The state’s two largest school districts – Manchester and Nashua – have a lot in common.
Both have high poverty and a diverse student population. And there’s a controversial educational practice they also share – leveling or, as it’s also called, tracking.
That’s when students are separated into different classes based on their past performance.
Data shows minority and low-income students are few and far between in high level and Advanced Placement courses in both cities. Critics argue leveling is a form of academic segregation.
School officials in Manchester and Nashua say they’re working to address the problem, but there remains a deep divide about whether leveling is the right approach.
In a freshman writing course at Nashua High School South, teacher Rob Greene is going over his notes with a student.
It’s what you might see in any class at this school of nearly 2,000 students. But there’s something different about this particular class – it’s unleveled.
"These kids are all stuck together," says Greene. "These kids may never have been in the same room before, they may never be in the same room again. We’ve got kids who write really well, we’ve got kids who write not very well.”
Leveling is not new in Nashua, and the high schools are finishing their second year of experimenting with mixed-ability learning.
Starting in sixth grade, students in Nashua are separated into different classes – foundations, extensions, and honors. Advanced Placement courses are also offered at the city’s two high schools.
And Superintendent Mark Conrad has heard all the arguments for and against it.
“Every time it’s brought up at a policy level, you tend to get camps that talk about in ways that aren’t helpful," he said.
Critics say students in the lowest levels – often poor and minority students – are held to lower expectations, and don’t have to push themselves to the same degree.
They say it perpetuates class inequality.
“It is a concern in the process," Conrad says, "and I think you have to weigh that against the difficulties that can come about with the breadth of learners we have in our district and trying to address all of those needs in one classroom.”
And that's really the heart of the debate.
“Leveling allows us to meet more of the needs of students more often," said Susan Rourke, head of the English department at Nashua High School South.
While data shows minorities are disproportionately found in low-level classes, she doesn’t see it as a race issue.
“It is most certainly an issue of poverty," she said. "Unfortunately, we do see some of our students – many of our students – who are in lower levels are students from poverty. And that’s something that we’re always trying to address.”
Here are the numbers.
According to data provided by the school district, 76 percent of students in the lowest-level, foundation English courses at Nashua’s two high schools come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Go up a level to extension courses, and that figure drops to 51 percent. In honors courses, it goes down even more to 20 percent. And in AP, only 10 percent qualify for subsidized lunch.
“The reality is if life is difficult beyond school, school is going to be difficult for those students. There’s no getting around it," Rourke says. "And we love to make life better for students in any way that we can and some of it is slowing down the pace in some classes and pulling back a little bit on homework assignments for instance.”
Just to the north, Manchester, the state's largest school district, is in the midst of its own leveling debate.
Associate superintendent for curriculum David Ryan doesn't agree with the practice.
“The days of selecting students, and saying, ‘You’re going to university, the rest of you are going to the mill’ are gone. We’re just trying to catch up to that," he said. "We think that leveling and tracking and this academic segregation process will be coming to an end sooner than people are thinking.”
The Manchester School District was cited last year by the Office of Civil Rights for its lack of minority students in advanced courses.
In 2010, of the nearly 600 Hispanic students enrolled at the city’s three high schools, only nine were in an AP course.
As part of a settlement, Ryan says the district is reaching out to student populations where those disparities exist to encourage them to challenge themselves.
"These are communities that perhaps hadn’t thought of college in the past so they’re not understanding the benefit of an Advanced Placement course," he said. "We also have to do it in a different language. We have – my goodness – over 45 languages with maybe 60 or 70 dialects.”
It’s common to find some kind of leveling or tracking system in American high schools, though it’s less prevalent in middle schools.
That’s according to Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
He says tracking is more typical in larger high schools, but actually less common in urban areas. But criticism of the practice is not new. Loveless says the anti-tracking movement goes back decades.
“And they’ve made inroads in many districts. And then you have people who resist the whole idea and try to defend tracking from heterogeneous grouping. They want to keep some kind of differentiation of kids. It is controversial in many communities.”
He says many of those defenders are often the ones in the trenches. Teachers argue it’s harder to teach students when they’re grouped together.
Loveless says there's certainly merit to that argument, but one criticism of tracking that’s hard to argue with is the impact of parental involvement.
Students from affluent families are simply more likely to have parents who will advocate for them to be placed in higher levels.
“It is quite true that once you allow parent preferences to work effectively in this kind of situation, you’re going to be replicating then all those big social divisions.”
Nashua South senior Maureen Gichura takes mostly honors courses. An immigrant who moved to New Hampshire from Africa, she says she’s often surrounded by an entirely white class.
She believes leveling leads to some unfair stereotypes.
“Foundations are always thought to be like the stupid kids, basically. That they don’t want to learn, they don’t care about school. They’re the ones who are more common to ditch and another perception sadly is that they’re more common to be of a minority.”
But for Nashua North senior Javed Ortega, moving up to a more challenging level is easier said than done.
He takes courses at the extension level, and says while teachers have encouraged him to switch to honors, having to work to support a low-income family makes that a challenge.
"They sometimes put me on overnight schedules on Saturday, and usually that's when people study on the weekends when you're in honors," he said. "I wouldn't really have a chance to study because I work so much."
But some students don’t mind leveling, like Christian Moreno, a junior at Nashua North.
“To group everybody together is to generalize them and that would kind of go against the whole idealism of everybody being different and having their own mindset and learning curve," he said.
Many prominent national education groups have called for an end to the practice.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, says it’s discriminatory. And the National Association of Secondary School Principals calls it an obsolete practice in the context of high expectations for all.
Back in Manchester, David Ryan says getting rid of leveling isn't going to happen overnight.
He says the decision would need to include community input, as well as support and training for teachers.
"This notion of being able to offer the same high expectations for all with different supports for each is a very slow-moving train that we’re trying to get people to get on.”
And in Nashua, Superintendent Mark Conrad, says the district is taking steps, like experimenting with the unleveled writing class. The high schools have also begun administering the PSAT to all sophomores.
“And we’ve started each year looking at the results of those PSATs and asking are there students here who we should be encouraging for example to move into Advanced Placement courses.”
And back in the freshman writing course at Nashua South, teacher Rob Greene says so far, things are going well in the unleveled freshman writing course.
"They’re not all the best writer. They’re not all the same level of writer, he said. "But they’ve certainly advanced in their skills since they began and that’s what the course was intended to do.”