Originally published in SEA Homeschoolers Magazine May 2019
My two children have homeschooled all the way through. The elder is a freshman at Dartmouth, studying at the kitchen table. The younger plans to head to Yale in the fall, pandemic willing.
I’d like to encourage all parents to think about preparing their students for college, even if you can’t begin to imagine your 7th grader heading off alone to college or wrestling with the academic rigor of college classes. I know so many people who returned to college in their 20s – many of them were convinced that they wouldn’t succeed in college but turned out to be highly accomplished students.
My favorite back to school story is rocket scientist Adam Steltzner who had dropped out and was playing in a band, before noticing the movement of the stars at the end of a gig. He signed up for community college to find out why and earned a PhD before designing a Mars lander for JPL. There are a lot of paths your students may take – try to leave those options open for them.
High school shouldn’t be all about getting into college, but fear of college admissions is one of the biggest obstacles toward homeschooling high school. This blog is an attempt to lay out the college admissions side of creating a high school, so that you can get down to the actual business of developing a high school plan and enjoying it with your students.
Our high school program was definitely secular, eclectic and academic. In courses where my children were going to be taking exams, their school looked very “school at home.” In other classes, we focused on taking advantage of the freedoms of homeschooling.
For example, in my elder daughter’s 11th grade literature class, I only assigned four novels and four papers, with the expectation that she read a lot of books outside of school – she read forty. Her AP-level biology course looked like school at home: Thinkwell videos, QSL lab package, a college textbook, and an occasional tutor. She spent weeks on an extracurricular, independent science research project, and dropped math for a few weeks in order to learn enough statistics to finish her project. World history looked like a college seminar, because we’d already done two thirds of period covered by the exam, which gave us time to go deeper than AP-level normally does.
I started off looking at college requirements and worked backwards. It’s important to note that in some states, the high school graduation requirements are less than the minimum at the same state’s universities.
Some universities are considering relaxing testing requirements for the class of 2021, who may not be able to access testing. College Board is working towards moving some of their testing online, and indeed AP testing went online this spring, although not without some teething problems. Since this guide is aimed at the parents of Middle School students, I expect things will be back to normal by the time your children are applying to college. I do expect that more universities will move to test optional if they find this year’s experiment successful.
Sample High School Course Requirements
Years (or Carnegie units, see below) of high school study required for typical state high school graduation requirements and a sampler of colleges:
You can check out your state’s high school requirements here: http://ecs.force.com/mbdata/mbprofall?Rep=HS01
Many people recommend looking up colleges that your student is interested in and checking on their recommendations, but my daughter didn’t have her complete college list until the fall of senior year – far too late to make up any classes. Instead, we developed a plan in eighth grade, and revised it each year. The first part of the plan was that they would both take four years each of math, science, history, English, and second language. That way, they’d meet any requirements, and we could adjust senior year if necessary. Then we looked at the list of AP Exams (see below) and made a list of six each that they might be interested in. I didn’t expect that they would take six, but it made us aware of what they’d have to do in freshman and sophomore years in order to be ready for the AP.
For my eldest, for example, this looked like taking both chemistry and biology in 10th grade in order to be ready for AP-level courses in those subjects in 11th and 12th grades. For my youngest, that looked like taking Biology in 9th, Chemistry in 10th, and AP-level Environmental Science in 11th grade.
It meant that one would cover US history in 12th grade and the other in 11th, so that we’d meet that state requirement at the same time. The state requires “health” so my eldest took a residential Wilderness First Responder course.
Sitting together with a list of requirements and exams and saying, “what do you want to do junior and senior years?” was the key to formulating a plan that worked for them and their college aspirations.
For most colleges, you will want to present your student’s high school transcript in the format they expect, using Carnegie units. A Carnegie unit is a rough representation of how much work was done in that class. In a typical high school, with two 18-week semesters, students meet four or five times a week for fifty minutes. “Block schedule” classes might meet fewer times a week but for twice as long. A typical high school class, therefore, is 60 – 75 hours of class time, plus about 40 hours of homework. This counts as 0.5 Carnegie units. Honors and AP classes have more homework, but still count as the same number of units.
Any course that is typically taught over two semesters in high school can be awarded 1.0 units if taught in a single semester. This might include AP-level courses for AB Calculus, Statistics, and Environmental Science which are taught both as 1 semester and 2 semester courses. I would be cautious doing this, however, as colleges will recalculate grade point averages, and might not be as generous. I would not do it in English, as almost every high school and college require a full four years of English.
Homeschoolers are more efficient and often homework and class time are indistinguishable, but these numbers give you a rough idea of what’s required. If you choose to use regular high school text books, you will see that they often have 32-36 chapters, representing a week’s work for each one. Textbooks make it easy: complete the textbook and its assignments, with a bit of outside reading / labs / papers or lab reports, and that’s 1.0 Carnegie unit. Classes like art, music, PE, life skills and so on can be done with a simple log: 90 hours is the equivalent of 0.5 units; 180 hours is 1.0 units. These numbers are for guidance – if your student logs 80 hours, you can certainly assign half a credit. Forty-five hours probably doesn’t deserve the half credit unless it is an easily testable subject like math.
