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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.

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.

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.

Is it Time to Reconsider AP Classes? 8 August,2012MindShift

  • Seems to me that many school districts are moving to the IB to address the issue raised.

  • As a private college consultant, I couldn’t agree more with the idea of strengthening the high school curriculum and getting rid of AP classes.  I have had students tell me that some of the AP classes they have taken are easier than the regular courses.  I have also had college professors tell me that some students have done well on the AP tests, but are still not prepared for the rigor of some college courses.  I believe this is a subject that needs some serious discussion.

    College Direction
    Denver, Colorado

    • Jay Thompson

      You draw this conclusion based on “students” who have told you that “some of the AP classes…are easier than the regular courses[?]” How many students, from what schools, and specifically what AP courses, and who were their teachers?

      “I have also had college professors tell me…” Name them; from what schools?

      One thing is certain: if some successful AP students “are still not prepared for the rigor of some college courses,” you can rest assured the rest of the lot (not AP) sure aren’t ready!

      If you were my consultant I’d dump you for another one. BTW, I teach two AP English courses. Nothing better prepares my students for college. Nothing else is even remotely in the ballpark.

    • Patrickmattimore1

          I would suggest you go to the College Board website and take a look at some of the syllabi for AP courses.

  • Patrickmattimore1

    I address several of the “inadequacy myths” about AP in a commentary I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago.
    As to several points in this article-
    1. The schools that have moved away from AP make for nice anecdotes but are a very small percentage of schools that use AP alternatives to challenge their brightest students. IB is still a fringe program in American high schools offered to less than 5% of students.
    2. The College Board is not the “arbiter” of what qualifies as college-level courses. Colleges (and more specifically departments within colleges) are. Universities decide whether AP classes are worthy of college credit and what score students need. In addition, AP courses are vetted by college professors and the tests are field tested by college students taking equivalent college courses.
    3. The argument that AP courses sacrifice depth for breadth is a red herring. The introductory college-level courses that AP courses are intended to simulate are overwhelmingly survey courses. For example, the AP course I taught (AP psychology) was intended to provide students with the same broad overview of the field (from a college introductory textbook) that students would get if they took introductory psychology in college.

    Patrick Mattimore

    •  I took an AP European History class in High School and it was all about memorizing names and dates until it came time for a test or quiz and then it was all about why this war was fought. I wound up dropping the class because there was no in depth discussion of anything. It was all about writing down her outline during the class period, which was 10 pages or more everyday, and then go home and all the actual learning on our own. It is nothing like the college experience, because I took Euro History in college and completely enjoyed it and aced it. It may have had something to do with the longer class time in college and only meeting twice a week so I actually had time between classes to get the reading done and the time in class to have discussions on the topics being taught. If schools are going to offer AP classes, maybe they need to rethink the typical school day and move toward block scheduling with three classes a day for an hour and a half each, with a ten minute passing period and a longer lunch. Students would actually learn and retain more in this setting and have more time to study for core classes in the long run.

      • Patrickmattimore1

        Interesting, Laurel, but I think it’s hard to generalize from your experience with one AP class in high school and an “equivalent” class in college and draw a larger conclusion (“If schools are going to offer AP classes, maybe they need to rethink the typical school day…”) about the AP program.
        Unlike some people, I think one of the greatest strengths of AP is the focus on the end-of-course test. Colleges can readily see how well the AP tests match the kind of things those colleges think kids should learn in the classes they offer.

      • knightyan

        Yeah, you had to take notes during class and then synthesize/learn the material on your own time? And how is that different from most college courses? Most larger college courses involve a lecture where you take notes and then taking your notes back to your dorm and studying them to think more about the topic. Just curious as to the format of your Euro History class. Perhaps you were lucky and it was a smaller discussion-style class.

  • Mwaldorf

    My son graduated with an International Baccalaureate diploma that gave him a broad educational experience in many academic disciplines.  It was a comprehensive and demanding curriculum that helped him improve his skills as a student.  The development of this discipline enable him to graduate from UC Santa Cruz in three years–with honors.  It was his decision to enter the IB program, not one that his parents pushed.  Generally speaking, I believe the academic standards should be raised in Calif., and AP and IB programs should be  supported and encouraged.

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  • Jbernish

    AP courses are often the only challenge high ability students have to look forward to in typical  high schools. For any school to eliminate AP without an adequate replacement in place would short-change high ability students nationwide. If the only alternative is a community college course then several other factors complicate the execution: how does the student get to that community college? Is the coursework indeed as rigorous as AP? Who pays for the college credit? What if the school calendars do not align?

