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Whether your student is embarking on their first year of high school or plugging along with their sophomore or junior year, the concept of academic tracking is one to consider. Simply put, tracking is the series of courses your student will be slotted to take each year of high school within the five core courses: English, history/social studies, math, science, and world language. 

At many high schools, there are different levels of courses offered within each of these core subjects. For example, your student might have the option to take 9th grade courses at the standard level, the college prep level, the accelerated level, or the honors level. This “leveling” of courses varies from school to school and from grade-level to grade-level, with some schools offering no levels, and others offering the full gamut from an academic support level all the way up to the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate.

So what does this mean for your student? When choosing courses for his or her early years of high school, most guidance offices will suggest a leveling of courses for each individual student. Talk with your student about how he or she feels about the suggested course level in each subject area. Does your student feel that these courses would challenge him or her appropriately? Will the course load be too easy or too difficult? Additionally, consider whether or not your student will be able to take more advanced courses or coursework in their area of interest in future years of high school. For example, if your student opts out of honors science in her first year, even though she qualifies for it, will she be able to get back into honors science in her sophomore year or beyond? How would this decision hinder her ability to take an advanced science course or an elective in the last two years of high school?

Depending on the selectivity of the colleges to which your student will apply, it’s a safe bet to encourage your student to plan on taking four years of the five core subjects. While a student can always choose to opt out of a core class if there is a significant reason to do so, it’s harder to add a class back into the high school class schedule, or jump up or down a level of rigor because of the academic tracking method.

Our advice? Listen to the guidance office’s suggestions and do some of your own research regarding the course opportunities available in future years for the five core courses. This will allow you and your student to make an informed decision. Most importantly, remember that academic tracking is about finding the right level of rigor to appropriately challenge your student while still allowing them to get a good night’s sleep, hang out with friends and family, and participate in extracurricular activities.

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Written by Christine Kenyon
Christine Kenyon is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Christine was a senior admissions officer at Babson College and a scholarship reviewer and interviewer at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University.