The Truth About Honors Courses

Person cutting construction paper with a knife against a ruler. Paper is scattered.

 How many “My child is an honor student” bumper stickers do you notice every day? A 2013 NAEP study investigated how well high school mathematics course content matched with course titles and descriptions. The study may prompt you to ask, “How many honors students are really getting an honors-level education?”

 
In 2013, NAEP released Algebra I and Geometry: Results from the 2005 High School Transcript Mathematics Curriculum Study. It explored textbooks and course descriptions for algebra I and geometry to see how well course content and course labels matched. The findings were quite startling. According to Acting Commissioner Peggy Carr, “Course labels did not always match what was being taught in the classroom--you could have courses with the same title, and the students are being taught very different content.”
 
Here are some other things we learned that will make parents take a closer look at their children’s courses
 
1. Honors isn't always rigorous.
The study found that school course titles often overstated the challenge and rigor of the course content. For example, only 18% of graduates who took an algebra I course labeled “honors” received a rigorous-level curriculum. Similarly, only 33% of graduates enrolled in an “honors” geometry course were exposed to a rigorous-level curriculum.

This is a vertical bar graph that is split into two sections: “Algebra 1 School Course Title” on the left and “Geometry School Course Title” on the right. The Algebra section shows the percentage of classes classified as Two-Year, Regular and Honors, compared to the actual rigor of each course. In two-year classes, 22% were beginner, 58% were intermediate, and 20% were rigorous. In courses labeled as “Regular,” 12% were beginner, 54% were intermediate and 34% were rigorous. In courses classified as “Honors,” 9% were beginner, 73% were intermediate, and 18% were rigorous. The Geometry sections shows a similar trend. In geometry courses classified as “Informal,” 30% were beginner, 54% were intermediate and 14% were rigorous. In courses labeled Regular, 11% were beginner, 68% were intermediate and 19% were rigorous. In honors courses, 4% were beginner, 62% were intermediate and 33% were rigorous.

2. Rigorous courses focus at least 10% of time on less challenging material

At least 10% of high school algebra I and geometry class time focused on elementary and middle school mathematics regardless of its NCES-defined course level. Nonetheless, rigorous algebra I and geometry courses dedicated higher percentages of the course content to advanced topics than beginner and intermediate courses.

 This vertical bar graph shows how Beginner, Intermediate, and Rigorous Algebra 1 and Geometry classes differ in content. The first column, labeled “Beginner Algebra 1,” shows that 17 percent of classes are made up of elementary and middle school mathematics, 46 percent introductory algebra, 21 percent advanced algebra, 4 percent two dimensional geometry, 6 percent advanced geometry and 6 percent other high school mathematics. The second column, Intermediate Algebra 1, shows that 13 percent of classes are made up of elementary and middle school mathematics, 40 percent introductory algebra, 26 percent advanced algebra, 2 percent two dimensional geometry, 8 percent advanced geometry and 10 percent other high school mathematics. The third column, Rigorous Algebra 1, shows that 10 percent of classes are made up of elementary and middle school mathematics, 27 percent introductory algebra, 35 percent advanced algebra, 4 percent two dimensional geometry, 7 percent advanced geometry and 16 percent other high school mathematics. In Geometry, the first column, Beginner Geometry, shows that 14 percent of classes are made up of elementary and middle school mathematics, 10 percent introductory algebra, 3 percent advanced algebra, 42 percent two dimensional geometry, 21 percent advanced geometry and 11 percent other high school mathematics. The second geometry column, Intermediate Geometry, shows that 13 percent of classes are made up of elementary and middle school mathematics, 9 percent introductory algebra, 2 percent advanced algebra, 41 percent two dimensional geometry, 24 percent advanced geometry and 11 percent other high school mathematics. The third geometry column, Rigorous Geometry, shows that 11 percent of classes are made up of elementary and middle school mathematics, 8 percent introductory algebra, 1 percent advanced algebra, 44 percent two dimensional geometry, 28 percent advanced geometry and 8 percent other high school mathematics.
3. On average, students taking "rigorous" math courses score higher on NAEP than students who take "beginner" or "intermediate" courses.   
 
On the 2005 NAEP mathematics assessment, high school graduates who took rigorous-level algebra I and geometry scored higher in algebra and geometry than students who took beginner- and intermediate-level courses.
This chart shows two sets of vertical bar graphs. The first shows the average Algebra Scale Scores of students who took Beginner, Intermediate and Rigorous Algebra 1 courses, the second shows the average Geometry scale scores of students who took Beginner, Intermediate and Rigorous geometry courses. In Algebra, students who took beginner algebra average 137; students who took Intermediate algebra averaged 143 and students who took rigorous algebra courses averaged 146. In geometry, students who took beginner courses averaged 148, students who took intermediate geometry averaged 152 and students who took rigorous geometry averaged 159.
Policymakers and leaders in education have emphasized the importance of advanced coursetaking for students’ college and career readiness. This study, however, demonstrates that mathematics classes labeled as advanced aren’t always as rigorous as they claim to be. 
 
We asked parents and students for their reactions to the findings. Hear their thoughts in the video below, and participate in the conversation by adding your comments.
 
 
 

December 22, 2014

 

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