Even for bright students, advanced classes aren’t always the best way forward
Amy Tschudin and her husband said okay when their son’s fifthgrade teacher in Montgomery County suggested he skip a grade of math. They were flattered by the teacher’s judgment, even though their son was a B student. Within two years, he had lost so much confidence in his math ability that his parents had him moved back.
In seventh grade, they said they resisted putting him in a ninth-grade foreign language course. The school’s response: “Don’t you want your child to learn a language?” They relented. Again, he struggled. The pressure was on again in high school, with the emphasis on honors and Advanced Placement courses.
Washington-area high schools are among the most challenging in the country. I have often praised them for having the highest AP and International Baccalaureate test participation rates in the nation. Tschudin chides me for that. “I feel that acceleration has harmed more than helped educationally,” she said. “I would much rather have him gaining a solid foundation of knowledge and earning A’s and B’s than surviving with C’s and D’s in these push classes.”
Tschudin was one of several parents who contacted me after my recent column about a student in Loudoun County whose counselor put him down for four AP courses his junior year when the student had requested none. They think the preference of many teachers, parents, students and observers like me for college-level courses in high school ignores the individual needs and strengths of their children, which they know better than anybody else.
Lissa Costa, also a Montgomery County parent, was astonished at how difficult it was to get her ninth-grade daughter out of an AP U.S. History course that was at that point too tough for her. “She put 20 hours into the class,” Costa said, “but still failed the first weekly test. Working with her, I could clearly tell the textbook was beyond her reading level. I’m a former teacher. She requested a class change, but both her counselor and her teacher told her it would get easier if she stuck with it.”
Costa got the same answer when she requested the change. After another 20 hours of work and another failed test, she tried again. No luck. Costa said the school switched her daughter to an honors class only after she demanded a meeting with the grade-level principal.
Schools spokesman Derek G. Turner said: “Over many years, [Montgomery County] students and teachers have consistently shown that when students take on the challenge of advanced courses for the first time and proper supports and instructional practices are in place, students do well. While schools may aggressively recruit students for these opportunities and work to foster a sense of belonging, the academic load must be personalized for each individual student. . . . We also must pay close attention to student well-being, stress and anxiety as they balance these multiple demands in a changing world.”
Another Montgomery County parent said her daughter, a seventh-grader, was placed in an eighth-grade-level math class. When the parents inquired, the child’s sixth-grade math teacher said she had been required to pick some students to skip seventh-grade math. “She chose the kids with the best grades,” the mother said, “even though she didn’t necessarily think they would be successful skipping a full year of math.”
“After a month,” the mother said, “we forced the school to move her back down, after a lot of tears and her telling us that she would never get into college because she wasn’t in the accelerated math track.”
That emotional reaction worries parents. They hear students in grade-level classes refer to themselves as “stupid” or “not a math person.” They wonder why schools don’t show more appreciation for the differing paces of young lives.
Cindy Hargroves recalled that her daughter was not an honors or AP student. She took less rigorous versions of her last four required courses her senior year. That was only two class periods a day, so she enrolled in two Northern Virginia Community College courses in the fall and two in the spring. She graduated from high school with no AP classes, but 12 college credits. “I don’t believe every child needs to take AP classes or be pressured to take them,” she said.
Kids mature at different rates. Costa’s daughter, who had so much trouble with AP in ninth grade, did well in the AP courses she took in 11th and 12th grade.
I think educators at these schools have done a good job giving teenagers more than America’s usually mediocre educational standards. But they should be listening carefully when parents say their child is not yet ready for that load.