Bird's Eye View News

Advancing Curriculum: Next Steps for Honors and Capstone Courses

Over the past five years, the Bridge to 2022 Strategic Plan has successfully guided our work in the Head-Royce classroom and community. One significant example can be found in the Teaching + Learning goal of “enhancing and amplifying a student-centered academic program with opportunities for choice, real-world problem solving, creativity and intellectual engagement,” which informed our decision in 2019 to decouple our curriculum from the College Board and to set standards of academic rigor that better align with our core educational philosophy.

Academic rigor is determined by conceptual complexity, rather than content, pace or workload. It is measured by students’ ability to apply essential skills to contended problems in a variety of contexts. It is the degree to which a student is challenged, engaged, enriched and empowered. 

This definition, while particular to HRS, is not our unique invention. Rather, it is a concept we adopted after conducting research and seeking examples from think tanks, educational research institutions and medical organizations attending to student mental health. The term “rigor” itself is arguably problematic, suggesting rigidity and even morbidity.  Academic rigor, in a conventional definition, is similarly loaded and outdated, prioritizing static content and volume over ingenuity and complexity. Last summer, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) published an article called “The Dark Side of Rigor,” wherein they called for redefinition of the term.
Rigorous learning experiences help students understand knowledge and concepts that are complex, ambiguous or contended, and they require students to acquire skills that can be applied in a variety of contexts. Academic challenge encompasses relevance (voice, choice, varied content and cultural responsiveness) and critical thinking skills.  

While Advanced Placement (AP) classes were introduced over 70 years ago to provide students with an opportunity to study subjects at advanced levels and to earn college credit for their coursework, the content-orientation of courses designed by the College Board often led to rote memorization. Too often, AP labels served as de facto “shortcuts”—standing in for academic rigor—and over time more and more institutions (in both secondary and higher ed) have moved away from the College Board curriculum in favor of well-designed honors courses: this is especially true of the independent school community. 

We are confident in our 2019 decision to break from the College Board curriculum because we are clear about our standard for academic excellence and how our program (K-12) meets those standards. Moreover, we are certain that our faculty can (and consistently do) innovate and implement courses that offer meaningful engagement, relevant sequencing/synthesis of content and skills and appropriate academic rigor.

Over the past few years, we have successfully transitioned multiple courses across the curriculum away from AP to honors designation and developed a plan for academic advancement that is both in keeping with our philosophy and in logistical alignment with the UC accreditation system. Honors designation, for example, will continue to warrant a GPA bump on student transcripts. Additionally, we have received assurance from selective colleges that students who have taken rigorous courses differentiated and defined as Honors by a school like Head-Royce will be viewed as fully prepared for the demands of higher education. 

Case Studies of courses that have successfully transitioned to Honors.

The Class of 2024 will be the first Head-Royce students to graduate without grade-level AP offerings. Instead, they have been offered honors courses that will be supplemented with a series of signature capstone experiences—offered most notably in their senior year—called Head-Royce Advanced Curriculum (HRAC). These capstone courses will have prerequisites for enrollment and will represent the culmination of varied academic pathways. 

Honors Biology is an example of a course that is transitioning to an honors and HRAC sequence. While Honors Biology will continue to offer a breadth of topics reflecting the wide variety involved in the “study of life,” biology teachers have long been shifting curriculum in anticipation of the break from College Board curriculum this fall. Therefore, their course already reflects many changes in content and approach including: more varied assessments, a shift to competency-based assessment, ongoing opportunities for revision, deeper dives into hands-on labs and experiments and a culminating Science Fair project that offers students voice, choice and real world application.

Example of a Curriculum Sequence in Science

  • 9th grade - Conceptual Physics
  • 10th grade - Chemistry
  • 11th grade - Biology/Honors Biology
  • 12th grade (generally) - HRAC Capstone Offerings in Applied Physics, Neurobiology or Organic Chemistry 

Our curricular work is rooted in research and reflects more than five years of planning and preparation. It has already been implemented in many departments and grade level offerings. Moving forward a framework and philosophy is in place that will guide the implementation of new courses—including the remaining AP to Honors transitions. We celebrate these advancements and the clear benefits they offer our students: our program has become more dynamic and innovative, our assessments more varied and colleges and universities increasingly see our graduates as independent learners who have had the chance to supplement core curriculum with internships, civic engagement, online courses in specialized fields and myriad opportunities for learning.

  • AP
  • AP classes
  • Advanced Placement
  • Honors classes