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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


August 2020


What research is available on student outcomes associated with an earned honors credit model in high school?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy overviews on student outcomes associated with participation in an earned honors credit model in high school. An earned honors credit model detracks freshman “courses for the vast majority of students, thus removing barriers for historically under-represented student groups” and increases “the critical mass of diverse students in AP and honors courses” (Bavis, 2016; see resource in the section that follows). For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Atteberry, A., Lacour, S. E., Burris, C., Welner, K. G., & Murphy, J. (2019). Opening the gates: Detracking and the International Baccalaureate. Teachers College Record, 121(9), 1–63. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Background/Context: There is broad agreement about the benefits of taking AP and/or IB courses in high school. Nonetheless, student access to such courses remains uneven and inequitable, due largely to the practice of tracking students by perceived ‘ability.’ These tracking practices are often defended based on the contention that detracking and mixed-ability classes are impractical or unworkable. This study’s conclusions inform the policy debate on the efficacy of detracking as an instructional strategy and add to the emerging literature concerning the potential of providing a school’s most challenging, highest quality curriculum to all students. Research Questions: We study a reform that combines two basic elements: detracking in Grades 6 through 10 plus open IB enrollment in Grades 11 and 12. We answer four questions: (a) Did greater numbers (and proportions) of students enroll in IB courses as the district progressively detracked its math and ELA courses? (b) As detracking took place over time, did IB courses become accessible to a broader range of students with respect to prior achievement? (c) How did students who enrolled in IB courses after detracking perform on their end-of-course IB assessments, conditional on prior achievement? Here we particularly focus on whether high-performing students appeared to perform worse on the IB assessments as the IB classes were composed of higher numbers of students with lower prior achievement. (d) Conditional on taking a math IB course, did students become less likely to take the more challenging Math SL IB course (relative to the less challenging Math Studies IB course)? Intervention/Program/Practice: Policy to detrack access to high school IB courses. Research Design: We use an interrupted time series approach to examine whether the onset of detracking coincided with (a) increased IB participation or (b) decreased IB scores. We also document whether low-, middle-, or high-prior skill groups of students perform less well during detracking. Finally, we explore whether racial achievement gaps on statewide assessments were exacerbated by detracking. Recommendations: The results associated with this detracking reform challenged two widespread beliefs. First, the school’s highest achievers continued to succeed in the more heterogeneous IB classes. Second, the average IB scores for the school’s lower achievers were the same or higher after detracking began, even though many more such students enrolled in those courses. In short, this case study documents the potential for not rationing the enriched, world-class curriculum of the International Baccalaureate.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Bavis, P. (2016). Detracked—And going strong. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(4), 37–42. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In 2010, Evanston Township High School in suburban Chicago, Ill., dramatically changed its freshman year for incoming students. The school detracked freshman English, history, and biology courses for the vast majority of students, thus removing barriers for historically under-represented student groups and providing greater access and opportunity to all. Central to the school’s approach was increasing the critical mass of diverse students in AP and honors courses. Five years later, the results are in: On ACT and AP scores, as well as in AP attendance, the school is posting the highest numbers ever.”

Bavis, P., Arey, B., & Leibforth, D. (2015). Advanced placement: An open invitation. Educational Leadership, 72(9), 36–40. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “A few years ago, Evanston Township High School had an active and successful advanced placement program, steeped in tradition. But school leaders realized that although a high percentage of AP students succeeded, all was not right: Black and Latino/a students, who made up 45 percent of the school’s student population, were underrepresented in AP classes. In fact, many students of color who did take advanced placement classes spoke of being the only nonwhite students in their AP class. Determined to educate all students to their fullest potential, Evanston Township implemented an aggressive effort–led by current AP students–to increase awareness, access, and success for students of color in AP courses. This article describes this multifaceted effort and documents the impressive results. The school saw not only increased AP enrollment among students of color, but also increases in the numbers and percentages of students scoring high on AP exams and succeeding in AP courses.”

