Jay Matthews, the Washington Post education reporter, had an interesting column a few weeks ago about virtual AP classes. These can be a great way for gifted students in small districts to take challenging courses. There's also an added bonus in that, online, no one really knows how old you are. So a 14-year-old might feel more comfortable taking AP Bio online than she would in a class full of older children.
The most interesting part of Matthews' column, though, in my opinion, was the allusion to course title inflation. The young man he profiles was enrolled in honors 8th grade classes. But these classes didn't challenge him at all. AP Biology, on the other hand, has an actual, objective standard in the form of the final test. A 4 or 5 shows you learned basic college biology material. A 1 or 2 shows you did not. There's no smiling at the teacher for a better grade, or getting effort for trying. That makes these tests unpopular among some who like wiggle room, but many kids like a challenge. They rise to the occasion. Inflated course titles don't make the same demands on kids.
That's one of the reasons to view the new research on ability grouping that I cited in my last post as suspect. Many honors classes are anything but difficult for bright children. I have no doubt that they don't show progress in those programs. That doesn't mean ability grouping per se is good or bad. But there's a world of difference between, say, an AP Calculus class offered to a small group of freshmen and sophomores who are ready for it, and a general honors-track math class that just requires 75%+ on grade level standardized tests. If the latter isn't taught to be challenging, the difference will be even more profound.