Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

A Parent’s Guide to the 2017-2018 Program of Studies

For the past three years, I’ve provided advice to middle- and high-school parents about the Program of Studies. If you are new to the Port City Notebook, you might want to first read those posts from 20142015 and 2016, which contain general information about course requirements and selections that’s still current.*

TCW_logo_smallEach year courses are revised, added or deleted to stay current with changes in graduation requirements, student interest and demand. This year’s Program of Studies has also added a helpful comparison of Advanced Placement (AP) and Dual Enrollment (DE) classes (page 31), information about Governor’s School for current sophomores and juniors (page 37), and advice for evaluating whether a student is a good candidate for online courses (page 105).

At the Minnie Howard campus next year, ninth-graders will be able to take AP Human Geography, which is considered an easier AP class and a better introduction to the rigors of AP coursework than AP World History, which is offered to sophomores (page 93). It will satisfy the ninth-grade social studies requirement.

The other side of the coin is that now even more students will feel pressured to jump into the AP course rat race as freshmen, in order to rack up as many AP courses as possible and to get the AP bump in their GPA. (AP classes are weighted more heavily than honors classes which are weighted more heavily than general education classes.) Even the College Board (which, don’t forget, has a financial stake in your child taking as many AP courses as possible) says that most ninth-grade students are not sufficiently prepared to take a college-level course and goes further to state that “AP coursework completed in 9th grade is not often deemed credible by the higher education community.”

Parents, counsel your student to resist the urge. When a group of T.C. parents and faculty members more than a year ago reviewed the school’s class ranking system, we learned from college and university admissions officers that they are primarily looking to see that students have taken the most rigorous courses available in the core subject areas: Math, Science, Language Arts and Social Studies. All else equal, admissions officers say, a well-rounded student who has fewer AP credits but has taken photography classes or orchestra or debate will be a more compelling applicant than one who took nothing but APs.

A related reminder: Starting with the current freshman class, my understanding is that students’ transcripts will not show a precise numerical class ranking (“your GPA ranks 127th in your class of 975”). Instead, students will be placed into deciles (“your GPA ranks in the top 20% of your class”). This change brings ACPS into line with many other school divisions nationwide and reduces the incentive for students to pack their schedule with six or seven AP classes in order to improve their class rank.

Now back to the Program of Studies….At the main campus, AP Comparative Government has been expanded from a one-semester course to a full-year course and will include the U.S. government requirements for graduation. That gives seniors four options for fulfilling this requirement: AP U.S. Government and Politics; AP Comparative Government and Politics; Honors Virginia and U.S. Government – We the People; and Virginia and U.S. Government (page 94).

Speaking of course requirements, all high school students in Virginia must complete a course in Economics and Personal Finance. (This course also satisfies the Virginia state requirement for an online course.) At the time this mandate was introduced, shortly after the financial crisis, it made sense: One way to reduce the odds that a catastrophic financial crisis would happen again was to be sure that students had a basic familiarity with key financial and economic concepts. However, the mandate seems to have had at least one unintended consequence: Enrollment in AP Economics took a hit. But that decline in enrollment may have been based on a widespread misunderstanding. Many students don’t know that AP Economics satisfies the Economics portion of the state requirement. Your student will still have to take the separate Personal Finance module, but that can be done online (thereby also satisfying the online course requirement). It’s a smart way to fit AP Economics, a popular course at T.C. among those who take it, into your course schedule without having to give up another elective.

Some other changes to the Program of Studies:

  • Current seniors who took AP German or AP French as juniors were able to continue their world language studies with “Advanced Topics in German Language and Culture VI” (page 99) or “Advanced Topics in French Language and Culture VI” (page 98). Last year there were plans to offer comparable courses for 2017-2018 for students completing AP Latin and AP Spanish. Instead there are two AP Spanish courses: AP Spanish Language and Culture, and AP Spanish Literature and Culture. Latin VI was not added due to low enrollment.
  • The number of interesting online courses offered continues to multiply. A few that caught my eye: Anthropology, History of the Holocaust, Mythology and Folklore, Veterinary Science, and World Religions.

* One exception is that starting in 2016-2017, 11th and 12th grade honors courses for English and Social Studies were restored so that students have a third option—in addition to AP and general education courses—for those subject areas.


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  1. A Parent’s Guide to the 2018-2019 Program of Studies – Port City Notebook