By Gianina Fan, editor
By Nicki Watt, staff writer
A proposal for a New York school district to cut all gifted programs back in August sparked a national debate: are advanced classes necessary or do they just create a divide?
Gifted programs give students unique opportunities to learn with others who are just as eager about putting in the effort to learn something valuable. Take the Gifted and Talented Enrichment, or GATE, program for instance. While it may have slipped your minds, these programs in elementary school give a foundation for students to be excited about learning. Through the GATE program, I learned how to read Pinyin, a representation of Chinese characters using the English alphabet. To this day, that class has enabled me to be able to read Pinyin, something important to me as an Asian American.
At Maria Carrillo High School, AP and honors classes stand out. Many people choose to come to MCHS because of our renowned academic programs, such as AP chemistry or AP literature. Such classes give students an opportunity to challenge themselves and learn from incredible teachers. I know for me, an appeal was being able to interact with students who are equally eager to learn; it creates a welcoming environment.
Having taken both advanced and non-advanced classes at MCHS, I can confidently say all the classes at MCHS are amazing, regardless of the class’s level. But the appeal of AP and honors classes are the incredible teachers and challenging yet engaging curricula. In AP Language and Composition, for example, we did a project where we posted about current events on Twitter. Last year, we held daily discussions on pressing current events. I got to hear from different perspectives on issues that are impacting the world today. The project left a lasting impression on me, a characteristic of most AP classes. They teach something important about the world.
These fast-paced AP courses are geared towards college preparation and do a good job of it too. They push students to think critically and manage challenging workloads. It all pays off with the knowledge gained and the money saved when students can, for the most part, use their AP credit for the same courses in college. Many colleges look for those who challenge themselves with AP courses when admitting students.
Yes, these courses are very challenging and demand much effort and time. But if we take away these classes, some students will be bored by an easy workload and won’t be learning at their full potential.
The system isn’t perfect. Students who mostly take advanced classes are isolated from the students who don’t. And if you look around your AP or honors class, you’ll notice that people are predominantly Caucasian and Asian. Getting into honors and AP classes is complicated. To have been in the program from the very start, you would have had to be recommended by your elementary school teacher for 7th grade advanced English and math. And if your grades didn’t quite make the cut, you would have to take a test that would determine your eligibility. And once you’ve made it, it’s hard to catch up with the other students who have been taking advanced classes since day one. In addition, getting into the GATE program as a child was solely based off of test scores.
But getting rid of all advanced classes isn’t the solution. We need to be able to challenge the students who want to be challenged and attend to students who learn best with a slower, less pressurized curriculum. Putting everyone into the same learning box wouldn’t be the solution. While there is no immediate fix for making advanced classes more diverse and accessible, electives provide a space for students to interact, free of educational, socioeconomic, and racial divides. Everyone has an equal opportunity to be a part of classes like band or drama. People are united by their passion for non-academic related classes. Electives are able to help mend the divide that advanced classes create.
Advanced Placement and Honors classes are a central part of the curriculum here at Maria Carrillo High School and for students across the US. Many see these as a path to college, a way to boost one’s GPA, or simply an opportunity to dive more deeply into a subject.
While these ideas are not wrong, they do not tell the full story of AP and honors classes. Too often, the unintended consequences of these classes go unexamined. The sad truth is that they perpetuate a system where students’ academic success for all of high school is determined by factors out of their control very early on in their life and are ultimately detrimental to the education of all students.
To begin, it is important to discuss how academic grouping, or tracking, affects everyone’s education. In general, most students in high school are unofficially put on a high, middle, or low level education track from the start of their freshman year, often starting even in middle school. Students who begin taking AP or Honors classes their freshman year will likely continue to do so their entire high school career, and since much of the curriculum builds from one year to another, students who do not begin taking those higher-level classes either in middle school or when they first enter high school are unintentionally kept from taking those higher-level classes later. That is not to say it is impossible to start AP or Honors classes later, but it is significantly harder than if you have been taking themthis all of high school.
It simply does not make sense that a class choice a student makes when they are so young has such a huge effect on all of high school.
Furthermore, high-level classes are predominantly taken by the more privileged students. There are many reasons for this: families with more money generally have more free time to invest in their children’s education, from reading to them when they are young to paying for tudors and study books in high school. Although there are fee waivers, AP tests pose a significant cost barrier to many families. Furthermore, students who have to work to support their families do not have the same amount of time to devote to studying as those who are able to not work. There are endless socio-economic factors that influence whether a student is designed as “advanced” level or not, and very few of them have to do with the student’s actual capability. From early life, the economic class of a student does more to affect what quality of education they will receive.
Many may also point out that putting all students in one class level will drag the high-achievers down to a lower level. In fact, mixing academic levels will elevate the learning of all students. There is this idea that students placed in higher level classes tend to be more engaged whereas those in middle or lower-level classes are more apathetic, but this difference is only perpetuated by tracking. Those in middle and lower-level classes are not held to the same standards of participation and passion, and therefore are not given any incentive to reach the level of students in AP or honors classes. If they do reach that level, they are likely to be moved up to a high-level class. However, those engaged and passionate students are the kind of students that should be in every classroom: their energy can motivate other students and demonstrate that the class does not have to be tedious or something one is forced to take.
Of course, students learn at different rates and in different ways, and there is no perfect way to account for that. However, it is not fair that some students get so many less opportunities than others. High school should be about ensuring that everyone gets the best education possible, not that certain students are systematically given advantages at every turn. The proliferation of these classes tells students from the time they are quite young that some are simply better than others.