APs: Are they losing their APpeal?

The future of Advanced Placement (AP) courses at the Upper School (US) is up for discussion: should they stay or should they go? 

US Director Geoff Theobald, Director of College Counseling Amy Selinger, and US department heads have discussed the question twice now and plan on resuming the conversation shortly after school begins. If and when definitive recommendations emerge, Mr. Theobald said, Head of School Jen Price will be looped into the discussion.

Although the school administration is not ready to side for or against AP courses—and advised The Vanguard against pre maturely polling the faculty—we can deduce from other independent schools why the elimination of AP courses may be under consideration. 

Which ISL schools have shed the AP

BB&N is not the only school in the Independent School League (ISL) to consider abolishing AP courses. St. Mark’s School and St. George’s School—two out of the 16 Massachusetts schools in the ISL—have already removed APs from their offerings. 

St. George’s School, which eliminated AP courses as of the 2015-16 school year, replaced all AP designations with “Advanced” in an effort to recognize the rigor of the courses, and those courses no longer adhere to the AP requirements determined by the College Board, according to the school’s course catalogue. Students can still take the May AP test, but test preparation is no longer integrated into the classes’ regular curriculum.

Similarly, at St. Mark’s School since the fall of 2014, courses have been designated as “Advanced” instead of “AP,” and teachers help students who wish to take the AP test prepare for it outside of class.

“Consistent with the national dialogue about trends shaping the future of education, St. Mark’s has undertaken an in-depth curriculum review, including a thorough examination of Advanced Placement’s role in the School’s academic program,” St. Mark’s course catalogue reads. It also asserts that the newly named “Advanced” courses “meet or exceed the challenge of the Advanced Placement curriculum and allow for greater flexibility in curriculum design.”

Why eight D.C. private schools have already made this move

In the Washington D.C. area, eight private schools took the same actions with similar motives. In a joint column written by the eight heads of each school and printed in The Washington Post early this summer (“Our schools will get rid of AP courses. Here’s Why,” June 18, 2018), the heads explained why they plan to abolish APs completely from their curricula by 2022.

Established by the College Board in the early 1950s, AP courses were designed to give students a chance to receive college credit while still in high school so that they might graduate early from a college or university, the D.C. heads wrote. Today, they added, the great majority of students complete college in four or more years, defeating the purpose of the original idea. 

The heads also reasoned that while previously, AP courses were a way for academically gifted students to stand out amongst their peers, now, with about 40 percent of high school students taking AP courses each year, the AP letters on a student’s transcript have become less impressive in the college admissions process.

Surveying about 150 colleges’ admission boards, the D.C. leaders said they found that the presence of AP courses on a transcript is not necessarily important; what is important, however, is that students take advantage of their school’s most rigorous courses, AP or not.

Finally, they argued that without APs, teachers might be more likely to shed any antiquated learning methods or content associated with the traditional AP curricula, and might have greater flexibility in providing stimulating course content. Meanwhile, ambitious students might be more likely to enroll in more personally engaging and transformative courses, in the process preparing themselves for more meaningful college experiences.

“Theories of education have changed a lot over the past 50 years, and the ways we teach and test must reflect these changes,” the D.C. heads wrote. “Rote memorization is giving way to learning that is more collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary—with an increased focus on problem-solving. We also integrate and connect coursework to real-world issues and provide students with more opportunities to engage in original research and deep analysis.”

How Upper School students say they feel about APs

In August, The Vanguard polled US students about their involvement with and opinions on APs. Of 158 respondents, 56 percent reported having taken one or more AP courses, and 74 percent of that group said they disagree or strongly disagree with their elimination.

At the US, students are currently offered 15 AP courses: four math, two science, five history, three world languages, and the English course required of all juniors. 

AP courses are not offered to freshmen, and a few are open to sophomores, the most common being math electives such as AP Statistics or AP Computer Science. The majority of students who enroll in AP courses do so during their junior and senior years.

Since one specific worry the D.C. private schools said they had is that AP curricula can often stress breadth over depth, The Vanguard asked students who reported having taken AP courses at the US their thoughts on the matter. Forty percent answered both “breadth and depth,” and 25 percent answered that the curricula stressed “mostly breadth, a little depth.” 

A senior in the latter group wrote, “I feel like my AP classes were too fast-paced in order to prepare for the breadth of material that would appear on the AP exam, and therefore I was not able to go into depth in my learning.”

Only four survey respondents who said they had taken at least one AP—6 percent—said they believed their AP courses achieved neither breadth nor depth. 

A senior who said both breadth and depth were stressed in the AP curricula wrote that a variety of AP course offerings are an important advantage of a private school education.

