Red Apple Mom

April 28, 2011

Restore the Honors Courses

I don’t know how many more questionable policy-making decisions I can take from FCPS.

The latest?  The gradual elimination that has taken place of most English & Social Studies Honors level courses for 10th, 11th and 12th graders when there is a corresponding AP course offered.  FCPS has been conducting this phase-out over a number of years.  No one really noticed it was happening. Only recently did the popular documentary, “Race to Nowhere” get a lot of people asking where all the Honors classes had gone.

These honors courses need to be restored.

Never mind that this decision to eliminate these courses appears to have been made without a definitive vote by the School Board.  Never mind that the “evidence” FCPS’ Department of Instructional Services has produced to “justify” this decision appears to be a misinterpretation of the data.

The bigger concerns here are the negative impact on FCPS student achievement and college admissions opportunities.

Elimination of these courses, which include English Honors 11, English Honors 12, World History Geography 2, US History Honors and Government Honors, means our high school students have limited curriculum choices.  They can take a Gen Ed course which many students find less challenging and not as rigorous as the Honors option –  or they can load up on AP classes – whether they are ready and capable or not.

Equally high performing and competitive school districts in our area  – including Montgomery, Howard and Loudoun counties offer their students a 3-tiered curriculum that includes these English and Social Studies Honors courses.

So why is FCPS making decisions that in effect make our students less competitive?

FCPS’ 2-tier curriculum is like a restaurant menu that offers only two choices –a plate of rice or a plate of meat.

Where are the vegetables?

You need the vegetables.

Students deserve the additional choice of Honors course options for the challenging educational value they provide.

FCPS School Board Chair Kathy Smith disagrees.

Yesterday, Smith told WAMU-88.5 public radio station reporter Jonathan Wilson “I think we are better served – when a kid has a choice and wants to take a more rigorous course – if we can put them in an AP class.  It’s been proven through studies that those kids are more successful in college.”

Smith doesn’t seem to grasp that not everyone is ready for an AP course.  Importantly, not every student is capable of taking 4-5 AP courses in one year either.  Even FCPS recommends that students take no more than 2-3 AP courses per year.

FAIRGRADE and another parent advocacy group called Restore Honors Courses (RHC) recently learned that at Woodson High School, the data demonstrates students who formerly were taking Honors courses are now choosing Gen Ed classes over AP when the Honors option is no longer available.

Does FCPS know if this is happening in the rest of our high schools too?   And why are parents and teachers doing the research and compiling the data that FCPS administrators should have done a long time ago?!

Here’s another aspect of this issue to consider:  Remember how hard the community fought alongside FAIRGRADE to gain the extra 0.50 GPA weight for Honors courses?  The removal of these Honors courses means that the student who doesn’t want to take the college level AP course only has the option for the Gen Ed version now – and Gen Ed classes don’t get extra GPA weighting.  That results in a less competitive kid when college admissions officers are looking for academic rigor on a student’s transcript and top GPAs for merit scholarships.

School Board – I hope you’ll reverse this decline of our curriculum offerings and restore these five Honors courses or we may see students submitting letters like this with their college applications:

“Dear College Admissions Officer,

FCPS doesn’t offer a three-tiered curriculum like equally competitive school districts.  My only choice was to stress out and take a full load of 4 or more AP courses, which FCPS by the way discourages, or taking Gen Ed courses. 

As I tried to balance my weekend job, school and sports schedule in order to be a sane, well-prepared student, I took FCPS’ recommendation of only taking 2-3 AP courses. 

Please do not be misled by the lack of rigor on my transcript.  If there had been an Honors course alternative, I could have and would have taken it.  Of course I would have had a higher GPA then too. 

I’m sure you understand.  After all, EVERYONE does know how great Fairfax County Public Schools are right?”


  1. Thanks for a comprehensive look at one of the most questionable education decisions made by FCPS! Our group, Restore Honors Courses, has been looking for answers that just are not out there as you point out. No school board vote, no cited research at the time decision was made!, no written rationale and worst ever – no ongoing evaluation process to document how this change has impacted students, even though it has been in place at many high schools for years now! Do former honors level students really succeed at multiple AP courses or are they just fodder for the county’s numbers game?? Oh, yes we are a high achieving school system with an increase in AP participation???? BUT DO THEY PASS THE AP EXAMS WITH A 3 OR HIGHER TO GET THE COLLEGE CREDIT? (Majority do not!) DO THEY LEARN AT AN APPROPRIATE LEVEL? (No since college level courses are designed for college students, not all high school students have the skill set needed!) DOES SOMEONE MAKE MONEY ON THIS DEBACLE? (Yes- College Board Inc. who designs AP and sells the tests/curriculum has astronomical profits, growing rapidly as more school systems fall for the media driven race for best 1000 High Schools List.) Do some student’s crash and burn unnecessarily? (Duh- how could they not?) Let’s hope our School Board steps up to fix this major lapse in judgement for the sake of 70% of our high school students who need the honors courses restored or added!