If you wish to do a part-time class – for example three hours of studio art a week — you can simply assign the grade at the end of the school year – write “Studio Art 0.5” for second semester.
Grade Point Averages
Many high schools report “weighted grades” which means they record students’ GPAs on a 4.0 scale but count honors classes as 4.5 for an A and dual enrollment or AP classes on a 5.0 scale. You can do whatever you want here, because colleges generally do their own math. Typically, they’ll drop out all the non-core classes (PE, health, driving instruction) and average grades on a 4.0 scale without the added points for an AP class. Some schools use the whole numbers to cover plus and minus grades (eg. an A or an A- are both averaged as 4.0); others use decimal grades (an A = 4.0 and an A- = 3.7.) Most colleges use a decimal, unweighted grade point average, which is the sum of all the letter grades converted to their decimal equivalent, divided by the number of classes. Full year classes should be entered twice as two semesters.
There are two tracks for standardized testing, SAT or ACT. These tests are required by the majority of US colleges – even some colleges that boast about being “test optional” require the SAT or ACT for homeschooled students. Nearly every college is happy to have either test. Your students can take a practice test for both to see which is a better fit.
Taking the SAT or ACT is very easy for homeschool students – you sign up online and show up on exam day at your local testing center (usually a local high school). The testing centers are contracted to take all the registered students – your district, address, and enrollment status don’t matter. There is a fee waiver available for students who need it.
Both tests include a reading/writing portion and a math portion. Both have optional essays. Both should be taken after the equivalent of Geometry and Algebra 2 (or Math 2 and 3 for integrated programs).
For most students, it’s best to take these exams at the end of 11th grade. Many students take them more than once, and a few students take both the SAT and ACT.
One advantage of the SAT is that there are three practice versions of it – the PSAT 8/9, the PSAT 10, and the PSAT/NMSQT (taken in the fall of 11th grade). This is not as easy to access as the regular SAT, because it is administered by schools, and you will have to find a local school willing to let your students test alongside their students. Small private day schools are often a good bet if the local public school isn’t willing. The NMSQT initials stand for the “National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.” Students who score well on this sort of test should make a point of taking this version in 11th grade, as the first round in the National Merit program is based entirely on this test.
Dual Enrollment vs. AP
Dual Enrollment means being enrolled in homeschool and taking some or all classes at a local community college. This is particularly popular for lab sciences. AP stands for “Advanced Placement.” Official AP courses can be found online (or parents can even have their course “audited” and earn the right to put “AP” on the transcript.) Students can also take AP exams without a formal AP class if they can find a local school willing to host them. Some people swear up and down that colleges like DE better than AP, some swear the reverse. It depends on the college.
One advantage of Dual Enrollment classes is your student will interact with an actual instructor (good for college recommendations) and have the experience of a college class. One advantage of AP is it is standardized across the country, so colleges can easily compare students, whereas they don’t really know how rigorous a community college course might be.
Advanced Placement is often touted as a way of saving money in college because students will be able to skip college classes. This is often true at State Universities, but at the more selective colleges APs are more commonly used for placement and sometimes transcript credit, and they usually don’t allow students to skip a year of classes.
(Transcript credit is useful for students going towards advanced degrees with undergraduate requirements. For example, med schools generally require calculus and physics, but they seldom accept AP exam scores. Many colleges help students get around this by listing AP exam courses on the official college transcript, even though the student doesn’t receive an exemption from the total number of courses needed for graduation.)
AP courses taken in sophomore and/or junior year are helpful in the college admissions process, even if that college won’t allow them to be used as credits towards graduation.
Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, students will have to sign up in the autumn to take the exams, as the deadline for schools to order exams is moving back to November 15th (it’s currently in March). AP Exams are offered once a year, in May.
Many homeschoolers take so many dual enrollment classes that they are eligible for an Associate’s Degree by the time they’ve graduated from high school. It is worth using some caution before accepting the degree to make sure that it won’t interfere with merit aid for colleges. Some colleges count an Associate Degree holder as a “transfer student” and there may not be as much aid available. Other colleges make it easy for Associate Degree holders to move into the college, and directly transfer credits. This tends to be State Universities working with their own associated community colleges.
SAT Subject Tests & CLEP
But wait, there are more acronyms, and more tests! SAT subject tests are hour-long multiple choice tests in subject areas that generally test the equivalent of an honors level class. CLEP stands for College Level Exam Program and can be used to calibrate community college dual enrollment classes. SAT Subjects, AP, and CLEP testing programs are all run by College Board, which is confusing, as they seem to be such similar things. The APs are generally harder (they are more like a college exam, take three hours, and include essays as well as multiple choice). Some CLEP exams offer the opportunity to add an essay component.
