Unless your children are star athletes, their chances of getting into a top college or university without honors and Advanced Placement classes are slim.
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 be able to take any of them.
Although counselors, teachers and admissions officers agree about the importance of advanced courses, there is little agreement about who should be allowed to enroll in them.
On one side of the debate are those who believe that honors courses should be available to only the top students. This camp advocates a strict, uniform criteria for entrance to these classes.
Eligible students are "identified" at an early age through high scores on standardized tests or strong performance in previous honors classes. There is a bias toward students who have been on the honors track. The logic is that these students have spent more time in difficult classes and are better able to cope with more demanding work.
Allowing only students such as these into advanced classes guarantees a certain academic standard. Admitting less talented students, it is argued, would "water down" the curriculum and have a negative effect on the truly gifted students.
A final consideration that influences many schools is that students in elite classes will have a greater pass rate and higher scores on Advanced Placement exams. Such statistics make a school look good.
The other approach takes a more inclusive view as to who may enroll in the top classes. This approach does not base admission on whether the student is on the "gifted track," has achieved a particular score on a standardized test, or even if the student has taken honors classes. Rather, it examines the student's motivation and desire to take a more difficult course. Teacher recommendations also are taken into consideration, along with how well the student has performed in classes.
To understand the effect rigid "tracking" has had on this situation, you have to talk to the students. 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."
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 previously believed.
A recent Newsweek article features a "Top 100" list of schools that have been the most successful in bringing a larger percentage of students into the more challenging courses. Instead of focusing on "weeding out," these schools try to emphasize more of a "taking in."
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, I can only go by my own experience. Do I run things differently than I would 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 giving a lot more students access to a more challenging curriculum and a more stimulating environment.
While advanced classes are often the gateway to prestigious universities, they also can benefit any motivated student who wants a challenge.
"Motivated" is once again the operative term. Lazy 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 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, writes a column for the Times' Orange County edition. She can be e-mailed at email@example.com or reached by telephone at (714) 966-4550.