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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, 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.

By Washington Post editors  | May 15, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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Basically, that's called differentiating instruction. I'm sure it happens elsewhere, particularly in small schools. It's not that novel.

Posted by: ami00000 | May 15, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Whereas I can see that working for AP environmental where there is no pre-course, AP Bio, Chem and Physics are all 2nd year courses - it would not work to have students who are getting content for the first time (ie 9th grade bio I, 10th grade chem I honors students) to be taking their course at the same time and place as AP students.

Posted by: annwhite1 | May 15, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

There's so much wrong with that plan I'm amazed anyone would propose it with a straight face.

"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. "

An incentive for students who are worried they would flunk the real test is a SMART idea?

Do you understand, Jay, that the people who choose to take the test instead of her substitute are people who are worried they will flunk the test?

Who wants that deal, Jay? The people who want that deal--other than you--are the people who know their students are unprepared for the test. Because, of course, the only GOOD thing that comes from unqualified students taking the test is more points towards your Challenge Index.

But hey, let's have the state and parents waste millions of dollars on unqualified students taking the test! Because if everyone refused to play this bogus game, we could finally kill the Challenge Index.

That's only the most obvious problem, of course.

Do the students get the extra weight for the honors course? Guess what--it doesn't matter how you answer the question, you lose.

1) "Yes, they do get the extra weight". Great. So the kids taking AP get more work, get graded to a higher standard, and get nothing extra for it. Worse than nothing extra, they lose out, because their teacher is dealing with a larger class. I can see the parents going for that big time.

2) "No, they don't get extra weight."

Then why bother taking the harder course when they could take the regular course? It won't make any difference to college admissions.

Oh, and by the way? Environmental Science is a complete joke of a course. It's ideology masquerading as science.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | May 15, 2009 11:36 PM | Report abuse

Hi Cal. Outside of Calif, schools often give more weight for AP than honors. Not sure what the rule in in Del. And I am a little surprised that you are upset at their decision to take the real AP test, for which they are definitely going to get a grade, even if it doesnt count on their report card. This is obviously a competent teacher, who will have already had plenty of test marks and other measures to decide what class grade the kid gets. You seriously believe their course grade is going to be significantly different because they didn't take the teacher's fake AP test final? In my experience, final test grades are usually very close to the level of performance the kid had before the final. I wish you would spend some time in the many schools in yr area that invite motivated average kids to take AP courses and give them the extra time and encouragement they need to tackle the material. You will either be surprised or have some real life classroom observations to surprise me.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 16, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

At the suburban Boston high school where I am the science department chair, we offer two levels of second year chemistry within the same class. Students may take the course as "AP Chemistry" or "Advanced Chemistry." Students enrolled in Advanced Chemistry receive "regular" (Jay's term) credit. The total enrollment of these courses is between 75 and 90 students (3 sections) each year so the system was not developed as a result of small enrollment. Instead it grew out of the teacher's desire to provide a wide-range of students with the opportunity to study a second year of chemistry without the necessary pressures of what is required in an AP course. Here is the course description for Advanced Chemistry "This course is taught within the AP Chemistry course, but with differentiated assessments. Students attend the same classes, participate in the same labs, and complete the same classwork as the AP Chemistry students. The problem sets and exams are simplified, and the lab reports do not require the same level of detail. Students with a strong interest in chemistry but for whom AP Chemistry is too strong a commitment are encouraged to consider this alternative."
We have not necessarily found an increased number of students opting to register for a second year of chemistry since we began offering this option, however it has allowed us to better support students who when they become overwhelmed during senior year may have otherwise dropped the course all together. (An unfortunately too common problem at a high-performing high school.)

Posted by: awinston | May 16, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

My thanks to awinston. If you have a chance to email me at, I would appreciate it. I want to know how to reach you in the future. Same goes for anyone else who has information about arrangements like this, mixing AP students and other students in the same class.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 16, 2009 10:55 PM | Report abuse

"Outside of Calif, schools often give more weight for AP than honors"

It would have been much clearer if you'd specified whether you are saying AP and honors both get weight, but different levels, or that AP gets weight and honors doesn't. Either interpretation is possible.

In either case, the idea of trusting a teacher to have fair and rigorous policies for grading "honors" vs. "AP" in the same class is seriously nuts. Teachers are notoriously bad at grading fairly, trusting effort over ability more often than not.

Moreover, it's a rotten deal for the actual AP students, who have to cope with less able kids who don't have to focus as hard, are taking teacher resources, and get graded to an easier standard. I can't imagine that the AP parents are happy with that.

Again, though, this is APES, which isn't a respected AP class. Many colleges don't give credit for it at all. AP Gov is a similarly lightweight class. Let me know when you find some teachers giving honors credit for US History or Calculus.

I suspect that the real goal is what awinston describes above--"honors" is a stopgap measure to protect the GPA of kids who would otherwise flunk out of AP.

"You seriously believe their course grade is going to be significantly different because they didn't take the teacher's fake AP test final?"

Um, Jay? That was your ENTIRE POINT.

"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. "

You described this as "clever", right? You do understand the causal reasoning in your statement? The students wanted a test that WOULDN'T count towards their grade. The only reason for this is because they were afraid of a lower grade.

And this is *precisely* what you single out for admiration--her clever way of using the student's fear of a lower grade.

If the students weren't afraid of getting a lower grade, then the teacher would tell them that their grade was based on their test score, and they'd be all for it.

I mean, come on. Don't back away from your point and pretend you didn't mean it.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | May 16, 2009 11:02 PM | Report abuse

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