Opinion | Taking away tracking tests makes math classes in D65, at ETHS more equitable

Every sixth grader entering District 65 schools takes a “tracking” test, to decide whether their mathematical abilities show that they would be able to thrive in an advanced course. This type of test has provided students with challenging courses throughout their years of schooling, with the aim of preparing them for the future. But the issues with this placement test are striking and exacerbate the existing racial-segregation problems within Evanston’s schools.

To understand what this program entails, sophomore in advanced math Nicole Yao walks through her experiences through the program. 

“I took the placement test in fifth grade, and my parents received an email notifying my family that I tested into the program,” Yao says. “The first year of the class, we learned both sixth grade math as well as seventh grade math. This wasn’t particularly difficult, just a bit faster because it was going through two levels. When I was in eighth grade at Chute Middle School, I was asked if I wanted to attend the math class at the high school or take the geometry class with my other advanced math classmates at the middle school.” 

As of the 2021 school year, District 65 has eliminated this tracking test. All incoming sixth graders start at the same math level. 

Some might argue that it is better to take a tracking test in an earlier grade level (where the score would be less impactful than in a high school setting). But the reality might actually be the opposite, since the results of the test can greatly affect a student’s path in taking advanced or honors classes once they reach high school. 

Over the years, the flaws with this type of tracking testing in Evanston have come to light. Some commentators argue that this issue stems from Evanston’s history of unequal learning environments. Historically, the more predominantly African-American communities have been under-resourced compared to schools where mostly white students attend. These more privileged schools have more access to resources, tutoring opportunities, and overall better learning conditions through both elementary and middle school. On the other side of the Evanston reality, though, is that schools that have a large Black student body have not been receiving these same types of academic advantages. 

This imbalance in learning at such a young age can create a self-fulfilling prophecy; telling a student in sixth grade that they aren’t capable of doing advanced math leads to a high school student who doesn’t believe they can take an advanced math course.  

This has caused an evident scarcity of students of color in accelerated classes. 

“I have definitely noticed a lack of diversity in my advanced math classes. There is a small percentage of my classmates who are people of color in comparison to my white classmates. This is something that can be noticed very easily if consciously thought about, but usually this lack of diversity is constantly overlooked” Yao shares.

In a recent Evanstonian article, the harsh statistics of race disparity in honors classes at ETHS were shared. In the 1990s at ETHS, for students in regular algebra classes, there were a total of 98 Black students, and 17 white students. But in contrast at the honors-level, there were 12 Black students and 148 white students. While steps have been taken at the high school in the last 11 years to detrack courses and close those gaps, the advanced math system has been opening up tracks long before a student walks into ETHS as a ninth grader.

The discrepancy between the rates at which white students access advanced math classes at ETHS compared to students of color demonstrates a serious issue. District 65 decided to take a step in, attempting to make education a more equal learning ground.  

Yet, when it was  originally created, the advanced math test most likely wasn’t meant to construct this divide. 

“I believe that the real purpose, or what this system was designed to do, was to help uplift students already excelling in the area of math and to help challenge the growing minds of those students,” Yao explains.

But the program ended up stymying the impartiality it was supposed to foster within the math classes in District 65 and District 202.  

Another weakness in this program is the uncertainty of how well exams actually gauge  students’ academic ability. 

“The idea that one test determines the placement of students in a math class is an unrealistic suggestion. Students often learn and show their learning in different ways, and as a result, this placement test does not accurately depict a student’s level in math,” Yao comments. 

The cruciality of making sure all students at ETHS have an equal learning experience should be at the forefront of educators’ minds.The many imperfections present in this good-intentioned program led to the abolition of this placement test. Getting rid of assessments like this takes a positive step towards making all honors and advanced classes accessible for students of all races.