  • CH

    I think this article makes a very simplistic assumption that my AP kids and I would talk about. It makes the assumption that all AP course are “drill and kill” classrooms taught to the test. If one looks at the “guide” for teachers building AP courses, it encourages curriculum rich in activities and readings that encourage critical thinking.  A teacher also has the choice to make a class whatever he/she knows the students need. A good teacher knows that’s a class in which students are always challenged to look for real-world application of their studies. A supposed “upper-level” class with “real-world” applications can be just as close-minded and shallow as an AP class. It has a lot less to do with the the label on the course and a lot more to do with the choices of the teacher.

  • Vicki

    Personally, I think dual enrollment is a far better solution for students than AP courses. Credit is earned through multiple assessments not a single standardized test. Also, any decent college is not handing out credits for a 3 on an AP exam. I’d really like to see more partnerships between higher education and high schools to provide students with more learning opportunities.

    • Patrickmattimore1

         Dual enrollment is a perfectly good option in some circumstances but is not IMHO “a far better solution than AP courses.” Not every school district is positioned to offer dual enrollment and many dual enrollment classes do not qualify for college credit except at the local college. Students who get C’s in dual enrollment are likely no better prepared to skip a college course in any event than their peers who get 3’s on AP exams. In addition, while you are correct that many colleges and universities don’t offer credit for 3’s, many universities do. The University of California schools (which has six of the top 50 national universities according to USN&WR) offer credit for 3’s, for example.
         I do agree with you that partnerships between universities and high schools should be expanded and you might want to take a look at the work of Michael Kirst at Stanford, who has done a lot of work in the area of K-16.

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  • Jgribler

    I have taught AP Calculus AB for 3 years and I totally disagree that the curriculum emphases breadth at the expense of depth. In actual fact the college board emphasizes only about 6-10 very important topics in Calculus. The test challenges fundamental understanding of these topics with rigorous questions. We only need to cover 4 chapters of the 17 in our Calculus textbook to be familiar with the curriculum.

    May I guess that one reason these prestigious schools are dropping AP is that they do not want to be compared negatively with other schools who have far less resources yet get better results in this challenging and very focused Calculus test.

    J San Francisco

  • Will S

    Honestly I feel that the rigurous enforcement of AP in highschool is missing its over all purpose. The AP courses exsist so that high school students can have an upperhand on what they will see in college. The AP courses are not instructed so that the students will learn, they are instructed on the basis of passing the AP test. The test causes teacher to cram knowledge into students heads instead of actually think of creative ways for students to learn the required material. In order to solve the problem the AP test should be eliminated. Ounce Elimated college credit should be granted if the student passes the class graded on a college level. The AP test renders the class to a rushed learning experience instead of actual college benefit.

    • Worddoct

      Most AP classes are yearlong, unlike college courses which are typically 14 weeks. Also, students are not required to take the AP exams. They only get college credit IF they take the exam and get a 3, 4 or 5 on the exam. As a scorer of AP exams, I can tell you that more fail the exam than pass it.

  • This makes it more difficult for kids to get college credit. My oldest graduated from Berkeley Carroll 3 years ago and had the opportunity to get 2 BA’s without increasing her course load. She finally chose to take additional courses in her primary major. Being a long ago graduate of the “upstate” high school, I was able to get sophomore standing in math and science with my 2 AP courses. Finally with the cost of college so high, kids can graduate early and save.

  • suenoir

    Dominic Randolph, not Rudolph, if anyone wants to Google more information.

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  • Rosemarie Brody Schaut

    I disagree with quite a few claims in this article. I have been an A P Literature teacher for six years and will be scoring the essays in Louisville, KY this June for the third time. I do not at all feel pressured to teach a lot of material on the surface. In fact, the A P curriculum is deeper than all of my other courses.I was able to select my own text, novels, and curriculum for this course. While I do “teach to the test”, the Literature test is something I believe in. It requires students to think critically from start to finish. It is in A P Literature that I feel I am teaching the way teaching should be taught. However, my school is also offering College courses for the 2014 – 2015 school year through the University of Pittsburgh. (I am in Pennsylvania.) Next year I will be teaching A P Literature, Pitt Literature, and Pitt Composition in addition to General English 11 and General English 12. Yes, we are going to offer both, even though this article indicates that we cannot . . . and our high school has less than 360 students in it.

  • Worddoct

    First, the idea that AP is about breadth not depth leads me to believe you have never taught an AP course. I have taught AP courses and have scored AP exams for ETS. They are not broad as you imply, but sometimes even more rigorous than college classes students take.

    In order to teach an AP course you actually need to have your syllabus vetted by college professors that AP hires to do so. If your syllabus does not pass muster, your school cannot put the P designation on a student’s transcript and you cannot call the course an AP course. If you do, ETS activates various sanctions against your school, such as eliminating the right to offer any AP courses at your school for a period of time. Also, all schools where AP courses are vetted and approved are posted to the web so anyone can see which courses have been vetted. Then, a college or university can verify that the school actually has an approved AP course. It is very rigorous.

    Many students who take AP courses do not take the exam because schools do not REQUIRE students to take the exams. Thus, the test is only indicative of those who take the exam, not all students who take AP courses.

