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.