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Posts tagged Tracking

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Honors/AP - Who Gets To Take Them

Separating students by ability has been around for a long time. When I first started teaching in the 1970s, my high school grouped students into three or four tracks: Basic, College Prep, Honors, and AP (Advanced Placement). Not every course had an Honors or AP track, but several did, and the number of courses with multiple tracks grew over the years. 

In my department (Social Studies) we had only an AP US History track in 11th grade, but Basic, CP, and Honors tracks were present all in required courses. Students needed teacher recommendations to take the honors or AP courses, and those class sizes were small, usually under 15.

Through the 1980s, we added more AP courses (Macro Economics, US Government, and European History). Again, these classes remained small, and class sizes rarely exceeded 15 students. Scores on the College Board AP tests were high, and we had a goal that at least 75% of students would score a 3 or better (on a 5 point scale). At the same time we voted, as a department, to eliminate Basic courses, since 95%+ of our graduates went on to further education. 

In the 1990s we had a change in administration and a change in policy. Honors and AP classes would be available to any student who desired to take them, although students would still be recommended by teachers, and counselors would encourage students and their parents to pay attention to these recommendations. Honors and AP class sizes tended to remain under 18 and additional sections were added as necessary. I was teaching AP European History at this time and there would be 15-20 students per year, often divided into two sections of 8-10 students. Our demographic began to change in the mid-1990s, with students moving into our district who were academically challenged. Our department designated a teacher to work with these students and purchased suitable books and materials. Our school also began to increase the number of teacher/tutors who would work with students outside of class to bring them up to grade level.

In the 2000s, we found more and more students wanting to take honors and AP courses, recommended or not. Parents were worried their sons and daughters would not get “challenged” in CP courses, believing they were watered down due to the increasing number of academically-challenged students moving into our district. Our department did not agree, and we made sure not to lower our academic standards. Our district hired more tutors and our teachers spent more time after school working with struggling students. Enrollment in AP European History grew, and I had 40-45 students in two, sometimes three, sections for most of the decade. Enrollment in AP Government and AP Macro Economics (one semester each) grew to include nearly half the junior class. Looking back over the department’s AP test scores for the past 16 years one finds they have remained consistent, with 85% - 90% of the students scoring a 3 or better. 

After looking at scores and what has happened in our district, I encourage other educators who have restrictive admittance policies to their honors and AP courses to reconsider them and perhaps open those courses to students who are willing to challenge themselves. Students tend to know their strengths and weaknesses and will self-select appropriate courses. A big obstacle is parents who want their child into a course that is not at the appropriate level. A good counselor can help steer parents to make appropriate selections. In my district, a concern was the lack of African-American students taking AP courses, especially African-American males. I don’t have an answer to this, other than teachers personally talking with students and their parents and encouraging students to challenge themselves. 

Honors and AP courses have a place, but all students need fair and challenging materials that encourage them to think and grow, and become the educated citizenry our future needs.

Filed under Tracking AP Honors education