Inside a crowded West Potomac High School library parents were fuming.
One says her son has gone from writing challenging essays in his 10th grade English honors class to watching the movie version of the Great Gatsby in his 11th grade general education equivalent.
Another says his daughter avoids general education classes altogether because the students are too disruptive. And yet another says the demands of an AP course are too difficult for her child to accomplish.
If the school system offered more choices, the parents said at the parent teacher student association meeting, their kids could receive an education that maximizes their potential. But for years, Fairfax County Public Schools has been eliminating honors classes in subject areas where there is an AP or IB equivalent, effectively creating a two-tier academic system.
Some parents say the policy jeopardizes the education of “students in the middle” who are not yet academically prepared to take for a college-level course, but would not be sufficiently challenged by a general education class.
But school administrators say adding more academic tiers would create a de facto tracking system, hurting the academic environment of struggling students. Additionally, more academic levels are not necessary, they say, because general education classes can meet a wide range of student needs.
Real World Real Grades, the same group of , has shifted its focus towards the lack honors courses for upperclassmen. Renaming themselves “Restore Honors Classes”, the group has teamed up with Fairfax activist organization Fairgrade to push for a reversal of the county’s decision to form a two-tier academic system.
“When did high school in Fairfax County actually become college,” said Catherine Lorenze, of Fairgrade. “We can’t just have these two levels. Either you are bored to death in general ed or they are working themselves to death in AP like a college student.”
If there is one thing both parties agree on, it's that involvement in AP courses has increased, while class offerings for honors courses have declined. In 2000, Fairfax county public school students took 17,000 advanced placement exams. By 2010, the number had risen to 32,230. Last school year 391 students at West Potomac alone took AP exams, up from 352 in the 2008-2009 academic year.
The county’s decision to phase out honors classes in favor of AP classes began several years ago. During the 2004-2005 school year, the Assistant Superintendent of Instruction removed honors courses from the course-offering guide when there was an AP course of the same subject area, said Craig Herring, the coordinator of middle and high school instruction of Fairfax public schools.
At the time, he says, school administrators argued that shifting towards a two-tier academic system that favors AP courses, more effectively challenges high-achieving students while improving the quality of education for lower-achieving students.
AP classes, in particular, were supported because they are based on a nationally-recognized curriculum, with results that can be tracked and compared between students and across schools around the country. To that end, the syllabus in any AP classes must be approved by the College Board.
West Potomac students taking AP courses in two subject areas where local activists seek more honors classes, English and World History, have scored higher than students taking AP courses in other subject areas. In 2010, 84 percent of students taking English Language & Composition and 77 percent of students taking AP World History scored a 3 or better on their AP exam. By contrast, about 70 percent AP exams taken by West Potomac students in 2010 received a score of 3 or better on the exam. (See PDF for more AP scores)
Though Fairfax County students can openly enroll in any course, administrators argue that adding more academic tiers would create a de facto tracking system, that would leave lower-achieving students heavily populated in general education classes.
“The more tracks you have the more detrimental it is to [students in] the lower tracks,” said Herring.
For example, he says, in classrooms with mostly lower-achieving students, teachers may or lower their expectations for students at a level below their potential.
“Instead of sorting kids into multiple [tracks] we could get better at keeping them in more diverse groups in the classroom,” says Carol Tomlinson, an education professor at the University of Virginia.
Tomlinson’s area of study, “differentiated instruction” has been tossed around as a model for teaching to diverse group of students. Teachers cater their teaching strategy and substance of their lessons to students’ abilities and learning styles, making sure each student is sufficiently challenged at the same time.
In a lesson about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, for instance, an English teacher might ask surface-level questions of struggling students, while throwing a deeper prompt to those students who have an easier time with literature.
But some parents aren’t buying it. For a school system that has seen rising class size, stagnant teacher salaries and budget cuts, they are skeptical of schools’ ability to effectively pull off something like differentiated instruction.
“I think it’s impossible to take 30 kids with 30 different learning styles and teach them two curriculums,” said activist leader Kate Van Dyck.
And if teachers are not effective at catering to students with differing academic abilities in a general education class, .
West Potomac High School, in particular, serves a diverse group of students compared to some of its peer schools in the county. Last school year, 38 percent of West Potomac students qualified for free or reduced lunch compared to about 24 percent of students county-wide. About 46 percent of students were Black or Hispanic, compared to 26 percent in the county.
“I am not uncomfortable saying that most teachers think there should be more than two tiers,” said West Potomac English teacher Mary Mathewson. She added she has personally seen West Potomac students struggle in AP Courses when they were probably would have been better suited for an honors-level course.
Even Tomlison admits that not all teachers who attempt to teach students of varying abilities in one classroom do so successfully. There are an “infinite amount of things,” she says, that make teachers more likely to succeed. Among them, a knowledgeable leadership team, a school environment where teachers have a voice, time to plan and collaborate with one another, resources for instruction, and proper training.
“The question schools have to ask is what is it we can do that encourages maximum growth for all students,” said Tomlinson. “We can do a better job of teaching more kids more robustly. We can give more kids access to the good stuff.”
For now, say West Potomac parents, the best course of action is to instate more honors classes while the school system figures out how to best serve disadvantaged students. The West Potomac Parent Teacher Association approved a resolution urging the school board to offer honors-level courses in Calculus, English 11 and 12 and Social Studies.
Restore Honors Classes leader Kate Van Dyck says at least four other AP schools in the county have parent-teacher-student associations that have considered or are considering similar resolutions.
The Fairfax County School Board agreed to study the issue in a work session later this summer.
In the mean time, activists continue to reach out to local PTA’s, school administrators and school board members and candidates, hoping the school system changes its course.
“We want to advocate for the whole county because we believe this is the wrong direction for our school system,” said Van Dyck.
Editor's Note: The original version of this story misspelled the name of a parent activist Kate Van Dyck.