The term honors challenge refers to the practice of offering higher-level or more academically challenging assignments, coursework, or learning opportunities in a “heterogeneously grouped” or “mixed-ability” course—i.e., a course in which students of different abilities or levels of preparation are grouped together. In academic programs that do not offer multiple course levels to students, honors challenges are used in place of separate honors courses.
Honors challenges are typically offered to students who learn at more accelerated pace, who have already met expected learning standards, or who want to challenge themselves academically or pursue a personal intellectual interest. An honors challenge may take the form of a supplemental selection of assignments, an independent study that is self-determined by a student but overseen by a teacher or mentor, or an outside-of-school learning experience such as an internship or volunteer experience (for a related discussion, see learning pathway). In many cases, students will earn additional course credit or some other form of academic recognition that appears on their transcript.
In schools that do not have tiered course levels, honors challenges are a way to provide challenging academic experiences, and more academic recognition, to higher-performing or more-accelerated students and to students who want to challenge themselves academically or pursue a personal interest or intellectual challenge.
As an alternative to creating separate courses or “tracks,” an honors challenge essentially creates the possibility of “honors-level” coursework and recognition in all classes, and potentially for all students. Critics of academic “tracking” contend, among other arguments, that the multiple course levels in public high schools typically mirror existing social and socioeconomic divisions—i.e., minorities end up being grouped with other minorities, and low-income students end up in the same courses or lower-level tracks as other low-income students. Consequently, many educators believe the practice reinforces and perpetuates existing social and educational inequities. Strategies such as differentiation and honor challenges are also intended to avoid the creation of a new inequity: disadvantaging high-performing or academically accelerated students by giving them an insufficiently challenging education.
Honors challenges are also a way to introduce a more flexible approach to honors courses, which typically require students to meet certain prerequisites (e.g., a teacher recommendation, a grade of A or B in a previous course, or a certain score on a placement test) and to enroll in the course for a full semester or year. As an alternative to traditional honors courses, an honors-challenge option may allow teachers to extend “honors-level” assignments and coursework to more students and to do so at different times throughout the year. For example, if certain students start a course academically behind, but they quickly catch up to their peers, the teacher may introduce an honors challenge partway through the year, whereas that option might not be available to the students if the school were employing a more traditional tiered course structure.
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