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December 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 4

Yes, Everyone Can Be College Ready

How a diverse suburban high school makes International Baccalaureate available for all.

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Long before the Common Core State Standards were adopted by most U.S. states, leaders at our integrated suburban high school wondered whether the enriched, challenging curriculum we gave our "best" students might be the best curriculum for all our students. We believed that to develop the habits of mind that David Conley's (2003) research identified as crucial to college success (analysis, synthesis, and the evaluation of sources), all students should practice those skills throughout high school.
We also considered a fundamental question: Is it possible to have all students study an enriched curriculum, like the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, and succeed? At South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, we decided the answer to these questions was a resounding yes. Over the course of a decade, we've worked to develop these skills and habits of mind through all our instructional practices and to provide an equitable learning environment for everyone. As we did so, achievement rose for all.

Our Commitment to Detracking

South Side High School serves 1,130 students, 21 percent of whom are black or Latino. The majority of students come from middle-class households, but 15 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. In the late 1990s, we realized that, like many districts, we had a noticeable gap between the achievement of our minority students (predominantly from low-income households) and our majority students (mostly from more affluent homes). The achievement gap was also reflected in a "track gap"—upper-track classes had few, if any, students of color, whereas lower tracks were disproportionately filled with minority students.
Since 1998, we have methodically detracked classes at each grade level and in all subject areas. Because part of our spur for detracking was to encourage more students to take International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, we transformed our 9th and 10th grade programs so that all students take one course of study that prepares them for IB courses in grades 11 and 12 (Burris, Welner, Wiley, & Murphy, 2007).
Because we accelerated all students in math, by 2000, more than 80 percent of our 11th grade students took one of two IB math courses. Although nearly all 11th graders took IB English, with the introduction of the Common Core, we decided to mandate IB English for all.
Beginning in September 2011, all our 11th graders took IB English Language and Literature and completed the required IB assessments, including two formal oral presentations and two extensive papers. The results were excellent. For the first time, 100 percent of our 11th graders passed the New York State Regents exam in English. When we presented these results at Parent-Teacher Association and Board of Education meetings, community members asked, "If IB English for all was so successful in grade 11, why don't we do the same thing in grade 12?"
In the 2012–13 academic year, we gave our 12th graders a choice to take either the second year of IB English Language and Literature or regular English 12. Nearly all chose IB. This year, our second cohort of students who had IB English in 11th grade (during the 2012–13 academic year) are taking IB English Language and Literature as 12th graders.
We benchmarked our instructional program to IB because we believe this curriculum best prepares students for college and career. We knew this from anecdotal reports of South Side graduates and phone surveys we conducted with them, which revealed that if students took just two IB Diploma courses, IB English and IB mathematics, their probability of graduating college in four years dramatically increased.
Two years later, we've found that our students can succeed in this college-preparatory curriculum—and that the learning of our highest-achieving students isn't compromised. This is partly because of the support system we make available. Any students taking IB English who need or want support in the course can enroll in an English language arts (ELA) support class. We require students who score low on the state standardized test to attend this class. Support is not remedial. Activities and lessons reinforce what students are learning in their IB English classes. For instance, a teacher might show a film clip based on the novel students are reading to help them visualize the characters' development. In addition, students might receive individualized assistance with their writing. Our special education teachers attend IB training workshops so they can reinforce content with students with disabilities, who also take IB courses.

IB, Common Core, and "Complexity"

