Off Balance

Off Balance

Photo Illustration by Sam Ko

Paging through the curriculum guide the spring before freshman year, Diego Ayala ‘18 was disappointed with what he found.

Ayala, who said he prefers the social sciences, couldn’t sign up for honors classes in his favorite field.

He initially signed up for Geometry Honors and Biology Honors, but regular courses in both history and English.

Beginning freshman year, students can take honors classes in both the math and science departments, but no honors classes are offered in the English or history departments.

Likewise, in tenth grade, students can take Chemistry Honors and three options of honors math courses, but no honors classes exist in the English or history departments.

One year later, Ayala faced the same problem.

He signed up for regular-track courses in history and English — World and Europe II and English II, respectively — but Chemistry Honors and Math Analysis Honors.

“There’s no reason students would not have been capable academically or in terms of time management to take an AP class, say, European History in tenth grade or even a social science like Human Geography in ninth grade,” Ayala said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me in terms of the ability of the student body.”

Only in eleventh and twelfth grades can students take AP and honors courses in the humanities and social sciences.

A greater choice of electives in the humanities and social sciences are also available from eleventh grade onward.

According to the College Board, Advanced Placement courses are meant to have students “face new challenges and learn new skills” in subjects that interest them.

Ayala said that the higher GPA weighting of AP and honors courses influenced his decision to take honors courses in STEM fields.

“If I had been offered honors classes in history and English in ninth and tenth grade, I definitely would have been less likely to take honors classes in math and science, and I guess a part of that does have to do with the GPA [bump] and the way GPA is calculated at Harvard-Westlake,” Ayala said.

Emmie Wolf ’18, a student interested in the arts and humanities, believes taking advanced classes earlier in high school would have raised her GPA and enhanced her educational experience.

“I definitely think my grades changed when I started taking honors and APs in classes that I liked and I thought were interesting, which would have been more arts and humanities for me,” Wolf said.

According to upper school dean Chris Jones, students and parents have frequently raised the subject of this imbalance with deans and the administration.

However, there are no active plans to increase the availability of courses for these subjects, and Jones questioned the need to extend the number of honors and AP classes in the humanities and social sciences curriculum.

“I really don’t think the answer should be more AP and honors classes,” Jones said. “I know that we are going to move in a few years to a system where there really isn’t additional weight attached to it anyway. So I think at that point, that’s going to remove some of the angst that families are feeling about that difference.”

The administration has had discussions about a potential GPA disparity among students interested in the sciences and those interested in the humanities resulting from the lack of honors classes.

However, Jones believes that colleges are able to recognize students that have maximized the curriculum regardless of their area of interest.

“I don’t think [GPA] is as big a deal as we think it is,” Jones said. “If it were, I think we’d be able to look at the stats books and see that very linearly it’s starting with the highest GPA with the highest number of AP and honors and it kind of goes from there.”

Likewise, Head of Upper School Laura Ross said the AP limit starting with the Class of 2022 will reduce the focus on the amount of honors and AP courses available in every department.

The new policy will set a limit of two, three and four courses for sophomores, juniors and seniors, respectively.

“[The AP limit] will lessen the idea that you don’t have the GPA bump, so clearly the school has been thinking about this,” Ross said. “I think it would be really important to see if we’ve seen any data that would indicate that not having that GPA bump has hurt kids in the application process that are into humanities.”

Ross further said that the AP limit policy will allow for a greater breadth and depth of courses and electives in both the history and English departments.

“We’d love to grow that part of the curriculum,” Ross said. “The whole point of the AP maximums is not just to set maximum limits but also so that over the next couple of years, we would be growing the breadth of the curriculum and would be having more in-depth research classes in an area of interest.”

Upper School English Department Head Larry Weber said the delayed availability of honors and AP English courses is designed to help acclimate sophomores to the Upper School’s more rigorous curriculum.

“Freshman and sophomores develop at different rates in terms of their conceptual analytical thinking and the way they infer from details,” Weber said. “Since that’s kind of an unpredictable growth curve, we’re afraid that we could be making the wrong distinction too early and creating the sense in the student that he or she might not be ‘an English person’ when that may not be clear until they’re older.”

Ayala said that he agrees some students may not know what field they’re interested in by ninth grade.
However, Ayala said that the disparity in honors courses could be mitigated by not allowing students to take advanced courses in the science or math departments earlier than eleventh grade.

“I just think there should be equality of opportunity in all fields,” Ayala said.

Like Jones, Weber said he believes there isn’t an identifiable problem that currently needs to be resolved, as he said that AP and honors courses aren’t necessarily more educationally enriching.

“I’m not convinced that it’s a huge problem,” Weber said. “I don’t think that honors courses and AP courses particularly determine value. A senior can take an AP course in English because we are reading closely and we are reading deeply so that students have the time and space required for them to come up with their own opinion and hypotheses to pursue their own inquiries. This kind of studying is supported by the AP that exists.”

Nonetheless, Weber said that he does support the possibility of creating more options in subjects that students feel driven to pursue; however, the increase in courses would necessitate an increase in hiring, which the school isn’t planning to do.

“I like the idea of more offerings because choice seems more interesting and more fair,” Weber said. “So ideally we would have more offerings and more people to do it.”

Some students agree that more English and history class options would make them more excited about their classes.

“I think it would be nice to have a variety of material because I know there are a lot of options for seniors to take different types of English classes that pertain to a certain theme,” Sky Graham ’20 said. “I think it would be cool to have a bigger theme in terms of our interests.”

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