Extra CreditJay Mathews

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, February 9, 2006

Below is a provocative article from the West Potomac High School newspaper Pyramid by junior Angie Palma, the Pyramid's business manager. It raises the issue of whether it is right to cancel honors classes and force students to choose between regular classes or Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. I am eager to hear the thoughts of readers on this issue:

What is the least appealing part about being back at school? Is it waking up early, not having classes with your friends or the amount of work being piled on by your teachers? Many students, on top of needing to complete all the work that is assigned daily by higher-level classes, also have to squeeze in time for after-school sports and jobs. That is more than enough for one person to try to handle without including the numerous other activities that students are involved in, such as babysitting and clubs.

Those students are the ones most affected by the decision of whether to take either an AP course or a regular course. Those who choose the lower-level class are left sitting among classmates who do not work as fast and do not offer a challenging learning environment. For example, juniors at our school are either taking U.S. and Virginia history or AP US/VA history. Many people in my US/VA history class are students who took honors history as sophomores and would have taken honors history this school year had it been provided. Those who gladly chose US/VA history might wonder why there are students complaining about having an easy class.

The problem is not having an easy class. The problem is that the only other choice was a class so advanced it seemed overwhelming. At the end of last year, when it came time to sign up for our junior classes, many of my classmates were dismayed when they were forced to choose between a class that was too advanced and a class that was below their learning capabilities. Where is that middle ground needed for those of us not quite ready for a college-level history class but more advanced than a regular history class?

A popular theory among parents who are against phasing out honors classes is that students need to be challenged when learning in order to maintain an interest in a class. When asked her opinion, parent Carolyn Tabarini said, "Removing honors classes is not teaching to the individual. There are students who do not meet the rigors of AP but will not be challenged in a regular class." If students are not being challenged in a regular class, our only other option is an AP class. Should we have to be working so late every night to complete a homework assignment for one class? There should have been another option.

A familiar comment is that colleges look for students who take heavier courses. Taking on a lot of work makes you appealing and special to the college you so desperately want to get into. I have been told it doesn't matter if you pass an AP class.

This philosophy is wrong. You spend a whole school year busting your behind, pushing yourself to the limit to finish everything for a college-level class, but then once you get to college, you have to take another class of the same intensity because by failing the exam, you don't get the college credit. Some PTSA parents believe the lack of honors classes and the ongoing "phasing out" of honors classes is a bad idea.

Just as we are able to pick and choose our electives, we should be able to make a decision about how hard a core class we believe is right for us. By being forced to choose between a regular class and AP, many students have chosen the regular class. Some of us are not ready for college work. We need to have our extracurricular and after-school jobs. We need to feel a sense of accomplishment without feeling burned out after completing our tasks.

I am not picking on the 11th-grade history classes, nor am I trying to discount AP classes. All I am trying to say is that we all need to have choices. If a specific student excels in English and science, he or she should be able to take an AP-level class in those subjects.

However, if that same student wants to be challenged but has some trouble remembering specifics about history, he or she should be able to choose whether or not to take AP-level history. It should not matter that parents or teachers want their kids to take the hardest classes available. The ultimate decision should be left up to the person who is going to have to do the work. And that would be us.

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