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School Board Agrees to Study Honors Choices

FCPS gets pushback for past decision on eliminating honors courses

A parent group is pressuring Fairfax County Public Schools to re-examine its policies on offering high-level courses. FCPS officials believe students are better served by pushing them to take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses instead of offering the honors curricula the group wants reinstituted.

The Fairfax County School Board agreed to have a worksession to address the school system's current philosophy on honors courses in high schools at a forum before Thursday's meeting.

The issue presented by board member Sandra Evans (Mason District) concerns FCPS' current practice of not offering honors courses when an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exists for a subject, leaving students with a choice between general education- and college-level courses.

Fairgrade, prompted by complaints in December from parents at West Potomac High School, has begun advocating for five honors classes they say FCPS has eliminated. Fairgrade is a parent advocacy coalition founded in January 2008 to lobby to change Fairfax County School’s grading policies, an effort that succeeded.

Advocates for restoring honors courses say a three-tiered system would allow students who would not be challenged by a general education course, but overwhelmed by an AP course to be taught on a more suitable level.

“We are concerned our high school students don’t have an honors path,” Megan McLaughlin said. “Coupled with student burnout issues addressed in the movie ‘Race to Nowhere,’ we think this should be reviewed because we want to find the right balance for our kids.”

But FCPS disputes both the number of honors classes Fairgrade says have been eliminated and the effectiveness of a three-tiered system.

Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent for instruction, said two courses — not five — have been eliminated in the curricular analysis in the last six years because comparable AP or IB courses exist: English Honors 11 and World History Honors 2.

Fairgrade counts five because they include three honors courses offered only at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — U.S./VA History, English 12 and U.S. Government — that no longer exist.

All standard courses at Thomas Jefferson have a .50 weighted credit, which is the same weight honors classes get at all other FCPS high schools. There are no classes equivalent to general education level classes at Thomas Jefferson, but there are AP courses.

"Bringing TJ into this conversation is, in my opinion, comparing apples to oranges," Noonan said. "... When we got to TJ we took a wholly different approach to how we were going to weight classes and since it was a school for science and technology, as well as a place where the assumption was that all classes were taught with a different level of rigor because of the magnet status, all standard level courses in the traditional core content get a .50 weighted credit."

School Board Chairman Kathy Smith (Sully) said because research shows a key to greater academic achievement in high school is a rigorous curriculum, teachers, administrators and staff are encouraging more students to take AP and IB courses, particularly minority students.

Students do have the option to take honors classes in the areas where no AP or IB courses are offered: World History and Geography 1, English 9, English 10, Biology 1, Chemistry 1, Geosystems, Physics 1, Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and Precalculus with Trigonometry. 

Since FCPS eliminated honors courses, enrollment and success in AP courses has increased, Smith said. From 2008 to 2010, the number of students participating in AP increased from 14,220 in 2008 to 15,270 in 2010, and the percentage of students earning AP exam scores of 3 or higher, the score typically needed to earn college credit, improved from 72 percent in 2008 to 74 percent in 2010.

Students taking AP courses in the two subject areas where Fairgrade seeks more honors classes, English and World History, have fared relatively well compared to students taking AP courses in other subject areas. In 2010, 80 percent of students taking English Language and Composition and 81 percent of students taking AP World History scored a 3 or better on their AP exam. By contrast, only 70 percent of AP students overall in 2010 score a 3 or better on their exam. [See AP exam results in the box at the top right of the screen.]

Smith said data show enrollment in at least one AP course has increased for all ethnic groups, with an overall increase of 4 percent.

"Greatest gains were made by underrepresented minority students, with Hispanic student AP enrollment increasing by 13 percent and black student AP enrollment increasing by 10 percent," she said.

School board member Patty Reed (Providence District), who was not on the board when honors classes began to be phased out and worked with Fairgrade as a high school coordinator before being elected to the school board, supported holding the worksession.

“It’s been raised by members of our community and it’s timely because the school board is talking about the achievement gap,” she said. “We want to explore the history, to understand the decision-making process.”

No date has been set for the school board worksession on this matter, Smith said.

Fort Hunt Local Editor Naomi Nix contributed to this report.

Ben of Houston May 05, 2011 at 01:57 AM
If the school has enough students for three-tiers without skimping on the classes, then what is the harm in adding the mid-level? If at the end of the year, the student feels ready to take the AP test anyway, let them. I did that with the English Language (my parents felt I needed to take one regulars class with my full load of top-level classes, and I got the best English teacher I ever had out of it). However, I feel that the differentiation isn't really there in many classes. The Honors-level math is geared for senior Calculus. They even have the AB and BC Calculus tests for the smart and super-smart students. The same is true for the AP sciences, which my high school taught as second-year courses (You could take honors Physics your junior year, and AP Physics your senior, heavily suggested to be alongside BC Calculus). Also, the language classes are not AP until year 3 or 4. For history, though, I can see the benefits of having a mid-level course, mostly for those students who are heavily loaded on the AP science and math courses and would be bored in a regular course. You could teach at a higher intelligence level while having a regular-course load of work. To come back to my point, I can see the benefit if there are enough students to fill the classes. However, I would not consider it a high priority if there are not.
Megan McLaughlin May 05, 2011 at 04:18 AM
Regrettably, Asst. Peter Noonan failed to acknowledge that Honors Government is currently offered in the IB high schools, and could be offered at the AP High Schools. Therefore, FCPS has 3 Upper-level Honors courses whose curriculum has been taught in its "regular/non-TJ" high schools. In addition, FCPS School Board Chair Kathy Smith fails to recognize that most AP students take only 2-3 AP classes. Therefore, FCPS should offer "honors courses" for upper-level English & Social Studies. This could also benefit students who wish to transition from "standard" level to honors level courses in their junior/senior year. Furthermore, multiple years of data from Woodson HS reveal that 50% of honors- level students opt-out of AP English for 11th & 12th grade, and must take "standard-level" English b/c there is no Honors option. In other words, FCPS is failing to provide adequate academic rigor for ALL students across the spectrum. Hopefully the School Board will listen to the community's substantive concerns, review the data and provide these 5 valuable upper-level courses. FCPS' decision to omit these Upper-level honors courses from the curriculum is NOT supported by substantive research. Furthermore, parents, students and teachers recognize the value of upper-level honors. Colleges recognize the value. Montgomery, Howard and Loudoun County offer these courses. FCPS needs to do the same. Megan McLaughlin, President-FAIRGRADE
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