Boaler, J. (2006). How a detracked mathematics approach promoted respect, responsibility, and high achievement. Theory Into Practice, 45(1), 40–46. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This article describes the ways in which the mathematics department of an urban, ethnically diverse school brought about high and equitable mathematics achievement. The teachers employed heterogeneous grouping and complex instruction, an approach designed to counter status differences in classrooms. As part of this approach teachers encouraged multidimensional classrooms, valued the perspectives of different students, and encouraged students to be responsible for each other. The work of students and teachers at Railside School was equitable partly because students achieved more equitable outcomes on tests, but also because students learned to act in more equitable ways in their classrooms. Students learned to appreciate the contributions of students from different cultural groups, genders, and attainment levels, a behavior termed relational equity. This article describes the teaching practices that enabled the department to bring about such important achievements.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Burris, C. C. (2010). Detracking for success. Principal Leadership, 10(5), 30–34. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The nation’s goal of achieving educational equity has been both elusive and complex. U.S. schools are becoming more, not less, segregated, and the racial isolation of Black and Latino students from White students is a national trend. For two decades, the Rockville Centre School District in New York has engaged in reforms that were designed to close the achievement gap while improving learning for all. Those reforms accelerated in 2000, when South Side High School, the district’s only high school, dismantled its grades 9 and 10 tracking system and gave all students access to the enriched, honors curriculum, which resulted in the closing of the achievement gap between the high school’s majority and minority students. The detracking of Rockville Centre’s middle and high schools was a complex, multiyear reform that involved, policy, instruction, data analysis, and leadership. From the author’s experience she knows that they secondary school leaders play an essential role in any reform’s success, and although they cannot do it alone, they can do much to lead reform. This article offers strategies that principals can use to lay the groundwork for providing more equitable access to challenging classes for all students.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Burris, C. C., & Garrity, D. T. (2008). Detracking for excellence and equity. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “While almost any educator would agree that students deserve access to equal educational opportunities, many schools still sort students based on test scores or other criteria. There’s a better way: one built on offering all students access to the best curriculum. In this first-ever practical book that shows how educators can make detracking work, two authors from a large metro district explain how heterogeneous grouping can foster high achievement and diminish racial and socioeconomic gaps. Based on what’s worked in actual elementary, middle, and high schools, the book lays out a clear argument against tracking and provides you with proven strategies for launching, sustaining, and monitoring a successful detracking reform, including: (1) A backwards planning model for curriculum design; (2) Guidelines for lesson planning and classroom assessment; (3) Advice for confronting the resistance to detracking; (4) A multiyear, personalized professional development program that helps teachers address new instructional needs; and (5) Beliefs that sustain a detracked school over time.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Burris, C. C., & Murphy, J. (2014). Yes, everyone can be college ready. Education Leadership, 71(4), 62–66. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The authors, pioneers in detracking and in shrinking achievement gaps, pose a question: Is it possible to have all students in a large high school successfully complete a challenging curriculum that gives them practice in the habits and skills necessary for success in college? The answer, they say, “is a resounding yes.” This article describes how South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, gradually reworked its curriculum so that all 9th and 10th graders take rigorous classes that prepare them for courses in the International Baccalaureate curriculum and almost all 11th and 12th graders take an IB math and an IB English course. Focusing on the course IB English Language and Literature, they demonstrate how teachers can differentiate instruction in a way that maintains the complexity of academic tasks while varying the tasks’ difficulty level—so students of all levels and backgrounds can master college-level work.”

Gamoran, A. (2009). Tracking and inequality: New directions for research and practice (WCER Working Paper No. 2009-6). Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The practice of tracking and ability grouping—the division of students into separate tracks, classes, and groups for instruction based on their purported interests and abilities—has long been debated. Evidence from decades of research indicates that tracking magnifies inequality between high and low achievers without raising achievement overall, as high achievers perform better in tracked systems while low achievers perform worse, compared to similar students in mixed-ability contexts. These findings have been sustained in recent work, which has also advanced in three areas. First, international studies have yielded results that are generally consistent with those previously found for the U.S. and U.K. Second, new attempts to reduce or eliminate tracking have suggested ways in which some of the obstacles to reducing the practice may be overcome. Third, new work on classroom assignment and instruction has identified approaches that may capture the benefits of differentiation for meeting students’ varied needs without giving rise to the consequences for inequality that commonly accompany tracking and ability grouping. These findings in turn call for new research and experimentation in practice.”

