Is it Time to Reconsider AP Classes?

Flickr: Amitburst

By Katrina Schwartz

Advanced Placement courses have long been the standard for high achievement in high school. The classes are modeled on college courses and are meant to represent the difficulty and breadth of material that students are expected to handle when they get to college. For that reason, some colleges give in-coming freshman credits or allow them to pass out of introductory courses if they score a three or above on the AP test (it’s scored from one to five).

In many schools, AP classes are more popular than ever, as students seek a leg up in the competitive college admissions process. But now, some of the most elite schools in the country are opting out of the AP frenzy, saying they can design better and more rigorous courses on their own that won’t force them to adhere to someone else’s curriculum and timeline and force teachers to teach to the test. And, instead of replicating a college level course in high school, they say they can go one better – partnering with local colleges so their students get the real deal.

“Our major complaint with the AP courses was that it was a race for breadth against depth,” explained Robert Vitalo, Head of School at Berkeley Carroll, a Brooklyn prep school that decided to completely do away with AP courses in the 2011-2012 school year. “We think the way of the world, the way to be teaching, the way that kids should be learning is to look at how subjects and questions and ideas are connected and related, and to take the time to make those connections and ask those questions and not to have it be a race to cover a lot of content."

To replace AP courses Berkeley Carroll has designed interdisciplinary courses like “The Physical Applications of Calculus,” a course that joins principles of both physics and calculus to uncover how they work together in the real world. Vitalo says they also still offer courses that can sometimes look like the AP curriculum, in that they cover similar material and concepts, but now the teachers aren’t constrained by an outside calendar and test format while they teach.

What's more, rather than relying on the College Board to be the arbiter of what qualifies as a college-level course, Berkeley Carroll makes it possible for its students to attend select classes at the Polytechnic Institute of New York to experience college offerings first hand. Vitalo says many of his students are particularly enjoying the intro to engineering class.

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But Berkeley Carroll did not make the decision to move away from APs easily. Over many years, the staff studied the effectiveness of the courses and spoke with admissions counselors at top universities to make sure that nothing would be lost in the educational experience and to ensure that their students wouldn’t be penalized when applying to the country’s top universities.

“Really what colleges are interested in is that a student has taken the most rigorous coursework,” Vitalo said. Berkeley Carroll’s reputation and standing in the educational community assures universities that AP-replacement courses are indeed challenging. Plus, Vitalo says the kind of schools many of his students want to go to, like Williams and Amherst, require students who want to pass out of intro classes to pass additional proficiency exams to prove that they meet the institution's high standards in a given subject.

But Vitalo said there’s a bigger reason to pull the plug on APs.

“One more transcript with three more AP courses looks like a thousand other transcripts,” he explained. “A transcript with good standardized test scores and interesting courses like American Studies or Science Writing, from a good school, with good results by a good student helps that student stand out more in the competitive admissions process.” Rather than hindering students, Vitalo sees the move away from APs as giving his students a leg up in application processes that are ever more competitive.

And Berkeley Carroll isn’t the only school pursuing this path. The elite Urban School in San Francisco also chose not to offer AP courses, nor does Riverdale Country Day School in New York. “I think it's sort of an impoverished view of expecting kids to learn a bunch of stuff and parrot it back to you, and that’s the end of it,” said Dominic Rudolph, Head of School at Riverdale Country in a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “These kids have to be better critical thinkers, they have to be better communicators,” he added. He doesn’t think passing the AP test necessarily gives them those skills.

When Scarsdale High, an affluent public school in upstate New York did away with AP classes in 2007, the school superintendent said "teachers felt driven to cover what was on the AP test, 'gaming' their classes by teaching with the test in mind," and that the teachers themselves asked for the change, according to an article in Scholastic.

But at the moment, it seems that the choice not to offer AP classes is happening in mostly affluent schools. Cash-strapped schools may not have the resources -- time or money -- to design and implement specialized courses that emphasize depth and work with nearby colleges and universities to incorporate college-level classes into the curriculum.

And even if schools did design highly rigorous, college-level classes, the fact that they don't have the AP stamp makes them harder to tout to college admissions. And for that reason, schools must decide between offering AP classes or their own versions of those classes -- they can't have both. “If you have APs in your curriculum then everything else is judged not as rigorous,” said Riverdale's Dominic Rudolph. That means there’s no going half-way.

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Opting away from AP classes is still the exception, and until all schools can create their own versions of rigorous, college-level classes, it may be the cheapest and easiest way to indicate high achievement.

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