    Comment by kvandyck — April 28, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

  2. I haven’t allowed my Student-Athletes to take an AP course, although they do excel in their Honors Courses as well as their General Ed. The time commitment for AP is too much with the hours of practices; add in another extra-curricular (band) and volunteering; they would just be asking for trouble. If they only had the choice between AP and General Ed, I guess I would have to make them give up either sports, music or community service. Why limit the opportunities for our students? This is the time they should be able to explore many interests and develop a passion for their futures. They can take college level courses in college.

    Comment by Jennifer Bargerstock — April 29, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

  3. Most feedback I’m receiving from parents and teachers is that it is beneficial to offer all students a range of learning options. How do you claim to be a “world class” school district and offer only Gen Ed or AP? What about the kid in the middle that isn’t ready or capable for college level courses or, as you indicate, wants to seek some academic balance while pursuing other interests? Here’s an interesting article a friend sent to me regarding neighboring Montgomery County. I suspect a lot of these arguments apply here in Fairfax County too.

    Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, Maryland: Achievement Gap Closed: Misusing the AP Facts


    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    Achievement Gap Closed: Misusing the AP Facts

    by Joseph Hawkins

    As Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) Superintendent Jerry Weast rides off into retirement this summer, he honestly can make the claim that student participation in Advanced Placement (AP) courses skyrocketed during his tenure. Over a 10-year period, from 2001 to 2010, total AP exam volume went from 10,689 exams in 2001 to 29,854 exams in 2010, an increase of 179%.[1] [2] It is critical here to point out, however, that nationally, student participation in AP courses also leaped forward with record enrollments and exam taking. In 2001, the College Board recorded a volume of 1,414,387 AP exams. In 2010, the volume increased by 1,798,838 exams or an increase of 127%.[3]

    Emerging research shows that students with high-quality AP experiences perform better in college than do students without such experiences.[4] So, it is easy to make the case—the argument—that the above increases aid a large number of students in preparing for and succeeding in college.

    There are other aspects surrounding AP participation by MCPS students, however, that do not match reality. In fact, it appears as though facts have been exaggerated to make a rather clear point: MCPS closed the achievement gap. In the past two years, this point surfaced several times. Consider these two examples:

    · In a Washington Post article, published on July 28, 2009, reporter Daniel de Vise wrote the following, “The share of black student who graduate with a passing score on at least one Advanced Placement test has doubled since 2000; blacks in Montgomery now outperform whites in the country as whole.”[5] (Emphasis added.)

    · On January 21, 2010, when testifying to the United State Senate Committee on Appropriations, MCPS Superintendent Weast said the following: “The district is proud of its accomplishments during the last decade in improving the level of student achievement and closing the gap between white and Asian American students and African American and Hispanic students. … We have improved performance with 78 percent of students taking Honors or Advanced Placement courses. The percentage of African American and Hispanic students who score a 3 or higher on AP exams surpasses the national percentage for all students.”[6] (Emphasis added.)

    Both of these statements add to the myth that under Weast’s leadership, MCPS closed the achievement gap.

    De Vise goes way out on a limb and makes the rather absurd claim that black MCPS AP exam performance is higher than white AP exam performance elsewhere in the nation. The fascinating thing about this statement is he uses absolutely no data to support the claim. MCPS rarely reports the actual mean AP scores by race or ethnic background. The last time they so was in 2007, and the mean 2006 AP exam score for black MCPS exam takers was 2.6 (on a scale of 1 to 5).[7] (Note: There is an earlier MCPS report that provides a different mean—2.4.[8]) For white MCPS exam takers the mean was 3.3, and for whites elsewhere in the nation, the mean score was 3.0. Clearly, black MCPS AP exam takers are not outscoring or outperforming their white peers in the county or in the country as whole.

    (By the way, from the College Board website, the public can download Excel files with score information.[9] Why can’t MCPS provide Excel files with data?)

    The statement made by Weast in front of Congress, “The percentage of African American and Hispanic students who score a 3 or higher on AP exams surpasses the national percentage for all students,” is factually correct. The statement is based on AP data first reported to the public in February 2010 via a Weast memorandum to the Montgomery County Board of Education.[10] The actual memo, for example, reports that 20.9% of the blacks in the class of 2009 (high school seniors) who took an AP exam scored 3 or higher. In comparison, nationwide, the College Board reported that 15.9% of all high schoolers (high school seniors plus students in other grades) who took an AP exam in 2009 scored a 3 or higher.[11] So, if this true—and it is, the percentages are correct—then clearly MCPS closed the achievement gap because our kids of color outscored their peers elsewhere in the nation.

