Restrict course enrollment to preserve students’ mental and physical health

April 1, 2022 — by Nidhi Mathihalli
Saratoga’s open enrollment system pressures students to take classes they are not necessarily prepared for

By all measures, students here are stressed out, overworked and tired, especially as juniors and seniors, and the cause is obvious to everyone: They’re taking too many AP and Honors classes at the same time and not handling the load well.

The desire to load schedules with AP and Honors classes comes with other downsides. Since 2019, teachers and guidance counselors have observed unusually large numbers of students attempting to drop from AP and Honors courses, especially STEM classes, in the fall semester, making it difficult to allocate certain numbers of sections of each course. 

This year, for instance, a huge proportion of students in AP U.S. History, more than in previous years, wished to drop to college prep U.S. History.

Typically, students feel pressured to take these high-level courses by external factors — peers, parents and college counselors — who believe that GPA maximization is key to securing an acceptance at a prestigious university. These issues all have a simple solution: Remove the open enrollment policy for high-achievement courses.

The primary concern with the current system is that students are, in general, unprepared for their courses. Anecdotally, according to teachers, this is true for courses across all disciplines. 

When comparing this year’s English 11 Honors performance to that of previous years, English teacher Amy Keys said that her students have generally found it harder to adjust to the curriculum this year. Although some of the more difficult transition can be attributed to the decrease in sophomore English proficiency due to a year in online learning, she added, several students may have taken the class for the GPA boost rather than a genuine interest.

In general, unpreparedness for a course stems from a lack of a strong foundation in its prerequisites. This explains why students tend to drop courses within the first few weeks of school. The problems this year were exacerbated by distance learning, in which open-note tests and online labs were commonplace and work ethic depreciated. The pandemic has made keeping up with fast-paced high-achievement courses much more difficult for underprepared students.

AP Physics teacher Matthew Welander said that this issue applies equally to AP Physics 1 and 2, which have Chemistry and English 10 as prerequisites. Although students who struggled in Chemistry Honors can still do well in AP Physics, he said, the majority of these students have to spend many additional hours studying to keep up with the course material.

To meet student and teacher needs, the school should implement a stronger teacher recommendation system, in which teachers’ recommendations for students’ best course options are directly considered as part of counselors’ schedule selection processes. Since teachers can most directly gauge how well their students will perform in a subsequent related course, the addition would help limit student stress and avoid logistical issues each fall.

Allowing students to take hard courses they are not necessarily prepared for induces unnecessary stress — an issue that has spiraled out of control for both students and the administration. For the sake of students’ health, the school should rework its open enrollment policy and implement stronger restrictions on course selection.

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