Not long ago, honors courses were considered a hallmark of student achievement, a designation that impressed colleges and made parents beam.
Now, those courses are vanishing from public schools nationwide as administrators move toward a more inclusive curriculum designed to encourage underrepresented minority students to join their high-achieving peers in college-level Advanced Placement classes.
Fairfax County’s public schools are at the forefront of the movement, nudging would-be honors students toward more-rigorous AP courses, despite criticism from some parents that eliminating honors will have the reverse effect and lead some students to choose less-demanding “standard education” classes instead of AP.
Honors courses are generally taught from the same lesson plan as regular classes but at a faster pace and in greater depth. An AP course contains altogether more-challenging material — charting a path that coheres to national standards, which are heavily endorsed by the Fairfax school system.
This fall, Fairfax will discontinue honors-level courses in subjects where an AP class is offered, drawing the ire of parents who want to restore what they call an academic middle ground. They have formed a group called Restore Honors Courses.
Prince William County took an even bolder stance about 10 years ago, doing away with the honors track. There has been resistance to that in other school systems — including Montgomery’s and Loudoun’s, where the honors option has been scaled back.
Considerable opposition from Fairfax parents has prompted the school board to review its decision to do away with high school honors courses that for years served as an alternative to basic and AP courses. But it remains unclear whether local advocates of honors courses can resist a national trend to reduce the number of “tracks” for students.
“Honors courses are drying up in many districts across the country because of the push to democratize Advanced Placement classes,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Some schools in Illinois, New York, Oregon and several other states have begun phasing out the distinction.
That trend has reduced the number of levels available in a given subject area. A decade ago, nearly all school systems offered at least three tracks in high school — usually regular, honors and Advanced Placement. Now, many have shifted to two options, as Fairfax will in the fall. Some have gone even further, placing all students in a single track.
“We’ve found that traditionally underrepresented minorities do not access the most-rigorous track when three tracks are offered. But when two tracks are offered, they do,” said Peter Noonan, Fairfax’s assistant superintendent for instructional services.
Increasingly, educators are using AP test data to measure the disparity between white students and their black and Hispanic peers, revealing a profound achievement gap in high-level courses.
African Americans, for example, represented 14.6 percent of the total high school graduating class last year, but they made up less than 4 percent of the AP student population who earned a score of three or higher on at least one exam, each of which is weighted on a five-point scale.
Many underrepresented minority students are able to handle college-level coursework but are intimidated by the AP label, Noonan says. In Fairfax, where students choose their own course schedule with guidance from teachers and counselors, administrators are eager to give students incentives to take AP classes.
But in reducing the hierarchy of available courses, Fairfax has left students such as W.T. Woodson High School’s Conor Wade unsatisfied.
Wade is now taking 11th-grade basic — or standard education — English, which he says is “not at all challenging.” He’s enrolled in two AP courses and is not ready to take a third. “It’s like choosing between two extremes,” he said. “An honors class would be perfect — something in the middle.”
No such course has been offered at Woodson for several years. Five high schools in the county — Fairfax, Lake Braddock, South County, West Springfield and Westfield — still offer honors courses as a third tier in some subject matters but will eliminate those classes at the end of the school year. In earlier grades, and where there is no AP option, honors classes will still be offered.
“It is the position of Fairfax County Public Schools that AP and IB courses, where available, provide the best education opportunity for our students,” district officials wrote in a recent memo to parents, using the acronym for International Baccalaureate.
At eight of 26 Fairfax high schools offering IB classes instead of AP, standard classes will remain as the second track.
But concerned Fairfax parents have analyzed enrollment data at Woodson, which show that a significant number of students who took honors classes in 10th grade dropped to standard education, instead of elevating to AP courses, once the honors option was eliminated in 11th grade.
“Instead of encouraging them to take more-advanced courses, eliminating honors pushes students backward, to less-challenging courses,” said Megan McLaughlin, a member of Restore Honors Courses.
Other parents and analysts worry that students will be coaxed into taking AP courses even if they are unprepared for college-level rigor, slowing the pace of learning and setting up some students to fail.
Officials at some low-income urban schools point to encouraging minority students to take AP courses as a critical element in closing the achievement gap. But in suburbs nationwide, parents of high-achieving students have threatened to leave school districts that are eliminating honors courses and reducing the number of tracks available, a phenomenon researchers have dubbed “bright flight.”
In Fairfax, school board members call the issue one of the most divisive they’ve discussed. In response to parent opposition, they have announced a work session in July to reevaluate it.
“Parents want more choices for their children, not fewer choices,” said Sandy Evans, a school board member representing Mason. “Eliminating the middle ground forces students to choose between being bored and being overwhelmed.” If Evans has her way, honors courses will be restored as soon as possible.
Experts are looking to Fairfax as a laboratory — one of the biggest and wealthiest school districts in the country, taking on an issue that often cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines. If eliminating honors courses is palatable there, it could find proponents in similar districts across the country.
Other local districts have resisted the trend to de-track students, including Prince George’s County, which still offers up to five tracks at some of its high schools. Montgomery has scaled back honors courses at some schools, but still offers the third track at many others. The District has at least three levels, including honors, in its high schools.
“If you raise the expectation, the idea is that you’ll raise achievement. That’s not always the case,” said Loveless, of the Brookings Institution. “But some students do need the nudge. They need their schools to offer fewer options.”