Overreaching academically creates problems that are hard to fix several weeks into school year

December 9, 2019 — by Preston Fu and Lihi Shoshani

Many students decide to take an Honors or AP class before replacing it with a lower level class, which can cause many schedule complications

On the first day of school on Aug. 15, sophomore Ashlyn Pham was excited to find out that many of her friends were in her first-period Algebra 2 class with teacher Kristen Hamilton, which at that point had fewer than 20 students.

Over the next few weeks, two new students joined after dropping their far more challenging Algebra 2 Honors. One month later, 10 more students also joined after dropping their honors class just before the school’s drop deadline. Starting in mid-September, the class had roughly doubled in size and had an entirely different dynamic than on the first day of school.

Pham noticed the transition for the new students seemed a little rough, since they had a lot of work to catch up on. She also saw that the increase of kids in the class made it tougher for Hamilton to teach the way she had with fewer students in the class. 

“Once the class grew, I didn’t get as much of the teacher’s attention,” Pham said. ”I liked it more with the smaller class since we had more time to ask questions.” 

Out of 1,134 schedule change occurrences in the first six weeks of school this year, 146 students replaced an Honors or AP class with a regular class, according to registrar Robert Wise. This left guidance counselors scrambling: They needed to rearrange individual students’ schedules, stuffing them into nearly full regular classes as quickly as possible.

Because of the school’s open-access policy, students have the freedom to take almost advanced, grade-level classes they want, even if their former teachers recommend they avoid an Honors or AP class. 

In theory, this can benefit students in allowing them to take harder classes and expand their horizons. 

The downside of the policy is that it sometimes results in students overestimating their own abilities and not observing the consequences of changing class levels — consequences that trickle down to the entire school.

“In the beginning, teachers try to establish the foundation for their class, so students have to hit the ground running when they come into class late,” Chemistry Honors and AP Biology teacher Cheryl Lenz said. 

Lenz noted her disapproval of the current system in which grades from higher-level classes do not move with the student as they change to a lower course. Students have the chance of a fresh start in a lower-level class, but it also incentivizes overreaching for classes that students aren’t ready for. She feels that they should still be held accountable for work they did in those first three weeks.

Teachers of incoming students can either have them make up work they’ve missed in the beginning of the school year, but they're usually selective about it.

Another problem is that the late schedule changes have become so rampant that there are no  lower-level classes for students to switch into.

“When students don't listen to their teacher’s recommendation, biting off more than they can chew, we can't always change their schedule if the class they want to switch into is full,” guidance counselor Alinna Satake said.

Although students can drop whenever they want to until the third week of most classes, math classes had a later drop deadline of four weeks this year for the first time. 

The most dropped class this year was Algebra 2 Honors, with 55 students switching into the regular Algebra 2 class partway through the first six weeks. This class is the first honors math course students can take after completing Geometry, causing students to overshoot and overestimate their abilities.

One of those students making this decision four weeks into the school year was sophomore Grace Hsu. She decided she would rather focus on dance and Chemistry Honors than mathematics. 

“It was difficult to adjust at first because I had to get used to a new classroom with new people,” Hsu said.

Another aggravating issue is that students too often ignore early clues that they would probably better off in a regular-level class or don’t inform others like guidance counselors and parents that they may be in over their head in terms of the workload.

“It's letting parents know, ‘I know you were great at physics, but it doesn't necessarily mean that AP Physics is the right class for your child,’” Satake said. “We're all learning and trying to figure it out together.”

Senior Neda Riaziat switched from AP Physics to regular Physics after the first week of school when she realized she wouldn’t have enough time to balance her school schedule with her AP class.

“I integrated pretty well into the class because I dropped so early,” Riaziat said. “I’m glad I did it because now I have enough time for college apps and extracurriculars.” 

Hamilton believes that students should make their decision to drop as early as possible to help themselves and everyone involved. 

Lenz thinks the later drop deadline only disrupts classes more. To help her students decide, Lenz gives her Honors Chemistry students a quiz each day during the first week of school to give them feedback to base their decision on.

The later drop deadline came after the math department’s split vote, which was slightly in favor of a later drop deadline. Most of the Honors teachers wanted there to be a later drop deadline for students to have more time to choose which class fits them best, while most regular teachers wanted the drop date earlier so their students could acclimate better to the new classroom, teachers and students. It’s too early to say what the policy will be next year.

Administrators and teachers are searching for ways to avoid repeating situations like the large number of Algebra 2 Honors drops that occurred this fall. In the meantime, they stress that students who overreach in taking an Honors or AP class are putting themselves at risk that won’t be able to drop into a regular-level class at the drop deadline. 

“They should take the class that is right for them, not necessarily the harder one,” Satake said.

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