Unless your children are star athletes, their chances of getting into a top college or university without honors and Advanced Placement classes are slim indeed.
Clearly, those who attend schools that do not offer many of these classes are at a great disadvantage. But even attending a school with a wide variety of challenging courses is no guarantee that a student will actually be able to take any of them.
Although counselors, teachers and admissions officers agree on the importance of advanced courses, there is little agreement on who is allowed to enroll in them.
On one side of the debate are those who feel honors courses should be available to only the top students and advocate a strict, uniform criteria for entrance to these classes.
Eligible students are either "identified" at an early age by their high scores on standardized tests or their strong performance in previous honors classes. There is a bias toward students who have been on the honors track for some time based on the belief that they've spent more time in difficult classes and can thus handle more demanding work.
Allowing only students like these into advanced classes guarantees a certain standard at which the class can be run. Admitting less talented students, it is argued, would tend to "water down" the curriculum and have a negative effect on the truly gifted.
A final consideration that influences many schools is that elite classes like this will have a higher pass rate on Advanced Placement exams and the scores on those tests will be higher. Such statistics make a school look good and gain academic recognition.
The other school of thought takes a more inclusive view as to who may enroll in the top classes at a school. They do not base admission on whether the student is on the "gifted track," a particular score on a standardized test, or even if the student has taken honors classes before. Rather they look first at the student's motivation, on his or her desire to take a more difficult course. They also consider teacher recommendations and how well the student has performed in whatever classes he or she has taken.
To understand the effect rigid "tracking" has had on this situation, you have to talk to the students themselves. When I ask most of my honors students how they wound up in AP English, they will invariably respond, "I've been in GATE [gifted and talented] classes since the fourth grade; I always sign up for the honors section."
The tendency to stay in the honors track once you're on it is a given, even with a less than stellar performance.
But when I ask a bright non-honors student why he or she isn't in AP, the answer is, "Oh, I was never 'identified' as a gifted student in elementary school." Or, "I didn't do well in Honors English freshman year, so I'm out of the program now."
Designating certain kids as "honors" in the early grades simply doesn't allow for any late bloomers. Trying to get "on to" or "back on" track is often impossible once the labels have been assigned.
Fortunately, there seems to be a movement toward a less elitist approach, bolstered by growing evidence that more students can handle honors classes than formerly believed.
A recent article in Newsweek features a "Top 100" list of schools that have been the most successful in bringing a larger percentage of their student body into the more challenging courses. Instead of focusing on "weeding out," these schools try to emphasize more of a "taking in" approach.
The question remains, however, as to what effect a more inclusive policy will have on an honors class. Will honors classes "become a joke," as some fear?
Having taught these more inclusive classes for 12 years now, I can only go by my own experience. Do I run things differently than I would be if every student were a genius? Of course, but the class still meets the major goals of an AP course: it covers material typical of a college-level class, it is significantly harder than its non-honors equivalent, and a large percentage of the students pass the AP exam at the end of the year. So whatever may be "lost" in making the class accessible is balanced by a lot more students having access to a more challenging curriculum and a more stimulating environment.
While advanced classes are often the gateway to prestigious universities, they can also be of benefit to any motivated student who wants to push himself.
The word "motivated" is once again the operative term here. Lazy, slacker students are not storming the walls of AP Spanish; we're talking about only those students who have asked to get in. There is no guarantee they'll get a B grade or pass an AP test, but at least they'll have a chance to find out.
If our top students continue to be challenged and stimulated, what is there to lose by opening the door to other students eager to join them?
Christine Baron, a high school English teacher in Orange County, is the co-author of "What Did You Learn in School Today?" You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach her by telephone at (714) 966-4550.