Saturday, July 21, 2007

Advanced Placement, IB and Honors Courses in High School Raise Questions

On Tuesday, July 17, 2007, Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews wrote a column on p A19, “Who Needs Honors Courses? Try Everyone.”

He goes on to discuss the schism between the content of regular courses and Advanced Placement courses in northern Virginia public schools, and the corresponding breaks between the students. For some schools, an intermediate solution has been Honors Courses.

Actually, often ninth and tenth grades (in Fairfax and Arlington) offer honors courses, and in eleventh and twelfth (sometimes tenth, too) the track switches to AP or IB (International Baccalaureate), with many schools offering one or the other. Teachers are supposed to have their course content externally certified (Erica Jacobs has written about this in the DC Examiner). Students can get college credits at many schools by completing AP courses with a sufficient grade and getting a sufficient score on the AP test, which always includes some free response (essays and problems) as well as the more usual multiple choice.

The Matthews problem discussed an innovation at TC Williams High School (with government teacher Jack Esformes) in Alexandria, VA where AP students and regular students share the same classes, but AP students get more work. When I went to high school (Washington-Lee in Arlington VA, graduated 1961), we had “enriched” physics, chemistry and mathematics. In the humanities, there was a tendency for students to mix, as regular courses (in Va and U.S. History and Government) were actually quite good, with teachers (stirring some controversy) giving exams that were mostly essay and tackling then controversial subjects like segregation as an outgrowth of Reconstruction (especially Brown v. Board of Education) in days before schools had made much progress in integration, as well as ideas like economic cycles, anti-Semitism, and the causes of fascism and communism.

When substitute teaching, I noticed a wide gap between AP and Honors (either) and regular classes. For example, in tenth grade Honors Chemistry is often taught. Students are often able to complete classwork assignments with the help of Internet searches for technical information (without abusing the privileges), and examinations often consisted of multiple choice with the caveat that students had to give a reason for each answer choice, and to “pass” each unit separately. In AP classes, students are quite aware of a kind of objectivistic self-interest: it pays to work hard now and get college credits at public school taxpayer's expense and tuition free, before worrying about student loans.

Curiously, this column did not show up on the Post website, but a related one is “College President Cautions Me About AP”, also Tuesday July 17, link here.
He presents a discussion with David Oxtoby, author of the paper in Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Rush to Take More AP Courses Hurts Students, High Schools and Colleges."

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