Empty ‘honors’

“Honors” or “advanced” classes don’t necessarily require high-level learning, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. In addition to grade inflation, schools have succumbed to course-label inflation.

In an American education system full of plans for better high schools, more and more courses have impressive labels, such as “honors,” “advanced,” “college prep” and “Advanced Placement.” But many researchers and educators say the teaching often does not match the title.

Low-income and minority students are the most likely to be placed in title-inflated classes, researchers say.

They said 60 percent of low-income students, 65 percent of African American students and 57 percent of Hispanic students who had received course credit for geometry or algebra 2 in Texas failed a state exam covering material from geometry and algebra 1. By contrast, the failure rates for non-low-income and white students were 36 and 32 percent, respectively.

“Pre-calculus” can mean just about anything.

AP courses at least have final exams, written and scored by outside experts, that reveal whether students have mastered the material. Wayne Bishop, a math professor at California State University in Los Angeles, examined an AP calculus class in a Pasadena, Calif., high school. All 23 students, Bishop found, got As and Bs from their teacher, but their grades on the AP exam were the college equivalent of 21 Fs and two Ds.

When both grades and course titles become meaningless, test scores become even more powerful.

About Joanne


  1. TheCrankyProfessor says:

    The title inflation is true even at suburban public and tony private schools. I have 13 first year student (we don’t say ‘freshman’ here – it’s so retardataire!) advisees and have copies of their transcripts. What struck me this year was the disconnect betweeen the number of courses designated AP and the number of AP tests-in-field completed. Most of these students (at a guess, 10? – I’m at home and can’t check) took something called AP English. One of my students submitted an AP English score.

    Now maybe they chose not to submit their scores, but the idea that AP English is preparing for the AP English exam doesn’t seem to hold up in my sample.

  2. It’s happening at at least one university, where they keep lowering the standards for who may enroll in honors courses.

  3. Hunter McDaniel says:

    It’s a lot like the size classifications I used to see on cans of olives, which started with Large.

    At my daughter’s high school all course were either College Prep, AP, or IB. The lowest level might prepare you for Barber College, but not much else.

  4. Indigo Warrior says:

    Public, and even private, education has too much of the “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” mentality. Simply calling a course “advanced” or “honors” without increasing material and standards won’t cut it.

    Schools really need to identify talents in specific fields at the personal level at an early age, and develop such talent – rather than trying to milk achievement out of persons lacking in innate talent. Find the advanced people first, and then build the “advanced” courses around them.

    How about pearls before swine?

  5. Ironically Jay Mathews is partially responsible for this by his silly high school ranking, which promotes the idea that what counts is how many AP courses one takes regardless of AP test results. Of course universities are just as responsible by using weighted GPA.

  6. The College Board, which oversees the AP program, has instigated this year what is called the AP Audit. They are also tired of people calling courses AP and the coursework not covering true AP-level material. All schools and teachers of AP must submit documentation demonstrating that their coursework and teacher’s credentials are aligned with the AP requirements. Hopefully this will weed out some of the “wannabees.”