    Frankly, I doubt AP courses will go away as long as states like mine use AP scores to evaluate teachers and buildings.

    As the director of a graduate program, I can tell you that many students who enter our program having taken AP courses in high school and are much better prepared for graduate work than the individuals who did not because they are deeper thinkers. Is that a result of AP courses in high school? I would say it starts there.

  • fahrender

    So, it’s all about “selling” their school to college admissions officers. What’s wrong is not just the AP but the whole paradigm: how we see the purpose of education as just getting your “ticket stamped”. We’re lost in the corporate/Wall Street race to the top.

  • knightyan

    What about IB (International Baccalaureate) as an alternative? The IB program integrates all courses into a comprehensive, challenging program that promotes critical thinking across all disciplines. The program is also taught over 2 years so you have more time to cover the material required and can go into depth with it. I am a Spanish IB teacher, and I love the course content and the way the exams are set up. The exams are not just two days in May, but a 300-400 word text synthesizing writing assignment written in February, a presentational and conversational oral exam in March, and 3 class debate/discussion oral exams during the final year. The students also love that they are able to write about and discuss topics that apply to global concerns today.

    • Anonymous

      When I was preparing to select a high school (we could apply to the out of district IB program), I chose not to participate in the IB program. I opted for an AP school, because it gave me the flexibility to choose my own courses. I wanted to take engineering and orchestra classes offered by my school as well as the core AP courses (English, math, science, history) and AP electives (French, art history). The structure of the IB program is difficult for students who want options like me, and it also prevents students from succeeding if they are only advanced in certain areas. Even if you excel in US history, you may feel your enthusiasm for school being destroyed by chemistry. IB may offer a more cohesive push for well rounded students, but it is at the cost of a student’s control over their coursework. College students are the masters of their schedule, I believe we should simulate that responsibility as early as possible.

      • knightyan

        While I agree with you that at the college level students are “masters of their own schedule,” I do believe that the vast majority of college students have to take at least a few courses in things that they aren’t as strong in due to GEC (General Education Curriculum) requirements. Even an English Literature major has to take multiple courses in Math and Science. Even an Engineering major usually has to take some Foreign Languages courses.
        That is why IB offers almost all of its courses at the Standard Level (SL) and High Level (HL), so the student has the ability to mix and match their strengths and weaknesses. So, a student could take HL English and only SL Chemistry or Biology or Physics if they are weaker in Science. Or, they could take HL Math and SL History. The Diploma programme gives you some flexibility. Another option is simply taking a few IB courses instead of being an IB Diploma Candidate. If your school did not give you that option, that is too bad.

  • RSquier

    In New York State the school year starts in September and ends in late June, thus AP classes must accelerate through the content to be ready for May exams. Since I do not think one exam should be the basis of earning any type of credit, I support offering early college courses in HS, since it’s the overall work and grades that determine if college credit is awarded. Our district offers both AP courses and college credit courses affiliated with our local community colleges and state universities; which allows any credit earned to be transferred when enrolled in a SUNY school. As a parent, if I have to choose between paying for an AP exam and hoping my child has a good day or paying a reduced tuition( by 2/3) for college credits based on work from the whole course, I’d pick college tuition. I should note in NY, teachers must have their syllabi approved by college departments annually and classes can and are reviewed by visiting college faculty. Also in some regions of the state, community colleges are offering tuition free for high school students taking college credit courses in their HS’s.

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  • cjanna

    Our kids have gone to public schools throughout the US and the school that’s doing it right is Olympia High school in Olympia, Washington. Kids there have options of AP and classes at the local community college. Many students graduate from high school with coursework equivalent to an associates degree already completed. The principal is engaged in all aspects of the school community and the teachers teach critical thinking and encourage creativity in their students. If this model were replicated in other places there’d be a marked change in student performance and enjoyment of learning, the latter being less tangible but no less important. Replication would be difficult since so much of this success has to do with some amazing individuals working within a community that puts education first.

  • Karen Gross

    APs are a money maker for College Board in all senses. I agree their time has passed. As an educator, why not permit dual enrollment? And, since many colleges prefer students to take their courses rather than opting out (many colleges deploy their own placement tests but that is another subject for another day), why not eliminate APs and offer amazing courses that engage students and allow them to take college course on campuses or online with high school teacher mentoring (MOOCs deployed differently)? Options are endless, meaning that APs are not the way to challenge all students not just those who get into APs. And note that some schools have certain biases in terms of who gets in. Eradicate all that as it is implicit tracking. Teach all students well and with remarkable creativity. Teach them what colleges really want: creative, engaged learners. I think APs and SATs are both anachronistic and we need to improve how we do college admissions. Perhaps College Board has not yet seen the proverbial light. Will it change or will it go the way of the buggy whip maker. The choice is theirs.

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