Board to discuss way students are divided by ability

Practice of 'leveling" has support from parents, teachers

'People are...wound up'

March 28, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County Board of Education takes up a prickly topic today that has generated much debate since the meeting was scheduled more than two months ago: Should the school system's method of dividing students of different abilities among different levels of instruction be modified, eliminated or maintained?

The panel meets at 3 p.m. in the board room at 125 N. Court St. in Westminster. The session - scheduled to wrap up at 7 p.m.- also will include discussion of high school graduation requirements, Advanced Placement course offerings, and awarding high school credit for some high school-level courses, such as Algebra I and Spanish I, that are taught in middle School.

But school officials expect the discussion of course levels to attract the most interest and are planning for a packed meeting room. They have scheduled four hours for today's work session when typically two are allotted. The scheduling of today's discussion of leveling has sparked a parade of complaining parents at recent school board meetings and an avalanche of mall to the board's five members.

"People are pretty wound up and concerned that the notion of eliminating leveling would adversely affect their children," said board member C. Scott Stone. "There is no proposal that I'm aware of to abolish levels in high school and at this time I'm not persuaded that the elimination of leveling or the creation of completely heterogeneous classrooms in high school are in students' best interests. But I'm certainly interested in hearing what people have to say on all sides."

School board President Susan W. Krebs has tried to assure parents in recent months that the board is discussing its options.

"The issue of leveling is only being raised to see if we can do it better," she told worried parents at a recent town meeting in Hampstead echoing a reassurance she has issued at school visits and meetings throughout the county. "We're also talking about raising graduation credit requirements awarding high school credit for some eighth-grade classes and offering more [Advanced Placement] courses. This goes along with all of that."

Parents - particularly those with children in upper-level courses - have shown up in large numbers at public meetings to pre-emptively caution the board about what they consider the drastic consequences of dumping students of every ability in the same classroom.

They warn of lower-level students being unable to keep up in classes that are beyond their capabilities. They predict boredom among higher-performing students who are forced to wait as slower classmates catch up. They complain about what they call the inevitable "dumbing-down" of the curriculum.

Mary Oldewurtel, whose son attends Mount Airy Middle School, is among the doomsayers. She not only wants the board to maintain leveling, but has lobbied for more Advanced Placement courses, characterizing the school system's Level 4 courses as "a bare minimum."

"You are setting them back," she told the board during last month's school board meeting. "You are taking away their opportunities for the future and dooming this school system to the bottom of the barrel."

Teachers also have spoken up in favor of maintaining levels. "Teachers feel that it's totally unfair to students" to do away with levels, Cindy Cummings, president of the local teachers' union, said. "They do feel that it's necessary to have leveling, especially for college preparatory students. And if classes were unleveled, teachers would not be able to manage text-books with all the different level students in one classroom."

Critics of leveling, however, argue that putting students of all abilities in the same classroom raises expectations for everyone, allowing lower-achieving students to learn more and learn better alongside the higher-achievers.

In Carroll County schools, leveling varies from school to school and from course to course. In a subject such as ninth-grade English, most high schools offer four levels of instruction, adapting Coursework to the abilities of lower-performing students, those on an accelerated track and students who fall in between. A subject such as calculus does not lend itself to leveling as easily.

"There are all kinds of decisions that go into how a kid ends up where he is," said Barry Gelsinger, Carroll's director of curriculum and staff development. When a pupil moves from middle school into ninth grade, middle school teachers and guidance counselors recommend which level that child should sign up for in high school. "But the bottom line is that a kid can place himself- with a parent's approval - in any level he wants."

Some parents steer their children away from higher-level courses because they believe that colleges look more favorably upon students who earn As in less-rigorous classes than those who earn Bs in a more difficult course - "even though that's contrary to what colleges tell us," Gelsinger said. Others push their children toward higher-level classes because they want them to be challenged.

Some students self-select lower-level courses "because they think they won't have to work as hard," Gelsinger said. "But [leveling] Is determining in a broad stroke where instruction is targeted at one particular level."

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