By Thomas Broderick
As a high school teacher, I came across many students placed in above-grade-level courses. In some cases, students were gifted and needed a challenge. (My school did not offer honors or AP courses.) In other cases, students were put into a class because there was no other option. (My school was small, so this happened a lot.)
Starting from my personal experience as a student and teacher, I want to use this article to discuss the pros and cons of taking above grade-level courses. Though I am writing this article with you, the student, in mind, pass this article along to your parents and teachers. There are a few things they can learn from it, too.
The Pros of Taking Above Grade-Level Courses
I want to tell you about one of my first students. Let’s call her D. I first had D her freshman year, which was odd since my school usually didn’t accept freshmen. But D was a special case. Quiet and bright, she excelled in my sophomore English class. Due to my school’s student scheduling mishaps, she also took U.S. government, a senior-level course. D took these challenges in stride. Four years later, she graduated class valedictorian.
What’s D’s story teaches us is that some students can perform exceptionally well in above-grade-level courses. How did she do it? She had a few essential advantages going for her:
- Academically gifted
- Self starter
Believe it or not, the top bullet is the least important. In my career as a teacher, I had many academically talented students who lacked the social skills, motivation, and resilience necessary to work to their real potential. In my opinion, grit is key to success. As reported by The Atlantic, grit is “shaped by several specific environmental forces, both in the classroom and in the home, sometimes in subtle and intricate ways.” More than anything else, D’s grit helped her succeed.
Sum Up: If you possess these traits, especially grit, an above-grade-level course may be right for you.
The Cons of Taking Above Grade-Level Courses in High School
As a teacher, I never had a student who could not handle the responsibilities of an above-grade-level course. When I was in middle school, however, I was that unprepared student. The Powers That Be decided that I was ready to take 7th-grade math in the 6th grade. I was not prepared academically, emotionally, or socially. I quickly found myself back in 6th-grade math. What does my story teach us? Just because a student is labeled ‘gifted’ does not mean that he or she can learn in an above-grade-level course.
Let’s break down some of the issues that students in this situation face:
- Feeling alienated from grade-level peers
- Feeling like ‘the odd one out’ in a class of older students
- Lack of organizational skills (e.g., not using a calendar to organize assignments and due dates)
- Lack of coping skills (e.g., reaction to performing poorly on an exam)
This isn’t the entire list of concerns you may feel. If you have the option of taking an above-grade-level course next semester or next year, write down your concerns and share them with your parents and teachers.
Sum Up: There are many potential stumbling blocks when taking an above-grade-level course. Choosing to take one requires much consideration.
If You’re Taking an Above Grade-Level Course
After my brief experience with 7th-grade math, I didn’t get another chance to take an above-grade-level course until 10th grade. Long story short, I and a handful of other 10th graders enrolled in honors chemistry, a course that up until then had been off limits to underclassmen.
Did I struggle? Oh yeah. But how I succeeded in that environment can teach you how to excel in your course. Let’s review some valuable pointers:
- Ask for help. In honors Chemistry, I needed A LOT of tutoring from my teacher. To get it, I had to ask for it. There’s no shame in it, and asking for help is the first step toward a better grade and better outlook.
- Enlist the aid of an older sibling. If you have an older brother or sister who’s still in high school, pick their brain about the best ways to succeed in the course. Even if they never had the teacher or course, they can still provide some valuable tidbits about organization and planning.
- Roll with the punches. Even if the course is your favorite subject, you’re likely to struggle academically, especially at the beginning. If you fail your first test, it’s not the end of the world. All it means is that it’s time to follow the advice in the previous two bullets.
- Join an extracurricular activity. To lower any feelings of alienation from your grade-level friends, join an extracurricular activity where you can interact with them. Even if it’s only one day a week, you’ll get more time in an environment of familiar faces.
Sum Up: If you’re taking an above-grade-level course, know how to reach out for help and stay connected with your grade-level peers.
If You’re a Parent or Teacher
As a parent, it’s natural to feel a swell of pride when a teacher suggests that your child could take an above-grade-level course. Go ahead and feel proud. But before doing anything else, consider the pros and cons covered in this article. Though bright, your child may not be ready for such a big academic and social leap.
If you’re teaching a student in an above-grade-level course, the best advice is to treat the student like every other during class. However, keep in mind that the student may need additional supports to succeed, such as scaffolding. Using these scaffolds for the whole class will not single out the student. Also, expect the student to need individualized guidance, especially during the beginning of the year.
Sum Up: Your child or student will likely need extra help when taking an above-grade-level course.
Taking an above-grade-level course requires a particular kind of student. Is that student you? It depends. If you’re unsure whether you can handle the jump, consider honors or AP courses as an alternative. They’re extremely rigorous and provide an excellent academic challenge. Also, excelling in these courses looks just as favorable in the eyes of college admissions counselors as above grade-level courses.
Finally, before making any big decisions, talk to your parents, teachers, or other adults you trust. They will provide you sound advice.
No matter your choice, good luck in the coming year!