“One of the AP courses I took isn’t offered at a lot of other schools, which is the case for several of them, and they are really valuable,” the senior wrote.

Some AP courses taught at the US and only a few other ISL schools include AP Art History, AP Chinese, and AP Macroeconomics.

Some faculty perspectives

Mathematics Teacher Mark Fidler, who has taught AP Computer Science every year since he began work at the school in 1984 and called that curriculum “excellent,” said he believes each department should decide on the merits of the AP designation course by course.

“Having the AP designation tells colleges exactly what topics are covered,” Mr. Fidler said, adding, “Over the past 15 years or so, more than 80 percent of our students have earned 5’s on the AP exam. Colleges can see the high standards we have in that class, and that can only help BB&N students.”

“In math,” he added, “the AP designation and exam are incentives for students to stay in AP Calculus and start their college experience with a credit for a course that is an important prerequisite for many college classes.”

AP Art History Teacher Rob Leith said he recognizes AP affiliation is valuable in encouraging students to enroll in his class since some students see the “art” label and instantly think honors courses or STEM courses would be better evidence of “rigor” on their transcripts. Nevertheless, he said, the new guidelines the College Board implemented for AP Art History three years ago have restricted his freedom with respect to what he teaches.

“I do not like some of the requirements that the revised curriculum imposed upon me,” Mr. Leith said. “If we did not have APs, I would teach the course quite differently by including different content.”

Mr. Leith also stressed that students should prioritize their interests rather than their transcripts.

“I don’t like hearing students say, ‘I’m looking for an AP [or] another AP. This is common at course selection time, and I sympathize with their reasoning, but I wish they were basing their choices on what interests them rather than what ‘looks good for college,’” he said. “We should be encouraging students to pursue their passions and broaden their interests rather than building their resumes.”

In fact, of the students who reported having completed at least one AP course at the US, 60 percent said they took an AP course to “look good” on their transcript. Only 3 percent reported taking the course to receive college credit later.

“Although I think taking AP classes is not particularly useful later on for college credit and takes away from learning the subject thoughtfully and in depth, I still feel like I need to take at least several AP classes before I apply for college,” one junior wrote on the survey. “Every other prep school student takes AP classes, so if BB&N took away the AP designation, I feel as though that would make us less competitive when applying to college.”

The College Counseling view

Ms. Selinger stressed that while AP courses do show colleges how hard students are working, they are just one way to do this.

“As the courses are somewhat standardized, they allow colleges to compare apples to apples and have some understanding that a course called ‘AP European History’ has certain benchmarks and is rigorous, whereas the course name ‘Really Really Hard History Class’ doesn’t truly help a college understand what the student is learning,” she said. “That being said, AP is not the only way to demonstrate rigor. Well-documented honors curricula are another.”

Ms. Selinger also noted the necessary “balancing act” between choosing rigorous courses and enrolling in classes that a student finds interesting, regardless of their AP status. 

“Students and families always ask: ‘Is it better to get an A in a regular class or a B in an AP course?’ The colleges will say, ‘We want all A’s in all APs,’ to which I answer, ‘Well, I want to sleep in every morning, but you can’t always get what you want.’ So students should, regardless of what colleges say they ‘want,’ find ways to challenge themselves at this stage of life,” Ms. Selinger said. 

She explained that if a student is excelling in a subject such as history, choosing an honors or AP class in that field may be the right decision, whereas if math is more challenging to them, it is ok for that student to enroll in a non-honors or AP course. 

“It is about living the ideals of a growth mindset, not grabbing APs or pushing yourself to the brink of exhaustion,” Ms. Selinger said.

She added that whether or not a school offers APs should be revisited every few years.

“Does the AP curriculum meet our needs? Does it help prepare our students for college—note: I did not say for ‘admission’ to college—and beyond?” she asked. “Those answers should determine our curriculum—not the College Board.”

Ms. Selinger did point out APs can be important in admission to colleges outside of the United States, specifically in the United Kingdom (UK), where students may be required to receive certain scores on AP tests in order to attend.

“Sometimes, students are given a ‘conditional admit’ and told they may enroll if they can score a 4 or a 5 on two [or] more APs in the spring of their senior year. Talk about a high-stakes test!” Ms. Selinger said. “There are plenty of schools who have dropped AP courses from their curricula and have students in this situation. These students prepared for these tests on their own. The UK process should not determine what a high school offers, but it is important to know what students face in the application process.”

To be continued…

 The eight heads of the Washington-area private schools said they hope their decision about APs helps clear the path for other institutions considering the same move.

“We are far from the first independent schools to eliminate the AP designation,” they wrote. “Many excellent boarding and day schools around the country have embraced this change and seen students thrive and teachers flourish without any negative impact on college placement.”

Will the US be next? 


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