believes that all motivated and academically prepared students should be able to enroll in AP courses. We strongly encourage all high schools to follow this principle.” However, they also note that AP course availability can be determined by local school prerequisites or other requirements like a placement exam.  Consequently, if a student has not been offered courses that would “academically prepare” them for these courses, then they would not be able to take the AP courses.

Leveling creates a system of segregation in which students are grouped among certain levels and eliminates the opportunity for all students to learn together. Deleveling creates an inclusive environment, creating a safe space for all students to thrive. 

Currently, as of the end of the 2017-2018 school year, the latest data available, the national, cohort adjusted, high school graduation rate is 85%.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) “Asian/Pacific Islander students had the highest Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) (92 percent), followed by White (89 percent), Hispanic (81 percent), Black (79 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native (74 percent) students”. It is at its highest level since 2010-2011 when they started tracking the data.  However, according to the US Department of Labor Statistics only 66.2% of those students attend any college and according to NACE only 62% of these students graduate college within 6 years.  So, out of every 1000 students who go to high school, 850 graduate, 563 go to college, and only 349 graduate.  This percentage matches the percentage of all Americans who have a college degree.  

When you look at the demographics of race in college graduation the numbers from NCES show even more problems: Asian/Pacific Islander 52.6%, White 48.3%, Black 23.8%, Hispanic 34.1% and American Indian/Alaska Native 24.4%.

There is clearly an opportunity gap among student identity cohorts. This gap has been known and discussed for years and the current system needs change to close the gap.

How Can UDL Help with Deleveling?

Creating inclusive systems and deleveling will not work if critical drivers are not in place. And putting these critical drivers in place takes time. Creating a more equitable and inclusive system involves unlearning and a change of mindset from students, teachers, administrators and parents. It involves implementing the principles of Universal Design for Learning and creating a strong multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) through strategic planning. It will not happen overnight, but if the vision is focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, every student should have the privilege to access advanced coursework with their peers. The end goal is creating an environment where all students can feel included and are given the means and opportunity to meet their highest potential in classrooms, together.

The concept of offering the same high level expectations to all students is a process and it involves everyone getting on board. Teachers will have to be supported differently and given different professional development opportunities. They will need time to work and plan together. But this work is possible and we applaud the teachers and departments who are willing to lean into this work, despite the pushback.

Where has Deleveling Succeeded

Delia Garrity the former assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, at Rockville Centre Union Free School District on Long Island New York stated that “Our data have led us to firmly believe that ensuring equity in the classroom not only leads to excellence for previously underperforming students but also benefits those students who had been performing at high levels.”  The highlights below exemplify the power of inclusive practice:

  • 60 percent of the senior class at South Side High School is enrolled in Advanced Placement calculus, including 40 percent of the school’s minority student population.
  • The percentage of low-income students earning a Regents diploma, the highest level offered in New York state, went from 22 percent to 71 percent just the third year after we eliminated homogeneous groupings.
  • The percentage of minority students in Rockville Centre who earned a Regents diploma last year surpassed the percentage of white and Asian students in New York State who did.

To find out more about how they accomplished this, please read their story in the AASA article. Their story demonstrates how striving for excellence and equity can make all of the difference and even though their story is not specifically a UDL story, it comes close!

Mike Fischer, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction of STEM at Roseville Joint Union High School District in California tells us that they have just started their deleveling process. He is looking forward to measuring progress, especially for students who have not historically had access to advanced coursework. Fischer shared a great analogy for leveling that we would love to share with you. 

A different lens for “deleveling” can be seen in youth sports tryouts.  When anxious young athletes are trying to make a competitive team, tryouts often sort athletes into groups, and rather quickly. There's the A group, the "Bubble" group (athletes who might make the A group, depending on what coaches are looking for), and then there's the group of athletes whose play is not as advanced. This “C group,” or “lower group,” is provided with more remedial skill-building. 

In my experience as a coach, I have noticed that athletes' performance and body language instantly changes when they see they've been put into the lower group. They watch the other groups to see who's in them, they look to see where their friends are, and they watch the A group players over their shoulders. They are no longer focused on the sport, they are surrounded by others who may not be the best athletes on the court or field, and the quality of play doesn't push them to improve. 

The difference between competitive sports and education is significant. Our goal as educators is NOT to produce the most selective team for a specific tournament or league. Our goal is to ensure every student masters our subject area, develops self confidence, and learns powerful lessons about their unlimited ability to grow and learn. Instead, too much of our own educational practices and policies lead us to merely rank and sort students, and tell them to "go back" and repeat material until they are ready for the next level. We need to remind ourselves that we are not here to make cuts for an elite sports team.  We are here to ensure everyone succeeds and believes in themselves.

Students perform based on their own beliefs about themselves, and when adults put them into groups, whether it's based on an academic diagnostic test, or grades, or simply perception, they often perform according to how they've been labeled. I find this is especially true in math, which has a presumption that prerequisite skills are necessary before being even allowed to move on to the next class.

Has your school gone through the deleveling process or are you thinking about starting the process? We would love  to hear from you! Email us Education@NovakEducation.com, tweet us @KatieNovakUDL, or work with us!

Resources:

This article was written by Tom Thibodeau and Katie Novak, EdD.

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