Is it my imagination, or have you noticed that some public high school courses that are now called "honors" are equivalent to the regular "college prep" curriculum of earlier eras? And have you also noticed that what is now called "college prep" is aimed largely at students who are deemed low achievers or of low cognitive ability?
In fact, this trend is nobody's imagination. Over the past generation, public schools have done away with "tracking" -- a practice that began in the early 1900′s. By the 20′s and 30′s, curricula in high schools had evolved into four different types: college-preparatory, vocational (e.g., plumbing, metal work, electrical, auto), trade-oriented (e.g., accounting, secretarial), and general. Students were tracked into the various curricula based largely on IQ but sometimes other factors such as race and skin color. Children of immigrants, and children who came from farms rather than cities, were often assumed to be inferior in cognitive ability and treated accordingly.
MORE ON ABILITY GROUPING
During the 60's and 70's, radical education critics such as Jonathan Kozol brought accusations against a system they found racist and sadistic. They argued that public schools were hostile to children and lacked innovation in pedagogy. Their goal -- which became the goal of the larger education establishment -- was to restore equity to students, erasing the lines that divided them by social class and race. The desire to eliminate inequity translated to the goal of preparing every student for college. The goal was laudable, but as college prep merged with the general education track, it became student-centered and needs-based, with lower standards and less homework assigned.