The new International Baccalaureate curriculum for Language and Literature dovetails with many Common Core standards. It includes the study of informational texts along with literature. But as South Side's educators began to work with the Common Core ELA standards, we quickly realized that these standards would be little more than statements about literacy and language unless they were tethered to diverse, challenging assessments and to student work that reflected the skills needed for college success.
IB teacher training helped lay the groundwork for creating assignments that connect to these standards. Our 9th and 10th grade courses focus closely on reading complex texts, completing varied writing tasks, and making oral presentations. These practices promote critical thinking and encourage students to examine texts from a variety of perspectives. The two-year IB English Language and Literature course continues to address these aims, while requiring students to experience a broader array of texts—from traditional literature to contemporary essays, speeches, and blogs.
A bold move like IB for all always has its critics. Many people doubt that all students can engage in the complex, higher-level thinking required by the International Baccalaureate; others fear that the inclusion of struggling learners will dilute challenge for high achievers. We used to believe this, too. However, as we expanded the program, we've learned that complexity and difficulty aren't the same. Learning can be difficult without necessarily being complex. Likewise, learning experiences can be high in complexity but lower in difficulty (Burris & Garrity, 2012). When teachers balance the two, increased student access doesn't have to come at the expense of critical thinking.
To illustrate this point, we use this example with our teachers: Suppose you have two assignments to choose from: Memorize the 206 bones of the human body or Analyze the complexity level of a lesson you taught yesterday, using Bloom's taxonomy. Most teachers would choose the second. The first assignment engages the learner in a low-complexity task. Because there are 206 items to memorize, it's highly difficult, which makes it less attractive. The second assignment is quite complex, but given that most educators have knowledge of Bloom's taxonomy, it's not very difficult. However, if we asked participants to analyze a colleague's unit using the taxonomy, the difficulty would rise.
By manipulating the level of difficulty, teachers can make highly complex work more accessible to all students. Further, by differentiating some readings and assignments, as well as the support we give students to complete those tasks, teachers can ensure that all learners are challenged, including high achievers. Jigsaw assignments, in which each student in a group completes a different part of an assignment, or open-ended questions for reading assignments can further differentiation, while holding the curriculum and its goals steady for all learners.

Differentiation in Action

Let's look at how South Side's teachers differentiate for learners of different levels of proficiency while maintaining the complexity of tasks associated with a major assignment.
Over the course of two years, our IB English Language and Literature students complete at least four formal written tasks of 800–1,000 words each that explore a key component of the text and material studied. For each task, students choose the text and topic to investigate. A student might analyze a speech on the environment, investigating how the writer uses scientific terminology to persuade, or discuss the use of religious imagery in a novel. At least one task must be an essay, one must be based on a literary work, and one must answer one of six thought-provoking "prescribed questions" that IB designates.
Teacher Bruce Hecker has his students write an essay responding to the question, "Which social groups are —alized, excluded, or silenced within the text?" Students can focus on one of three texts: James Joyce's Dubliners, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Bruce guides them through this task for several weeks, balancing complexity and difficulty in the way most helpful for each student.
At face value, this question isn't difficult. However, as Bruce unpacks the question in classroom discussions, students see that there are myriad ways to interpret and respond to it. The assignment becomes more complex. Students ponder such questions as, What do we mean by a "social group"? Is this defined by ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or region? What are different ways a character can be silenced? Are —alized and excluded the same thing, and how will I define these terms in the context of this text?
Early in this assignment, Bruce holds individual conferences to help each student plan a response to the prescribed question at his or her level. He prods kids who think deeply about literature to go beyond what's implicitly stated in the text; for instance, to look beyond grouping characters into rich versus poor in The Great Gatsby. Any two students' essays might each be factually accurate, interpret the question correctly, and support their claims with references to the text, yet differ greatly in terms of maturity and awareness of complex meanings.
Bruce also differentiates in terms of the strategies he asks students to use as they study an informational text. For instance, as they read Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech, one group looks for repetition of words and phrases, one group considers why the president mentioned these specific freedoms, and a third group looks at how Roosevelt's use of the words us and they progresses throughout the speech and ponders the effect of that technique on listeners. All students master the skill of analyzing Roosevelt's language, but students in the third group grapple with more abstract concepts.

