An advanced assessment: weighing the place of APs at Masters and beyond
November 23, 2019
What are APs?
The Masters School is currently engaging in talks about Advanced Placement (AP) courses and their role within the realm of the school’s academic identity; additionally, many members of the Masters community and beyond have grappled with the benefits and potential downsides of an AP curriculum
According to the College Board, a “mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success,” AP courses, which have been around since the 1950’s, are an opportunity for students to earn college credit, prepare for college level courses, develop critical learning skills and discover a new passion in a subject.
By offering APs worldwide, College Board is presumably providing the most rigorous curriculum for high schools, and in turn, presenting many benefits for students.
APs offer a lot that is positive, but over the past few decades there has been seemingly continual pushback against the courses as schools nationwide consider the validity of offering these courses. .
The Constraints of APs
One common argument against APs is that they constrain the ability of teachers to instruct creatively and devise unique course material. Some teachers have found ways to work around this, though it has proven more difficult for others.
Dean of Faculty Sam Savage acknowledges that APs require educators to teach to a set framework. “They have a different presence than any other curriculum because they align with something outside of any given school,” he said. APs are designed to prepare students for AP exams, which take place in early May.
Eric Shear, a science teacher and dean for the Class of 2021, who formerly taught AP Chemistry, found that the AP curriculum restricted his ability to teach the course while upholding the school’s mission: To strive, to dare, to do, to be a ‘power for good in the world’–we could do way more of these things if we weren’t held to the standards of an AP.” — Eric Shear
To strive, to dare, to do, to be a ‘power for good in the world’–we could do way more of these things if we weren’t held to the standards of an AP.”
— Eric Shear
Schools that have eliminated AP courses have taken several different paths. One alternative to APs that has been adopted by many schools, including Scarsdale High School (SHS) is Advanced Topics Classes (ATs), which are considered to be equally as rigorous. SHS senior Charlotte Kelson, who is currently enrolled in four ATs and took both AT Statistics and AT U.S. History last year, said that her AT classes provide room for exploration and deviation from a standard AP curriculum. She said, “Last year in my AT U.S. history class, we had almost a month of students presentations… I don’t think we would’ve had that flexibility had it been an AP class.”
Masters’ Math Department Chair Michele Dennis has managed to work around the perceived restrictions of APs in her AP Calculus AB curriculum. “I don’t feel rushed [at least until the very end]. We have time for exploration regularly, doing work on Desmos [an online graphing application] and occasional projects. To say that APs don’t dive deep is not correct,” she said.
Dennis, who formerly taught AP Statistics, also argues that teaching to a set-curriculum aided her growth. She said, “I would’ve operated in a silo trying to teach statistics, but instead, I had the AP community as a source of constant professional development.” She explained that many of the lesson plans and creative activities that she brought to her class were inspired by other AP professionals outside of Masters.
AP United States History (APUSH) teacher Eric Shapiro, who is also a grader for the APUSH exams, recalled an interaction he had with a fellow grader. “A woman I sat next to for a whole week, told me that one of her APUSH classes has over 100 students; it’s pure lecture and each student essentially writes one essay per semester,” he said. However, at Masters, with smaller classes and an emphasis on discussion-based learning, the APUSH teachers have found ways to lead classes in innovative ways. Earlier this month, students in Masters’ APUSH course took part in a roundtable where they played the roles of characters from the early nineteenth century and discussed topics relating to social, political, and economic reform during the time period. The roundtable served as a test, covering content from chapters in their textbook.
The current APUSH curriculum is a broad overview of history in the United States from early settlement in the country to the present day.
Shear noted that AT courses could give teachers and students alike the ability to hone in on a particular topic or area of study. “For example, a student could take an advanced topics class on poetry and an advanced topics class on creative writing,” he said.
Tackling the Test
Many members of the educational community feel that the AP tests are advantageous, though others see them as an inaccurate representation of students’ academic ability.
Shapiro understands the essence of AP tests. “They [AP exams] offer a means of evaluating students on a national basis,” he said.
Both he and Dennis said that the AP tests for their respective subjects are more of an assessment on skills as opposed to pure knowledge. Dennis mentioned that the AP Stats exam often has word problems that deal with real world situations. Shapiro added that the long-essay questions and document-based questions on the APUSH exam require that students not only have their facts straight, but also are proficient writers and critical thinkers.
