Originally Sent: 8/4/2015
August 6, 2015
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Let’s be Honest about Honor Courses
During the laid-back days of August, we hope you have time for fun family activities that include good food and good friends. Eventually, August will wind down and your thoughts will once again be directed toward school. As you plan for the coming school year, you might be thinking about honor courses and honor recognition for your teen.
This month we will tackle questions relating to honor courses. What constitutes an honor course and how do you document them? What honor societies welcome homeschooled scholars and how can you recognize honor achievements at graduation? Although there are many different voices in the homeschooling community that offer various answers to these questions, we want to weigh in and give parents guidance on honor course significance, composition, documentation, and recognition.
Significance of Honor Courses
College admissions officers and others take into account both how many academic courses a student has completed as well as the rigor of each course. Students can impress colleges by taking a combination of honor, dual enrollment, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses during high school. This article highlights the trend away from honor courses to AP or dual enrollment courses.
When considering the advanced level of a course, evaluators view dual enrollment and AP courses as lending greater credibility to grades shown on a student’s transcript.
For students not ready for college level work as required in AP or dual enrollment courses, honor courses offer an alternative to the standard high school course. Teachers design and tailor honor courses for high-achieving students because honor courses explore topics not normally covered in a standard high school course and ask students to research in more depth. Simply put: the level of work must challenge students to go deeper and farther than normal courses do.
Based on the advice from admission deans at St. Lawrence University and Savannah College of Art & Design, students should take the most rigorous courses they can during high school. Colleges understand that students who demonstrate success in challenging core academic courses are better suited for the demands of college work. Rigorous high school courses provide the impetus for students to develop study/time-management skills, research skills, and test prep skills so essential to success in college. The research and study inherent in these courses encourage students to develop as independent learners. How students perform in these college prep courses is a significant factor in the college admission process.
Composition of an Honor Courses
Homeschooling parents should only offer honor courses to teens who are up for the challenge. As a general rule, 9th and 10th grade students start with honor courses and then move on to dual enrollment and AP courses in the 11th and 12th grade years.
Not everything marked Honor deserves that title. The newspapers indicate that many textbooks and courses —touted as “honor” Algebra 1, 2 or Geometry—are mediocre resources at best because a marked increase in the number of students taking honor math courses has not improved standardized test scores.
The same principle applies to the other core academic subjects: science, history, English, and foreign language. As an example, a typical history course involves studying a textbook, taking the required tests/quizzes and writing a paper each quarter. Whereas, an honor history course includes all of the preceding and also demands that students read an additional book (over 300 pages) each quarter and write an additional 6–7 page paper each quarter. You can readily see that the additional work is significantly greater than a typical history course in both quality and quantity. An honor course does not merely require additional work, it requires additional work that is more advanced.
To justify the honor designation, boldly ask publishers their reasons for labeling a curriculum as honor and be discerning about the answers because not everything branded honor deserves that distinction. We don’t want parents to be misled by terms such as “AP equivalent” and “dual enrollment equivalent” either. Parents who understand that their teen is ready for advanced work should look for challenging curriculum and supporting material around which to build an honor course.
Most public and private schools with honor programs require students to complete summer work in preparation for the fall. For history and English honor courses, students benefit by reading a selection of books over the summer so that instruction can begin at full stride in the fall. Typically, students read from selected books and complete writing assignments to show comprehension of the materials. For foreign language, students benefit from summer months spent utilizing the language in conversation or ministry. Take advantage of a study abroad opportunity through language immersion programs, foreign exchange programs, or overseas travel.
During the summer, honor science students benefit by researching a scientific topic associated with a designated science fair experiment. Having judged several science fairs, Carol found that students who do not understand the scientific principles involved with an experiment tend to deduce faulty conclusions from observations and data. Use the summer months to devise a science fair experiment and complete the research to begin writing a research paper in the fall. In math, honor courses must show an increased depth of study or increased speed in material covered and mastered. When middle school students complete a high school math course, this does not constitute an honor math course.
