What’s the difference between Honors/AP and regular classes? A lot

November 18, 2019 — by Aaria Thomas and Amanda Zhu

As students walk into Precalculus Honors teacher Savita Agrawal’s classroom, they immediately take their seats and pull out their notes. Agrawal stands by the board clicking through a presentation and students scribble down concepts such as the Pythagorean identities and mass of variables. The slides quickly appear and disappear from the board, while students work to understand the concepts. The pace is fast. The expectations are high.

On the other hand, students in Precalculus regular teacher Kristen Hamilton’s classroom take notes in their packets and solve multiple word problems at their own pace, without the confusion and speed of an Honors class. 

The school offers 21 AP courses as well as 19 Honors courses, while there are 78 regular classes. The differences between an honors or AP class and its regular version are in both pace and depth of content. 

One example is math teacher PJ Yim’s Precalculus Honors class. 

Senior Cameron Chow took this class for a semester before dropping to Hamilton’s Precalculus regular course last January. 

“You have to learn the concepts yourself, and you don’t know what’s on the test,” Chow said about Precalculus Honors. “For honors, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do the bookwork because the book work is going to be on the test.’ The book work was not on the test.”

According to Chow, in the regular course, the book work assigned was what the students were tested on.

Since the Honors course is more advanced, the homework and classwork expectations and assignments are quite different.

“It’s a lot easier in Precalculus regular,” Chow said. “Honors homework took me two or three hours a night, and regular homework took me 15 minutes.”

One reason for the varying amounts of homework is the difference in the pacing of the two courses and how much of the material each class covers in a set amount of time. By the second semester, the Precalculus Honors class is typically two months ahead of the regular course. Chow said he learned two-thirds of the regular curriculum in the first semester of the Honors class.

Hamilton, who is also the math department head, said that the regular classes do not cover as nearly as much material as the honors or AP classes and therefore move at a slower pace. 

However, the California state standards are covered in both regular and higher-level courses. Since the expectations for Honors and AP classes are different than regular ones, the courses are faster and more challenging.

Hamilton said that Honors courses cover two to three more chapters than their regular counterparts and offer more challenging problems within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While various regular and higher-level courses share a textbook, the higher-level classes offer more supplementary material such as worksheets with more challenging problems.

This can be seen between AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC: Although the two courses share a textbook, the difficulty and quantity of worksheets is very different, which is reflected in the AP and regular test difficulty varying greatly. 

AP classes go through the material faster since they have to cover all the chapters by the AP test in May.

The curriculum for each course level is determined by the material of the class that is expected to be taken by students the following year. Algebra 2 Honors prepares students for Precalculus honors which in turn prepares students for AP Calculus BC. The regular courses prepare students for regular calculus.

“Not all students plan to pursue a career in math,” Hamilton said. “Some students have big time commitments outside of school and may not be ready for a college level class, and because some students struggle in math, we want to give them other options which still enable them to be eligible and successful in a four-year college.”

Typically, the school offers three to four Calculus BC classes per year, so there should be only four or five honors classes feeding into those. However, there are actually six to seven honors classes.

“We often have students that sign up for honors math classes but then decide, for a number of reasons, to drop to the regular level,” Hamilton said.  “This year we have had 90 kids drop Algebra 2 Honors and Precalculus Honors.”

The jump between course levels is apparent in science classes as well as math. 

AP Physics teacher Matthew Welander, who previously taught regular physics for six years before settling into the more advanced class this year, noted that the AP course he currently teaches covers more topics than what was covered in the AP course in past years. The inclusion of more topics means the class has to go faster.

The school’s AP Physics class is set up to cover AP Physics 1 and 2 in one school year as opposed to covering the material in two years, as is the case with many other schools. 

The College Board redesigned the physics course structure in the fall of 2014. Physics B was split into AP Physics 1 and 2 to align the AP course better with college level physics courses. Saratoga High did not adjust their course when The College Board did, so the school continued teaching AP Physics B, which was now AP Physics 1 and 2 in a single year.

“The school made a decision to do this because we have so many students who are able to be successful in the course and on the AP exams,” Welander said. “The course is an appropriate challenge for most of the students in the class this year. As a physics major, I also don't feel comfortable teaching the AP Physics 1 topics because I don't think that is sufficient to prepare students for college.”

Senior Nico Sabato took regular physics in his junior year and is currently taking AP Physics.

Sabato said that while he enjoyed the material he covered in regular Physics, he felt it was surface level. It was mainly plugging in equations instead of really understanding the concepts on a deeper level.

The AP course proceeds at a faster pace while also going more in-depth into the material taught. As a result, students who take the AP class find themselves thinking and working harder.

“You don’t actually need to have a super rock-solid grasp of physics at all,” Sabato said about regular physics. “AP Physics is way more concept-based so you actually need to have a firm grasp of the stuff you’re learning if you want to do any sort of problem.”

The difficulty of the AP course is directly reflected in the students’ performance on tests. Due to the low overall test averages, physics tests are almost always highly curved. Still, students often find themselves disheartened by the scores that they receive pre-curve.

“There’s something really discouraging about testing in AP Physics,” Sabato said. “No one can get used to the feeling of getting absolutely atrocious grades on tests pre-curve, even though our grades are generally saved by a 20-30 percent curve.”

While some students find the AP course hard to understand, others find that the class does not challenge them enough.

Welander said that some parents and students have suggested an easier AP physics course. At the same time,  others have asked for the school to offer calculus-based AP Physics C, which is a more advanced course than the one currently offered, which opens different avenues of opportunity for all students.

Overall, the different levels for courses provide students with different opportunities to learn a subject at whatever pace or difficulty suits them.

“For honors, it’s more like you’re interested in the subject,” Chow said. “It’s not just the actual material, it’s the work ethic, too.” 

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