Honors and AP Classes: Why and Why Not?

Spring is almost here and the time of the year has come for students to plan their schedules for next year.  The course offerings are available in print and online, the meetings at school with the guidance counselor are on the calendar, and soon students will be making decisions about where they will sit each hour of the school day next fall. Among the course offerings will be classes designated Honors and AP.  Every year these offerings cause some angst in both parents and students alike.

Having talked to parents every year about reasons why their child should or should not take an honors class or maybe why they did not qualify to take one, and having dealt with both a son and a daughter navigating their way through these decisions in high school, I offer in today’s post some reasons for and against honors and AP classes in high school.

5 Reasons to Take Honors and AP:

  1.  Desire and Motivation:  As a teacher, this is the unmeasurable component in students that makes my job fun.  The student who barely meets a numerical benchmark but is intellectually curious and has a good work ethic is often the ‘dark horse’ of the class and is delightful to teach.  Make sure your student WANTS to take the class.
  2. Ability:  Honors and AP classes have grade requirements and standardized test score limits for good reasons; they have proven themselves to be good predictors of whether a student can be successful in a course. (Success, by the way, is not necessarily defined as an A.) Over the years teaching numbers of students, we can see that a certain score on the ACT or PSAT in a subject area or a certain grade in a previous class correlates to the student’s final performance on an AP exam.
  3. Acceptance:  Accelerated courses present challenges in volume and complexity of material as well as in pacing.  While these are excellent stretching areas for students, they must be able to handle emotionally that they may make lower grades, especially initially in the course.  I liken it to playing up in tennis. A 3.0 player will initially lose matches at the 3.5 level until she plays at that level for a time and brings her game up. Patience and flexibility, a strong sense of self, and a focus on learning rather than grades are needed fo thrive in these classes.
  4. Rigor:  AP courses in particular are designed to meet college requirements and may well prove to earn a student college credit.  Many Honors classes are designed as pre-AP in the sense that they prepare a student for an AP class.  The work load is heavier and harder, but the rewards are great. My own daughter says repeatedly nothing prepared her to handle college work like the AP classes she took in high school.
  5.  Recommendation:  If a teacher or administrator approaches your child and suggest taking a certain class, that’s a pretty strong indicator that he is capable and ready to handle the work.  I have had a few over the years who initially didn’t sign up for a class, but when I saw their inquisitiveness, work ethic, and abilities, I would then suggest to them taking an Honors or AP class up the line. I wouldn’t dare suggest such to a student  unless I had full confidence in him.

5  Reasons NOT to take Honors and AP:

  1. The parent wants it; the student does not.  Sometimes we as parents think a challenge is what our student needs in order to get motivated; yet challenge without interest is not motivating at all. Rather, it is discouraging. Moreover, our parental pride sometimes gets in the way.  Whether consciously or not, we compare our children to to others and fear they are somehow ‘getting behind’ if not taking the top levels in every subject if they are academically capable of doing so.
  2.  Extra-curricular activities or other accelerated courses:  At our school, the entire curriculum is college-preparatory.  The lowest level of the program is quite sufficient to prepare a student for college work.  How many honors classes is the student considering?  How many after-school activities or sports is the student involved in?  Rare is the student who can take all AP classes offered by the school their junior and senior year unless he or she has very few or no outside activities.  For some, artistic endeavors, athletics, and leadership opportunities are just as important as one more AP course.
  3. Grades:  A’s are extremely important to the student or parent.  For the student who is going to stress out over a B, please don’t sign up.  Honors and AP courses are weighted for this very reason: they are harder.  “B” is an AP class is weighted as 4.0 for a reason.  A student taking a combination of Honors and AP classes may well make some B’s and a few C’s and still may graduate with a 4.0 GPA.  Colleges are impressed with students who accept the challenge of a rigorous curriculum; however, some students simply cannot handle less than an A.  AP classes, in particular, are taught at the college-level. If a student makes a certain score on the final exam, most colleges will grant credit for the class.  The rigor cannot be compromised by the instructor to accommodate students and parents who stress over an 89 average.
  4. Ability or previous performance doesn’t meet requirements:  Students grow and change, so this is not to say that past performance alone should dictate whether a student takes these classes; however, nothing is more frustrating than being in a class where one feels lost and overwhelmed most of the time.  Learning does begin at the point of frustration, but class should also should be engaging, supportive, and communal. Every day should not be frustrating.
  5. Leadership and/or competition is important to the student:  Closely related to #4, the idea here is that some students are highly competitive and simply want to be at the top of the class. In an accelerated class, that position is harder to earn. Likewise, some enjoy being in the position of leadership and developing  their skills by helping other learners. They thrive as individuals when they can be peer mentors in a subject.  For that student, an Honors or AP class might not provide that opportunity as well as a college-prep class.

Above all, the student should own the decision. In my honors class, I have instituted the ‘no complaining’ rule.  I tell my students on the first day, “You chose to be here. You have to take English, but you don’t have to take Honors English, so you can’t destroy community in our class by complaining.” Encourage them to talk to teachers who teach courses they are considering, to talk with guidance counselors who can help them interpret test scores and previous performance, to  talk to other students who have taken those classes as well as other students who juggle similar work loads and extra curricular activities.  Ultimately, the student is  spending an hour a day for nine  months in that class and he should be well-informed and vested in the decision.

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