Documentation of Honor Courses
Parents should fully document all honor courses and detail the extra topics and work completed. Some colleges your teen applies to may request course descriptions to back up the honor designation on the high school transcript. Scholarship organizations also look at course descriptions to help them understand the rigor of the course and gauge the academic ability of the student.
Typically, an honor course does not earn a student more high school credit. However, a final grade in an honor course may be “bumped” up by 0.5 when calculating the grade point average (GPA). For example, an “A” in a standard high school course receives 4 points when calculating the grade point average, but an “A” in an honor course typically receives 4.5 points when calculating the GPA. Likewise, a standard course “B” receives 3 points, but in an honor course “B” receives 3.5 points, etc. If you increase the letter points associated with an honor course grade, we call this a “weighted” GPA. We encourage you to calculate both a weighted and unweighted GPA on the transcript. College admission officers and scholarship organizations give added consideration to advanced-level courses on the high school transcript. Straight As in easy courses do not impress them as much as high grades in more challenging courses.
Recognition of Honor Students
Many public and private high schools offer honor distinctions on their diploma. There is no standard scale, so parents and homeschool umbrella organizations are free to set their own policy for the GPA and other requirements necessary to earn academic distinction. Some families feel that the distinction offers their teens a level of recognition for coursework that is far above average, while other families feel that the academic record (GPA, Advanced Placement and college level courses completed) speaks for itself. In some cases, parents base academic distinction on how well a student has done in comparison to the others. Homeschoolers can use ACT, SAT or PSAT scores to help determine this.
For parents who wish to honor academic distinction on their teen’s high school diploma, consider not only the grades earned but the academic load carried during the high school years. For highest honors, we suggest a cumulative GPA in the range of 3.9–4.0. In addition, the student should have completed at least three or more Advanced Placement (AP) or college level (dual enrollment) courses during high school. For honors, we suggest a cumulative GPA in the range of 3.5–3.89. In addition, the high school program should include those courses routinely taken in a college prep track (see A Guide for Homeschooling through High School). SAT or ACT scores can also be used in the mix to determine diploma honors.
The final decision regarding the requirements for the academic distinction rests with you, the homeschool parent. For additional information, you may want to check policies used by local public or private schools or sites on the internet for suggested criteria to consider. As an example, you may want to consider an honor society’s guidelines for membership when coming up with your criteria for an honor designation.
HSLDA appreciates that several national honor organizations have opened their doors to homeschool scholars. Among them are Eta Sigma Alpha National Home School Honor Society. Another opportunity open to gifted science students is the National Science Honor Society. For those students gifted in math, Mu Eta Sigma is a national honor society founded to encourage mathematical excellence and scholarship specifically within the homeschool community. The National Society of High School Scholars (NHSS), founded by the Nobel family of Nobel Prize fame, invites homeschoolers to join. To request an invitation, read the FAQ section, print out an invitation request, attach GPA documentation, and submit. If accepted, students will receive an NHSS invitation by mail, and here are some of the many benefits these organizations offer to homeschooled students.
The HSLDA store offers several honor designations for homeschool students. The Honor Cord traditionally awards students for special recognition for academic excellence in GPA, SAT/ACT scores, rigorous academic load, and volunteer service. The Honor Stole could recognize your graduate’s acceptance into one of the national honor societies. The Honor Medallion could recognize a GPA of 3.5 or higher.
We recommend that homeschooling families use honor courses to prepare students to take AP or dual enrollment courses because they offer an objective standard of credibility. Most public and private high schools only offer AP courses in the 11th and 12th grades. Check out the excellent online AP courses offered by HSLDA Online Academy. We strongly recommend that parents fully document an honor course and detail why this course rises to the honor level. Join us next month as we get ready for the fall term to begin.
Anyone ready for another glass of iced tea?
Carol Becker and Diane Kummer
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