IB for All and Common Core Assessments

Our belief that all students could succeed in IB English was borne out when we received the test scores of our first cohort who all completed the two-year sequence of IB English. The students' mean score on the IB test at the end of the course was 4.41, compared with an average score of 4.25 for the self-selected group of students who'd taken two years of IB English in previous years. Eighty-nine percent of the students who completed the two-year sequence under our IB-for-all policy scored a 4 or higher. These results show that schools can indeed create more equitable programs without hurting the performance of their highest achievers.
Despite our success, we worry that the coming Common Core assessments and other aspects of the present reform movement may affect not only our students' success, but also other schools' ability to implement policies that offer enriched curriculum for all. If the Common Core State Standards Initiative is to realize its goal of making all students college and career ready, educators must heed three big cautions.
  1. Avoid using test scores to label students "college ready." This practice is fraught with danger. The standardized categories of student performance in the PARCC and Smarter Balance assessments could produce "sort and select" practices if we aren't careful. Score labels are easily internalized. When a student hears that he or she is not on the road to college readiness, on the basis of a test score, that student—and his or her family—may stop considering college. In contrast, with the International Baccalaureate system, students don't see their scores on their final IB exam until after they've graduated from high school, by which time postsecondary plans would have been made.
  2. Be mindful of unintended consequences of assessments. As George Pook (2001), former assessment director of the IB Program, observed, the primary consideration to keep in mind when creating assessments is, "recognition of the enormous backwash effect that any assessment structure has on classroom teaching" (p. 11). Dependence on multiple-choice exams and computer-scored essays as high-stakes assessment tools will drive instruction away from the development of meaning ful college-readiness skills and toward a narrow skill set. All teachers might consider working into their courses some of the assessment practices IB uses—such as papers written over the course of two years and recorded analytical discussions with teachers as part of summative assessments—and shaping their instruction with these practices in mind. The assessment of more complex skills requires a more complex approach.
  3. Don't make teachers risk averse—or shut them out of assessment. To implement these changes at South Side, we needed teachers who were willing to take risks. Some current reforms, like evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores, discourage that quality. In an attempt to prevent adult "cheating" on how high-stakes tests are being prepped for and given—and how scores are reported—teachers are being further removed from the assessment process. We will better protect teachers' willing ness to take risks if we keep them active participants in assessing students' learning, as IB does. If we shut teachers out, we'll also lose our ability to measure student learning across multiple dimensions.

Toward Great Things

Is college and career readiness an appropriate goal for all students? Yes—if schools have the right resources, enough capacity, and the ability to monitor and adjust instructional programs. Narrow standardized assessments and punitive policies based on test scores threaten to undermine progress toward this goal. But if educators focus on equitable practices, risk taking, and a rich curriculum, we can accomplish great things.

Burris, C., Welner, K., Wiley, E., & Murphy, J. (2007). A world class curriculum for all. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 53–56.

Burris, C., & Garrity, D. T. (2012). Opening the Common Core: How to bring all students to college and career readiness. Thousand Oakes, CA: Corwin.

Conley, D. T. (2003). Understanding university success. Eugene: Center for Educational Policy Research, University of Oregon.

Pook, G. (2001, November). Assessment in the IB diploma. IB World, 29, 10–11.

End Notes

1 Teacher participation is integral to student assessment in the International Baccalaureate. For example, teachers score their students' internal assessments and a moderator then evaluates a sampling to ensure that the assessment criteria are used consistently across IB schools.

Carol Corbett Burris has served as principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre School District, New York, since 2000. Prior to becoming principal, she was an assistant principal at South Side, a teacher of Spanish at the middle and high school level, and a school board member for 10 years. Carol received her doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation on her district's detracking reform in accelerated mathematics received the 2003 National Association of Secondary School Principals' Middle Level Dissertation of the Year Award. Carol has taught graduate courses on school reform at Teachers College, and she regularly makes presentations on the positive effects of detracking to school districts and research organizations. Articles that she has authored or coauthored have appeared in Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, Teachers College Record, American Educational Research Journal, Theory into Practice, The School Administrator, and EdWeek. A chapter on closing the achievement gap, coauthored with Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado, appeared in Lessons in Integration: Realizing the Promise of Racial Diversity in America's Schools, a volume edited by the Harvard Civil Rights Project. Carol can be reached at burriscarol@gmail.com.

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