    But the percentages cannot and should not really be used to make the case that Weast is trying to make. Here is why:

    · First, if the goal is to make the argument that MCPS closed the AP performance gap between black and Hispanic and white and Asian American students, comparisons should be made between these groups. A comparison of our black and Hispanic kids to the nation as a whole—while interesting—is an inadequate apples-to-oranges comparison.

    · Second, if Weast truly wants to make a case for MCPS closing the gap, he ought to use actual scores to make that case and not percentages. The percentages are misleading. They merely reflect the reality that the MCPS AP score distribution for black and Hispanic exam takers (how many scores of 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s exists) different than the distribution of AP scores for the nation. This only reveals that our county has slightly more higher scoring black and Hispanic seniors than does the nation. This is not evidence, however, to support an argument that the AP score performance gap was closed. In 2010, the overall national mean score for AP exams taken was 2.84.[12] (Note: The 2.84 mean is much higher than the 2.6 mean reported above for all black MCPS AP exam takers. The higher national mean probably means that there are more national exam takers scoring 4s and 5s than black MCPS AP exam takers scoring 4s and 5s. We could figure this out if MCPS would release scores consistently broken out by all of the key demographic variables.)

    · Third, in general, we should use some caution when comparing AP participation rates in Montgomery County to those in other parts of the nation. Not everyone in the nation jumped on the AP bandwagon with the same degree of enthusiasm and abandonment found in Maryland or the Washington DC region. In 2010, only one other state, Florida, recorded a higher percentage of students who were AP exam takers than Maryland. In Florida, 40.2% of high schoolers sat for an AP exam, compared to 40.0% in Maryland. The next two closest states were New York (36.8%) and Virginia (36.4%). In addition, we should use caution when comparing AP scores from other parts of the nation. True, the goal for every exam taker is to score 3 or higher; however, one certainly could (and should) argue that the Maryland and Virginia numbers and performance are driven in part by the annual Washington Post Challenge Index. Thanks to the Index, our region has turned the annual AP exam taking scene into its own version of “race to the top,” where scores literally mean everything.

    Of course, it is somewhat absurd to use results from a single exam as evidence that MCPS has closed the achievement gap. And even though frequently it is characterized as a single “thing”—the gap—there really is no single achievement gap but rather a fairly long and complex list of gaps, ways in which black and Hispanic students differ from white and Asian students.

    In 2008, the Montgomery County government’s Office of Legislative Oversight issued the report “Defining and Describing Montgomery County Public Schools’ Progress in Closing the Achievement Gap.”[13] The report stands as a fairly objective scorecard on progress made and not made on closing the achievement gaps by summarizing data from more than 50 MCPS measures. While the report presents no mean AP scores—it should have—it does make the following observation about AP exam performance, that is, the percentage of AP exam takers who earned one or more AP scores of 3 or higher. “The AP performance gap remained virtually unchanged between White and Black students, diminishing slightly from 29 points in 2002 to 27 points in 2006.” A look into a more recent MCPS AP report reveals that these performance gaps have not changed very much; in fact, the performance gaps have increased from 2006 to 2010.[14] In short, white MCPS AP exam takers still outscore black MCPS AP exam takers. So, regardless of how many additional black kids we have enrolled in AP courses, and MCPS has been extremely successful in jacking enrollments, the AP score gap remains a pretty robust gap.

    So, as Superintendent Weast rides off into the retirement sunset, let us keep in mind that he leaves behind a lot of unfinished business—the AP performance gap is not closed. Could we just kill this myth. Weast has been responsible for a lot more black and Hispanics students getting into the “AP game,” and that should be applauded. Now we need to focus more attention on those black and Hispanic students winning at the AP game—scoring higher.

    (And it probably would do a lot of good for the Office of Legislative Oversight to update its 2008 report.)

    [4]Chrys Dougherty, Lynn Mellor, and Shuling Jian, “The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation” (2005), National Center for Educational Accountability.
    [6] Testimony of Jerry Weast. Hearing of the United State Appropriations Committee: Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies. January 21, 2010.
    [12]The 6th Annual AP Report to the Nation, February 10, 2010, College Board.

    Comment by Red Apple Mom — April 30, 2011 @ 8:23 am

  4. […] Restore the Honors Courses ( […]

    Pingback by FCPS Flexing Its Muscle to Kill Upper-Level Honors Courses « Red Apple Mom — July 7, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  5. […] Restore the Honors Courses ( […]

    Pingback by Fairfax County School Board’s Discussion on Honors Courses « Red Apple Mom — July 20, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

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