Hallett, R. E., & Venegas, K. M. (2011). Is increased access enough? Advanced Placement courses, quality, and success in low-income urban schools. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 34(3), 468–487. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This article combines descriptive statistics and interviews with college-bound high school students to explore the connection between increased access and academic quality of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in low-income urban high schools. Results suggest that although moderately more opportunities to take AP courses exist than in previous years, students’ sense of their own preparation and their resultant performance on AP exams do not indicate quality or appropriate preparation for college. The article is guided by a ‘funds of knowledge’ framework, which emphasizes the value of instrumental and content aptitudes in preparation for college success.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Knudson, J. (2019). Pursuing equity and excellence in mathematics: Course sequencing and placement in San Francisco. Policy and practice brief. San Mateo, CA: California Collaborative on District Reform. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In the face of stagnant achievement and persistent achievement gaps in mathematics, school districts have enacted a variety of changes to varying levels of success. On the heels of an Algebra for All model that failed to generate desired outcomes of students, San Francisco Unified School District adopted a policy in 2014 that dramatically changed its sequence of mathematics courses. The district completely de-tracked its middle school classes, enrolling all students in the same heterogeneously grouped courses for Grades 6, 7, and 8. San Francisco’s policy represents a significant departure from traditional approaches to organizing mathematics courses, and early outcomes appear to validate this approach. This brief describes the rationale behind the district’s decision, the nature of the new policy, and the promising results the district has experienced so far.”

Mayer, A. P. (2008). Expanding opportunities for high academic achievement: An International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in an urban high school. Journal of Advanced Academics, 19(2), 202–235. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Students of color are consistently underrepresented in honors and gifted programs nationwide, and even high-achieving students share many of the risk factors with their low-achieving peers. The study presented in this paper employed mixed methods to investigate the relationship between the design of a rigorous college preparatory program, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB), and the socioeconomic status of the students the program serves. The paper begins with a brief overview of the literature that documents the academic achievement gap among high-achieving Latino and African American students, as well as the literature on intervention programs designed to ameliorate these gaps. Following a description of the methodology, it presents the recruitment and admission practices employed by the program studied. The paper concludes with a description of the academic and social scaffolds developed and implemented by local IB teachers that directly support students’ academic achievement. The study found that an open admission International Baccalaureate program was successfully attracting and retaining African American, Latino, and Native American students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Findings are attributed to IB teachers’ deeply held belief in the ability of the students to meet the rigor of the program. Implementing a rigorous academic curriculum was only the first step in the process of raising the academic achievement of Latino and African American students. This IB program also has instituted academic and social support mechanisms to keep students motivated to pursue the challenging curriculum.”

Modica, M. (2015). “My skin color stops me from leading”: Tracking, identity, and student dynamics in a racially mixed school. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 17(3), 76–90. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The practice of separating students according to ability level, also known as academic tracking, allows racially mixed schools to maintain segregated classrooms. This article examines the effects of academic tracking on the racial identity and educational opportunities of students at a mixed-race suburban charter school. Through five months of participant observation research, I found that the long-term practice of academic tracking created racial boundaries among students, silenced students of color in honors classes, and limited educational opportunity for all students. However, subsequent efforts to detrack, although superficial, resulted in positive outcomes for all students.”

Nomi, T. (2010, March). The unintended consequences of an algebra-for-all policy on high-skill students: Effects on instructional organization and students’ academic outcomes. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this study is to understand how a policy that provided college-prep coursework for low-skill students may affect instructional organization within schools, and how such effects on instructional organization may have unintended consequences on academic outcomes of high-skill students who were not targeted by the policy. The author and her colleagues focus on a ninth-grade algebra-for-all policy implemented in Chicago public schools (CPS) and address two research questions; (1) to what extent did a policy that required algebra for all students in ninth grade affect classroom academic composition?; and (2) for high-skill students who were not targeted by the policy, how did the policy affect their academic outcomes? The results showed potential challenges of a curricular policy of expanding a college-prep curriculum to all students: schools are likely to detrack math classrooms when the policy merely required them to eliminate remedial coursework, and this resulted in lower peer ability levels for high-skill students. Consequently, their test scores suffered from this policy. This study suggests that simply mandating a college-prep curriculum for all students is not sufficient enough to improve academic outcomes of all students. An appendix presents: Statistical Models to estimate the effect of an algebra-for-all policy on students’ academic outcomes among high-skill students.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Equal education” detrack*

  • “Equal education” “heterogeneous grouping”

  • “Equal education” “honors curriculum”

  • Earned honors

  • Honors option

  • “Open enrollment” AP

  • “Open enrollment” honors

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.