AP and Honors in the Same Class
As those of us in the newspaper business have discovered to our misfortune, productive original thinking is hard, and rare. Even after the Internet began to nibble at our toes, we couldn’t come up with a way to do our jobs that would keep us from losing a leg or two, maybe more.
The same is true of original thought in education, but good ideas about schools are more common than people might imagine. My latest example is Sande Caton, a Delaware high school science teacher who has come up with a simple but smart solution to the ongoing battle between Advanced Placement and honors courses for our nation’s teenagers.
Caton revealed her method in an online comment to one of my recent columns on this blog. Her timing is good. In early June, newsweek.com will unveil the new Newsweek Top High Schools list, its annual ranking of the best 1,500 public high schools. Newsweek uses a rating formula I invented in the 1990s. Many readers think this method, called the Challenge Index, has helped AP push honors courses out of our schools. Here comes Caton with a way to make everyone happy.
Many high schools used to offer juniors and seniors a choice of a regular, an honors or an AP course in popular subjects such as history or English. In recent years some have removed the honors options, saying they can’t staff three different courses. They feel honors students should be taking the more challenging AP courses anyway. My suggestion, offered with no hope of it ever being accepted, was to remove not the honors option but the regular option. In my experience, regular students were capable of handling honors or even AP courses if well taught. Why confine them to a regular class taught to the lowest standard?
While teaching AP Environmental Science at Concord High School in Wilmington, Del. (which will appear on the new Newsweek list), Caton tried another approach. “All students were registered as AP students in my class until four weeks into the year,” she said. “At that time, I conferenced with each student (and parents if appropriate) to determine whether the student should stay registered as an AP student or change their registration to honors student. Counselors and administrators loved this solution because there was no change in the student’s schedule - only the type of credit they were earning.
“What a difference that made! A few students each year who were not academically prepared to succeed in my AP course were encouraged to stay as honors students. They received the same high quality instruction, the same assignments, the same assessments and the same lab work.” They took the same unit exams, but were graded differently. AP students had the AP system, one point for each right answer and a quarter point off for each wrong answer on the multiple choice section. Honors students were not penalized for guessing, and some AP-level questions on the test did not count for them at all, unless they got them right. “All students in the class understood the grading differences and accepted the two systems without a problem,” Caton said.
She called it a “win-win-win-win-win solution.” It meant that “lesser-prepared students experienced an AP course without the pressure to make the grade on the AP exam, and the AP students still received the high quality instruction that helped them be successful on the AP exam,” she said. “In addition, the AP students learned a lot from their more hands-on peers and the lesser-prepared students learned a lot from their more academically inclined peers.”
Caton said “after the novelty of this idea wore off, students never really thought about who was receiving what credit. The parents had little to say about it -- the AP students were receiving AP instruction and the honors students were being challenged within their capability. One parent asked that her son be switched from the AP section to the honors section after the first half of the year; otherwise, I heard very little from parents. The administration and department chair were in favor of this idea because students were being educated at a level that challenged them without overwhelming them. ... Even on the days that I did some AP exam prep with my class, the honors level students followed along. I explained to them that even though they were not going to take the AP exam that year, when they get to college, they will be expected to prepare for final exams the same as the AP students. Everyone saw value in that.”
That was not Caton’s only good idea. She had her AP Environmental Science students write an environmental law, and colleague Robert Killen’s AP Government students ran it through a mock congress. Her students designed an eco-city. They created their own personal field trips. They made up multiple choice questions for her exams -- which they discovered was much harder than they thought -- and received extra credit if she used theirs.
Are there other high schools letting AP and honors students coexist in the same class? I know of none, except the even more radical example of now-retired Alexandria AP Government teacher Jack Esformes, who taught AP students and regular students in the same classes. I would love to hear of similar arrangements. Smart classroom ideas sometimes pop up simultaneously in different places. Caton, for instance, invented a way for all of her students to take the AP exam that was also conceived by teachers at Whitman High School in Bethesda. In both cases, students who chose not to take the AP exam were given a similar exam drawn up by the teachers. Caton said when her students realized her substitute exam would count toward their class grade, but the real AP exam grade would not because the results would arrive too late, many chose the real exam.
Like many teachers I know, Caton is modest about her inspirations. She told me the honors-and-AP-together method was “not an original idea. Colleges have been doing this for years. Many teach courses for senior undergraduates with first-year graduate students. I only adapted the idea to make it work in my high school AP course.”
Right, and the inventors of television, Vladimir Kosma Zworykin and Philo Taylor Farnsworth, were just adapting what radio was doing, but with pictures. I know many teachers who did not realize immediately how important their ideas were. My thanks to Caton, about to return to her district after two years helping the Delaware Department of Education with an AP incentive program. Now, if she would be so kind, I could use a thought or two on how we can keep newspapers alive, at least as long as I remain capable of typing.
Washington Post editors
| May 15, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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