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Is Your Child Ready For Honors Classes?

How To Determine If Your Child Is Ready For Honors Classes

In the church bulletin this week, the priest added what he calls a "light quote of the week," something to make you smile. This week's quote was "Half the people you know are below average."

Of course, the majority of parents will tell you that their child is in the half that is above average. There is nothing wrong with parents who believe that their child is among the best and brightest. After all, what parent doesn't want to see their child excel in everything?

Success in the classroom is especially important. Every parent wants their child to be motivated and challenged. Honors classes and accelerated class are popular ways to encourage this academic motivation. It's not so much that the work in these classes is more difficult than work in the "regular" classroom, but it moves at a faster pace with more work required in a shorter period of time.

Honors classes have been a staple in high schools for decades, often in the form of Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP classes are geared specifically to prepare students for the Advanced Placement exam. If the student receives a particular grade on the AP exam, he or she will be able to use it as college credit. More recently, honors and accelerated classes have moved into middle schools (it is important to note that a middle school will not offer a true AP class, although some parents or schools refer to the class in that manner). But are honors classes at this age a good idea?

Pushing Preteens?

It depends, says Berneice Brownell, assistant professor of education at Susquehanna University. If the courses are designed with the student in mind and if the student truly needs and wants that extra acceleration in the classroom, then honors classes for middle school kids are a good idea. However, she continues, too often, "parents end up taking the class, not the kids." In other words, the parents are generating the push behind the honors classes, and in many situations, the parents are spending a lot of time helping with the homework.

Middle school is an important period of growth for children. There are, of course, the hormonal changes and the growing importance of peer relations. But what is learned in the classroom at this time is equally important for middle school youth. "Middle school is when most of the basics are taught," says Stacy DeBroff, author of The Mom Book Goes to School (Free Press, 2005). "So much is built on the middle school education. If kids are put into accelerated classes but can't keep up, they get lost." And once lost in a middle school class, there is a risk of being lost throughout the rest of their school career.

That was a risk that concerned Pat Curry of Watkinsville, Ga. Curry's two daughters were already in their middle school's gifted program. The eighth grade Algebra 1 class was part of their gifted track but still needed the recommendation of the teacher. Both of Curry's daughters received the teacher's recommendation. "My older daughter started out OK," Curry says. "Unfortunately, the teacher didn't let me know she started having trouble until she had flunked a couple of tests. These kinds of kids, who aren't used to doing poorly in a class, aren't going to volunteer that kind of information to their parents." Curry hired a tutor for the rest of the year, and in ninth grade, her daughter ended up retaking Algebra 1, rather than moving on to the advanced class.

Ready, Set, Go!

There are children who are ready for more advanced classes in middle school, and Brownell and DeBroff agree that those children should be encouraged to take those classes. Brownell says that middle school curriculums need to be designed with the students in mind. Children who are ready to be moved into a more complex academic structure will likely thrive from the challenge. The problems arise when kids who are not ready are pushed into those types of classes. "Parents and teachers need to see how the child is performing before suggesting honors classes," DeBroff says.

Even children who are academically ready for more challenging classes may end up stumbling more than expected in middle school honors courses. It is not uncommon for middle school students to struggle in school because they are struggling with many other areas of their life.

Lisa Brinkley's middle school daughter is a case in point. Brinkley's daughter was in honors classes for eighth-grade English and social studies, based on her excellent grades from the year before. However, "she rollercoastered this year," Brinkley says. "I had to tell her to study, and she'd pull her grades up. Then she'd let the pressure get to her, and they would go back down again." Brinkley, from upstate New York, believes that her daughter would have handled the work just fine if she had tried harder.

Brinkley's daughter had proven in the past that she had the ability to achieve at a high level in school, and her biggest concern would be adjusting from coasting on easy work to pushing herself harder with challenging work. But many parents believe that when their child is underachieving in a regular classroom situation, it is due to boredom or a lack of a challenge. These parents push their children, sometimes too hard, into classes for which the children aren't ready.

This push isn't always done with the best interest of the child in mind. It has more to do with today's culture. Parents are afraid that if their child isn't in the best preschool, isn't reading on a high school level by the third grade, isn't tracked in the gifted classes by sixth grade, their child won't get into the best colleges.

But colleges don't look at a student's academic record before ninth grade. "Starting in the ninth grade, we do like to see students take a rigorous curriculum – honors or AP classes," says David Lesesne, dean of admission at Sewanee: The University of the South, a prestigious and selective liberal arts institution. Whether or not honors classes in middle school prepare students for high school honors classes is questionable. A student who struggles or fails to learn the material in middle school can end up forever behind in high school.

Half the children in middle school will be above average, just like the other half will be below average. To ensure that your child gets the best education possible, parents should be honest when evaluating where their child is on the academic spectrum, and then work to make sure their child receives the best middle school education possible – for that child.

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