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For same course, different ways to succeed

The range of options available for students taking the same course can vary widely. The choices vary even more widely in a Md.  world history class being taught in four tiers of varying difficulty.
Keiran Atwell, who teaches Honors Modern World History at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, answers a question from student Andrew Harback, 17.
Keiran Atwell, who teaches Honors Modern World History at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, answers a question from student Andrew Harback, 17.Andrea Bruce Woodall / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Changing demographics and a push to increase academic rigor in U.S. education have created new challenges for K-12 schools as they try to prepare students for the world beyond high school, taking into account differing ambitions and different levels of skill and intelligence.

The range of options available for students taking the same course can vary widely. At Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, classes in world history — a required course — are taught at four levels: on-level, honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Some schools require students to meet certain requirements for higher-level classes, but Springbrook lets students make their own decisions.

There are 223 students in on-level world history; 119 students in honors; 90 students in AP; and 103 in IB. Here are scenes from the Springbrook classrooms on April 27.

The on-level course
In teacher Keiran Atwell's class, chairs are arranged in two sets of three rows, each set facing each other, with a large aisle in the middle. Atwell has several special education students in this class and is joined by an aide. Some students plan to go to college; others intend to work right after high school.

"Yesterday," Atwell said, starting the lesson as he stood before 16 students in third period, at 9:15 a.m., "we started talking about the Cold War. What was it?"

Most students were watching him, though two were talking to each other and one had his head down on the desk, turned away.

A student answered: "A competition between the United States and the Soviet Union."

"What," the teacher asked, "did the United States and the Soviet Union compete for?"

"Guns," a student said

"No," Atwell said.

"Markets," another student said.

"Yes. What do you call the kind of government we have?"

"Democracy," came the response from several students.

"What kind do you call the Soviet government?"

"Communist."

"Anything wrong with it?" Atwell asked. Nobody gave a full answer, so he continued: "Everyone's equal. What's wrong with that? Everybody stayed in the same place.

"What was the aim of the U.S?" He waited. "Do you want to cheat and look at your notes?" he asked.

He walked to the board and drew a diagram showing U.S. and Soviet differences, then passed out an assignment to mark up a map of Europe, using printed material he gave them, to show post-World War II groupings and events. He put the assignment on an overhead projector and went through each step. Then he asked, "Can you work by yourself?"

"Yes," a few students responded.

"Can you work with a partner?"

"Yes," answered the same kids.

They quietly worked, most staying in their chairs.

The honors course
Atwell also teaches honors world history, which he said uses the same curriculum, though the textbook and tests are different. The homework also is different and requires more reading, students said. (Homework in the on-level world history class ranges from minimal to none.)

Atwell said some of his students are first-timers in honors; a few are AP students who were taking other AP courses and wanted an easier history class.

This is Jeff Lawrence's first honors course -- he is taking it at Atwell's suggestion -- and the 17-year-old said it is more challenging than the on-grade course but "not as hard as I expected."

On this day, the class is doing the same assignment as the on-grade class but with differences:

"Today, we are working on a map," Atwell told the students. "It's a neat activity."

He briefly reviewed Cold War terms they had learned the day before, but he did not write on the board and he did not put the map on the overhead projector.

As he handed out the assignment, he said to the class, "Can you work with a partner?"

"Yes," they responded.

"You guys are good. I don't care what they say about you," he said, smiling.

"What I would suggest is drawing a boundary line to show the separation between East and West. Write 'Iron Curtain,' " he said.

Students popped out of their seats, some forming teams, some conferring with Atwell. They laughed as they got down to work, many saying they understood the assignment.

"This isn't hard," Cristina Diaz, 16, said.

The IB course
The International Baccalaureate program is a two-year college-level program in six subject areas. For an IB degree, students not only must pass tests but also must perform community service and individual research.

World history is a two-year course in the IB program; the first covers European and Russian history through World War I, and the second year covers 20th-century world history. Teachers said they can spend several weeks on a single topic, allowing in-depth study.

In teacher Angela Stevenson's class, 10 students group their desks in an oval to conduct a seminar on 19th-century German unification, with the other students surrounding them, taking notes.

"He's a really sneaky guy," student Nicholas Mustovych said of Otto von Bismarck. "By whatever means necessary. He was sort of Machiavellian, how he tricked France into going to war against Prussia."

"How did economic and social changes affect Nationalist attitudes?" moderator Evan Jones asked.

"Germany was exploding economically," said Harmony Gbe, 16. Another student said, "Economic changes caused social changes." Then another student argued that national attitudes were well entrenched before Germany's economic star rose so high.

At one point, Stevenson reminded the observers that it was their job to take notes, and some picked up pens and pencils to start.

The AP course
The Advanced Placement program offers 34 college-level courses and exams in 19 subject areas. World history is a one-year course and culminates in the AP exam, which is a focus for many high school students trying to receive college credit. The exam tests the school year's work, rather than the last semester's. Teachers said the AP course, with its greater breadth of material and faster pace, is very different from the IB course.

The lesson for this day in teacher Maura Ryan's class was test prep -- getting ready for the following week's AP exam.

Ryan told the class she will hand back a test the students took in preparation for the AP exam so they can study their mistakes. Students sat in rows, on five stepped levels; the room looked designed for a theater class.

A student raised his hand and said he heard that another teacher had conducted a PowerPoint presentation with all the answers to the test -- the student was suggesting that this class was not getting equal preparation.

"I will make sure you aren't penalized because you didn't see that PowerPoint," Ryan said to the class, adding, "It is important that we use this test to get ready for the AP."

She noted that the College Board, which runs the AP program, has released only one old AP world history test. She said that because the course is just four years old, there is no wealth of former test questions available as for other AP courses.

She tells them the answer sheet to the prep question will tell them where to find material to study for each question but will not give them the answers. They must find those themselves.

Vicky Rivera, 16, who takes all AP and honors courses, talked with friend Jennifer Tchar, 15, who is also in upper-level classes, about the upcoming AP test.

They said they were nervous about taking it.

"All we are studying is the history of the world since the beginning of time," Ryan said. "Don't panic."