Honors Courses Give Way To AP Rigor

At Rockville High School, teacher Jasmine Leonard assists Marc St. Aubin, 17, and Joseph Outmezguine, 18, in 12th-grade honors English.
At Rockville High School, teacher Jasmine Leonard assists Marc St. Aubin, 17, and Joseph Outmezguine, 18, in 12th-grade honors English. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

Honors classes, once the pinnacle of pre-collegiate study, are gradually being eliminated at some of the region's top high schools, on the theory that the burgeoning Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs have rendered them obsolete.

In the fall, Rockville High School will be the first campus in Montgomery County not to offer honors English as an option for seniors. School systems in Fairfax and Loudoun counties have scaled back their honors programs in recent years. Prince William County schools have abandoned the honors label altogether.

The decline of honors courses mirrors the expansion of AP and IB, nationally recognized programs that present high school students with college-level work. In many area schools, those programs have effectively replaced honors as the top college-preparatory track. At least one area high school, Bell Multicultural in the District, now requires students to take at least two AP courses and the corresponding end-of-year exams.

Not everyone welcomes the change. Some students and parents view the elimination of honors courses as a thinly veiled campaign to boost the numbers of students taking AP and IB. The programs are promoted by local superintendents and encouraged by measures such as the Challenge Index, created by Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews to rate schools by AP and IB participation.

Lucie Blauvelt, a junior at Rockville High, said she and many classmates resent losing the honors English class, which has been viewed as a wise option for students unable or unwilling to face the demands of a college-level course.

"There's some students who are just honor students," said Blauvelt, 16. "They don't have the ability to push themselves into AP. They're too smart to be in regular classes."

Ten to 20 years ago, the best students might have been expected to take one or two AP classes over the course of high school. Schools offering IB, a full two-year load of college-level work, were even less common. Today, a course load dominated by AP or IB is more or less expected of every capable junior and senior at competitive high schools, and honors courses are struggling for an identity.

At Rockville High, Principal Debra Munk surmised that her 12th-grade honors English course and the corresponding non-honors course had become "virtually the same." She decided to eliminate the honors class, leaving students to choose between a regular English class and AP study in their senior year.

On a recent morning, students in one of the last 12th-grade honors English classes at Rockville High composed letters describing what they wanted to be doing six months hence.

"You have wonderful brains, and I know you can do that," said the teacher, Jasmine Leonard, pacing the rows of desks. She plans to mail the letters to each student in November, when most of them will be in college.

Honors courses are generally taught from the same lesson plan as regular classes but at a faster pace and in greater depth. Honors students might read two Charles Dickens texts in the time it takes their non-honors counterparts to read one. The honors class might delve deeper into a book's historical underpinnings and yield more elaborate writing assignments. A corresponding AP course, by contrast, might cover Dickens and move on to William Faulkner, a more difficult read.

Unlike AP and IB, honors course work typically does not broach college material. For that reason, some school officials contend honors courses have no place in the final years of high school.

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