Opinion: Honors-weighted elective classes should offer CP alternatives

March 8, 2023 — by Sarah Zhou
Photo by Leyna Chan
There should not be such a notable lack of differentiation between honors and college prep electives.
By removing honors credit for courses that do not provide a significantly less rigorous non-honors class, the school can both reduce academic competition and increase enrollment for courses facing low enrollment.

“How will this look on my college application?” 

Although students constantly hear the virtues of choosing based on interest and the realities of their personal schedules by guidance counselors, let’s face it: Most students heavily base course selection with an eye toward how it will look on their college resume. Even though a course may not align with a student’s interests or intended major, many often enroll in AP and honors classes to boost their weighted GPA.

While most non-elective honors classes — which mainly fall in the math and science departments — are designed to be significantly more challenging than their college prep (CP) alternatives, the same does not apply to many honors elective courses that may not deserve the rigorous designation. 

Courses that want to claim a district-awarded honors credit need to offer CP alternatives to justify their weighted classification.

In my view, a course should be significantly more challenging and rigorous than other courses within the same subject (and similar courses in previous years) if it is labeled an honors course. 

Yet, this doesn’t hold true for many courses at the school. 

Orchestra 4 Honors and 5 Honors are weighted classes, meaning if someone took orchestra in middle school and continues pursuing it all through high school, they benefit from two years of a 5.0 GPA class.

Orchestra members tell me that the classes generally do not increase in difficulty if you remain in the same ensemble — unless you personally choose to audition for more advanced ensembles or strive for a principal position — which isn’t required. 

Out of the school’s four orchestras, only Freshman Orchestra doesn’t earn honors credit. Nearly every student in each of the other classes (one of which doesn’t require an audition) earns honors credit in junior or senior year. But skill level and rigor aren’t considered — all one needs for an “A” in orchestra is to meet a minimum baseline. In essence, if students choose to meet the minimum requirements, the orchestra course they choose to enroll in maintains roughly the same difficulty to earn an “A” for four years, except the last two years come with an honors credit — one of the biggest academic draws of the program.

If a CP Orchestra program was implemented, it should be for students in Philharmonic Strings (PS; the non-audition orchestra for students in grades 10-12) — where the level of difficulty of various required musical pieces is significantly less challenging to learn than SSO (String Orchestra and Saratoga Strings; two audition only orchestras for students in grades 10-12). This way, a differentiation in course difficulty can be made, separating students who meet higher standards set by the music department — thus putting more effort into the class by learning more difficult pieces — from others.

Additionally, Journalism (Newspaper) — a class that expects students to put in increasing amounts of effort between sophomore, junior and senior years — should offer an honors option at the junior year level (Journalism 3 Honors). While many upperclassmen are editors and expected to manage sections and put in more work, some take up positions that lack a jump in difficulty from Reporter/Layout Artist (the position all students are automatically assigned to their first year); those are the students who would be enrolled in CP Journalism 3. Another alternative that would allow the program to implement an honors class is to hold students to a higher standard for grading. For example, while CP Journalism might require 4 contributions to earn an A-, Honors Journalism might require 8 contributions.

There is also inconsistency in classes that qualify for honors credits. For instance, Creative Writing offers an honors credit after just one year, while journalism classes such as newspaper and yearbook offer an honors credit after three years, even though both are writing-based English electives. Additionally, completion of English 11 Honors allows students to automatically qualify for the honors credit in Creative Writing, while Newspaper does not offer such an option. 

If honors-accredited programs were reevaluated, it would both better enrollment for non-honors programs (that possibly deserve an honors weight) that are lacking in numbers, as well as reduce stress and competition around school — many students avoid non-honors courses in order to maintain a high GPA. Because many sequential honors courses do not differ from their non-honors counterparts, this would not necessarily require much change within the classes — just a small change on the GPA scale.

Especially for programs that base the honors designation heavily on the number of years enrolled in a program, students who try out a class that offers two years of honors credit for junior and senior years may feel pressured to stay enrolled for the GPA boost, even if they discover they dislike the class. If courses that currently don’t increase in difficulty between CP and honors split into CP courses at the same level, it would likely deter students who enroll only for the honors credit who aren’t actually interested in the subject and aren’t willing to put in more effort. 

Though this might hurt enrollment for some honors programs, it would also likely promote enrollment in CP-only courses which might not help fulfill graduation requirements.

The idea of allowing honors credits only for programs that provide a non-honors alternative is also encouraged by the UC/CSU Honors guidelines, which recommend that “high school courses being considered for the UC honors designation will have a non-honors equivalent course offered at the same frequency (e.g., annually, every other year, etc.), in the same subject area, and at the same grade level.” 

  The school should not only re-evaluate its consistency in assigning honors credits to elective classes but also require elective courses that offer honors weighting to have a CP version of the class. There should be a clear distinction between the difficulty and workload of CP elective courses and honors elective courses. If none can be made, the honors designation isn’t merited.

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