STEM stress at LAHS

Growing up, my life has been almost like a big game of “Would you rather,” the options becoming increasingly consequential each year. 

At age 5, I had to decide if I wanted to read a Berenstain Bears book or Dr. Seuss. At 10, I had to decide if I wanted to try out for the soccer or basketball team. 

And now, at 15, I have to decide whether I want to drown myself with schoolwork or face unchallenging classes — essentially the decision between a STEM honors class and its college prep counterpart. 

The choice between taking any honors classes and their college preparatory versions seems straightforward at a glance: The school guidelines state that honors versions of college preparatory classes are more challenging and move faster. These classes are supposed to give students 45–60 minutes of homework a night — 15 minutes more than college preparatory, and most give students a slight boost to their weighted GPAs. 

Simple, right? 

Unfortunately, no. There is another layer beyond what you can read on a course information sheet. For me, the STEM college preparatory classes aren’t intellectually stimulating, often leading to my boredom and a lack of satisfaction with my work. On the other hand, honors STEM classes are too difficult, leading to me sacrificing my mental health for a passing grade.

While the different STEM class options that Los Altos High School offers address students on two ends of a spectrum, there should be a solution that fits all types of students at LAHS.

LAHS needs to offer three STEM class options: a college preparatory course, the honors counterpart and a support course. As a discerning factor between these courses, LAHS should offer informal optional placement tests which would act as an extra guidance point for students. 

The honors version of a STEM class would stay relatively the same, but its college preparatory and support versions would look different.  

Using chemistry as an example, the support class would explore the eight mandatory units necessary for high school chemistry, six less than honors teaches, meaning that the support class would be able to go at a slower pace, aiding those unsure about their chemistry skills as well as those whose math skills do not meet the Algebra II math standards, which are prerequisites to take chemistry at LAHS. 

The college preparatory version of chemistry would then cover the same topics as the support version as well as an additional three out of the six that the honors class covers. This would allow the class to go at a quicker pace, while also giving students enough time to absorb the material. 

Regardless of variations in curriculum, each STEM course should develop a similar structure to the chemistry example so that all student’s needs in each class are addressed. 

But, with these three different options, gauging skill level in a subject and what level course students should take can be difficult. 

When I was choosing my classes in the spring, I wish I had more insight beyond the course information sheets on what the rigor of my STEM honors classes would be like; 15 more minutes of homework doesn’t seem like much until I’m sitting on my kitchen table at 2 a.m. playing would you rather go to bed or finish your math assignment. 

The optional placement tests would be a reference point for students to gauge their levels in subjects, helping them navigate through the different options.  

Implementing placement tests would also give students a preview of what their future classes entail, and how to better prepare for the workload and rigor by giving students sample problems to see the difficulty level of problems in that class. 

Students would be able to get an objective view on their course selection, rather than just deciding based on what others have told them and by following familiar faces. 

Placement tests would not only benefit students but would also be a helpful data point for teachers and the school to evaluate their levels of preparedness. They could then personalize their support for students based on their results. 

Clearly, for me, the decision of choosing my classes isn’t as simple as a quick game of “Would you rather …” because in this case, there’s no correct choice, no set answer. 

But, if you ask me the question “Would you rather take an honors course or its college preparatory equivalent,” I’d respond with neither; I’d rather learn.