In Many Classrooms, 'Honors' in Name Only

Narciso Chavez benefited from Wakefield High School's AP Network, in which teachers seek out potentially strong students who had been overlooked.
Narciso Chavez benefited from Wakefield High School's AP Network, in which teachers seek out potentially strong students who had been overlooked. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

During a visit in March to an honors sophomore English class in an impoverished area of Connecticut, Robyn R. Jackson heard the teacher declare proudly that her students were reading difficult texts. But Jackson noticed that their only review of those books was a set of work sheets that required little thought or analysis.

Jackson, an educational consultant and former Gaithersburg High School English teacher, sought an explanation from a school district official. He sighed and told her, "We have a lot of work to do to help teachers understand what true rigor is."

In an American education system full of plans for better high schools, more and more courses have impressive labels, such as "honors," "advanced," "college prep" and "Advanced Placement." But many researchers and educators say the teaching often does not match the title.

"A company selling an orange-colored beverage under the label 'orange juice' can get in legal trouble if the beverage contains little or no actual juice," said a February report from the National Center for Educational Accountability, based in Austin. "But there are no consequences for giving credit for Algebra 2 to students who have learned little algebra."

Grade inflation is a well-known issue. Many critics of public schools contend that students nowadays get better grades for less achievement than they used to. Experts also worry about courses that promise mastery in a subject but fail to follow through. Call it course-label inflation.

The educational accountability center's researchers, Chrys Dougherty, Lynn Mellor and Shuling Jian, found course-label inflation particularly harmful to low-income and minority students. They said 60 percent of low-income students, 65 percent of African American students and 57 percent of Hispanic students who had received course credit for geometry or algebra 2 in Texas failed a state exam covering material from geometry and algebra 1. By contrast, the failure rates for non-low-income and white students were 36 and 32 percent, respectively.

U.S. Education Department senior researcher Clifford Adelman, the government's leading authority on the links between high school programs and college completion, said some high school transcripts apply the label "pre-calculus" to any math course before calculus. Some students who had taken "pre-calculus," according to the transcripts he inspected, had skills so rudimentary that they were forced to take basic algebra in their first year of college.

The College Board's Advanced Placement program plans to ask teachers soon to fill out a form confirming that their course materials meet college-level standards. Jackson said one College Board official told her of a school that had started an AP Spanish course but was using seventh-grade workbooks.

AP courses at least have final exams, written and scored by outside experts, that reveal whether students have mastered the material. Wayne Bishop, a math professor at California State University in Los Angeles, examined an AP calculus class in a Pasadena, Calif., high school. All 23 students, Bishop found, got As and Bs from their teacher, but their grades on the AP exam were the college equivalent of 21 Fs and two Ds.

Most high school honors and advanced courses don't have independent benchmarks like the AP tests, so inflated course labels are more difficult to detect. Michael Goldstein, founder of the MATCH Charter Public School in Boston, described the sort of dialogue that often produces courses that don't keep their promises in other schools:

"The principal tells the teacher, 'You're teaching algebra 2.' The teacher responds, 'But our tests show these kids haven't mastered one-fourth plus one-half, let alone algebra 1.' The principal responds, 'Well, we need to offer them algebra 2 because it helps on their college transcripts.' "

Many selective colleges defend themselves against course-label inflation by giving admitted students placement tests to see which college courses they are ready to take. A better and more far-reaching solution, many high school educators say, is to prepare students in lower grades for the demanding courses ahead of them and make sure the standards do not slip.

The center for educational accountability's report recommended that high schools help ninth-graders see the worth of taking challenging courses and find ways to build their skills so they are ready for them. Experts cite Wakefield High School in Arlington, which this year won a $25,000 Inspiration Award from the College Board for preparing large numbers of low-income and minority students for AP courses.

Wakefield junior Narciso Chavez, 16, is a product of the school's AP Network, a collection of summer programs, ninth-grade interventions and student clubs operated by teachers who look for potentially strong students who had been overlooked. Chavez's father is a bus driver and his mother a hotel supervisor; both are from El Salvador. Before Chavez arrived at Wakefield, he was told he had a learning disability. But the Wakefield teachers thought he could handle an accelerated program, including geometry and algebra 2 in his sophomore year.

Chavez said he resisted until his friend Marcelo Rejas, already in the courses, suggested that Chavez wasn't up to it. Chavez accepted the challenge, took both courses and received high scores on the state tests in geometry and algebra 2.

This year, he is taking AP Spanish, AP English language and AP chemistry. He also has a special AP seminar that gives him extra time at school to confer with teachers and do homework. He does four more hours of homework a night, with an hour-long break at 9 p.m., when he reads the Bible and prays with his family. "I decided I wanted to be successful," said Chavez, who is thinking of a career in engineering, law or chemistry.

Mike Riley, superintendent of a school district in Bellevue, Wash., and a proponent of higher national high school standards, said the solution to course-label inflation was to connect tightly the curriculum of each grade, from kindergarten through high school, to the next, so it is obvious which students need more help.

Several educators said external benchmarks are also necessary, pointing to state math tests that Chavez took in the spring. They showed that he had mastered geometry and algebra 2.

Without such benchmarks, said Andrew Rotherham, a former White House education adviser and a member of the Virginia Board of Education, "there is too much variance, and that ultimately disadvantages students, in particular poor and minority students. It sounds very romantic to say, 'Leave it all to the schools or the teacher,' but it just doesn't work in a system as heterogeneous, in every way, as ours is."

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