The SAT subject exams are probably the closest to CLEP exams in level, but they generally cannot be used for college credit. However, if your student is aiming at a selective college, SAT Subjects are a better bet than CLEP. Most highly selective colleges “recommend” two or more SAT Subject tests, and “recommend” pretty much means “require” for most students.
SAT subject tests are best taken at the end of the appropriate course, usually at the end of sophomore or junior year. SAT Math 1 is best taken at the end of Algebra 2 (or Math 3 if you’re following an integrated program). SAT Math 2 is best taken at the end of Precalculus (or Math 4). These tests are completely different from the Math component of the normal SAT.
Students aiming for selective colleges generally take the SAT subject and the AP exam the same year. (Except in Math – see below!) From an educational perspective, this makes no sense – why would you take two tests the same year that test the same thing? However, for the schools that “recommend” SAT subjects they appear to really mean that, even if you submit an AP score.
Many homeschoolers take SAT subjects even if they aren’t shooting for selective colleges, as a way to back up their grades in a way that can be compared directly with students across the country.
SAT Subjects and CLEP exams are offered multiple times a year.
If you have potential college athletes, you need to be aware of NCAA competition requirements. See http://www.ncaa.org/student-athletes/future/home-school-students to sign up – you should sign up freshman year if there’s any chance your student will want to be a college athlete.
GED stands for General Education Development. It’s a test used to prove high school level accomplishment for those who were not able to graduate. This should not apply to a high schooler meeting state and local requirements for homeschooling. A rare few colleges do ask for it from homeschoolers, sometimes in the case of unschooling. One SEA Homeschooling parent was able to have the requirement waived this year, and since homeschooling is a valid educational option in all 50 US states, it should not be necessary.
Typical High School Sequences
Nearly every state and college require four years of English. You can call this English 1, 2, 3, 4, or you can assign conventional names including “Composition,” “American Literature,” “World Literature,” and so on. Literature courses include reading literature (novels, plays, and poetry), and writing about it. Composition courses might include personal narrative essays, research papers, and argument writing. Generic English classes might have a mix of the two all the way through.
Many colleges like to see multiple years of the same language in high school. Some colleges don’t count advanced work in heritage languages (languages spoken regularly in the home). Some colleges don’t care if it is a heritage language, and in this case a strong SAT subject score in a heritage language can be a real boost to scores.
Most states require US and state history. Most colleges expect an additional year or so – which was far less than I wanted, and after eight years of homeschool history, I didn’t have to work very hard to convince my children that four years of high school history would be their minimum. Other history courses can be broad surveys (“world history” for example), or narrow studies of small moments in time (“The Vietnam War,” for example). My eldest did three years of world history, plus US history; my youngest started the same sequence in eighth grade, so she’s planning out an independent study in “popular uprisings” for 12th grade.
You can do the sciences in any order you want, as long as you meet state laws.
There are excellent arguments for each of these orders. In my careful plan for high school, my children were going to do the Physics First order. They didn’t. Unless students have had an unusually strong background in middle school, it usually makes sense to do an on level or honors level course before taking AP level classes.
Be sure to keep good lab notebooks, especially if your student may try to receive AP or CLEP credit: colleges have been known to ask to see the lab books before awarding credit.
There are two ways of doing math – the traditional US schedule and the integrated schedule. The traditional sequence is what most American adults did in high school: Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus, and possibly Calculus. Integrated calls those courses Math 1, 2, 3, 4, and Calculus. Some schools offer Trigonometry, others blend it into Algebra 2 and/or Precalculus.
Most students start that sequence in 9th grade; a great number start it in 8th grade; many students begin in 7th grade. Students who begin high school math in 7th or 8th grade can generally study Calculus in high school. (And don’t worry, there are plenty of options for online classes/dual enrollment, etc. if your child is likely to outstrip you by the end of high school.)
Extremely selective colleges generally expect to see Calculus from all students; very selective schools expect it from STEM majors. AP Statistics is also an option, but since it’s generally considered easier than AP Calculus, it may be best to prioritize Calculus for very selective schools.
Most colleges require three years of math; many of those recommend four.
SAT Subject Math 1 after Algebra 2 / Math 3
SAT Subject Math 2 after Pre-Calculus / Math 4
AP AB Calculus after AB Calculus / First Semester College Calculus
AP BC Calculus after BC Calculus / Full Year College Calculus
AP Statistics after an AP or college-level statistics class
Whatever pathways you and your student chose to follow in high school, keep meticulous records. It may seem like you’ll never forget what happened freshman year, but by the time college application time rolls around, 9th grade is a blur.
Keep a list of course titles, subjects covered in each title, books read, labs done and testing if any. Some colleges have been known to ask for sample work (usually papers and labs) from homeschoolers. Some have been known to ask for a complete set of high school syllabi.
You’ve made it past the first hurdle. Learning all these acronyms is much harder than actually homeschooling high school.
Kate Laird has been homeschooling for the last fifteen years, and she’s the author of Homeschool Teacher: A Practical Guide to Inspiring Academic Excellence for grades K-8; ages 4-14.