Junior Rachel Schwartz, who is in APUSH, said that having to learn these skills adds additional pressure to an already challenging course. On top of having to know all the information, you actually have to know how to do the test.” — Rachel Schwartz
On top of having to know all the information, you actually have to know how to do the test.”
— Rachel Schwartz
The Hackley School, located in Tarrytown, NY, no longer offers AP classes in English and History. While he could only speak to the elimination of the English APs (AP Literature & Composition and AP Language), English Department Chair Dr. Richard Robinson said that he was, and still is, concerned with the AP’s emphasis on speed because it discourages thoughtful close-reading and reflective writing. “The AP exam stresses skills that are about doing things quickly: you need to be able to read quickly, interpret literature quickly, and write quickly,” he said.
While Hackley has always strived to focus on sophisticated process-driven writing about literature, Robinson found that when students took the AP English exams, he was telling them to write simplistically; he said this was because the examiners would only spend 90 seconds reading an essay and would only look for fairly basic comprehension.
After 15 years of no English APs, he is content with the outcome. “The response has been all positive… I’ve never had a reason to doubt it,” he said.
The College Board offers APs in topics ranging from psychology to art history to macroeconomics; many students are studying to take AP exams regardless of whether or not their school offers the corresponding AP curriculum.
Masters senior Gabriela (Gabi) Seguinot self-studied for AP World History and AP United States Government and Politics, adding to her workload last year. Seguinot, who was disappointed that the school didn’t offer classes for these subjects, said that these APs are very much in line with what she hopes to study in college and would be beneficial for her undertaking of more challenging college courses. “Being someone who wants to get as deeply involved as possible, being able to gain that step up was important,” she said
Kelson, who was in AT Statistics at Scarsdale High School as a junior, chose to take the corresponding AP test and noted the many students in AT classes do the same–even seniors, despite already being accepted to college. According to Kelson, they are well prepared, as teachers offer review sessions frequently during second semester, when seniors are off doing internships (a program known as senior options).
At Hackley, Robinson said that he offers “test-strategy sessions” for students who desire to take the AP English exam; this allows them to become more familiar with the format and expectations of the test, first-hand from the department chair, who’s been at Hackley for 22 years.
Dennis fears that if Masters were to switch to a similar curriculum (without APs), there wouldn’t be a level playing field for students who desire further instruction. If they have to prepare themselves for the AP and they can’t afford tutoring, then suddenly that makes the divide between the wealthier and the less wealthy even starker. At least in an AP course they’d have a chance to be prepared.” — Michele Dennis
If they have to prepare themselves for the AP and they can’t afford tutoring, then suddenly that makes the divide between the wealthier and the less wealthy even starker. At least in an AP course they’d have a chance to be prepared.”
— Michele Dennis
An Oct. 2015 survey conducted by YouGov, a British research and data analytics firm, showed that 35 percent of parents are not paying for tutoring simply because it is too expensive. Of the people who are, 34 percent claimed to be doing so to help their children prepare for exams. This study suggests that socioeconomic status can potentially impact one’s ability to prepare for AP tests.
Understanding Reputation and the College Process
AP classes have long been perceived as the highest level of learning in high school; nevertheless, more and more schools have eliminated AP courses, thus raising questions about their value toward a reputable educational environment and in aiding students in the college process.
Junior Carly Grizzaffi said that some students enroll in AP classes simply to fill-up their transcripts in hopes of being admitted to highly competitive colleges.
A proponent for eliminating them, Schwartz believes that APs can put unnecessary stress on people who feel obligated to take them. “APs aren’t for everyone,” she said.
Grizzaffi also understands there is a downside from a health standpoint. “I haven’t been sleeping super well and I think anyone else taking APs can attest to the fact that they don’t get very much sleep,” she said.
Masters’ History & Religion Department looks beyond a student’s desire to take an AP course solely for the purpose of committing to a challenging curriculum. “We look for students who not only want to work really hard, but are also passionate about history,” Shapiro said.
Grizaffi sees both sides of the coin. Of course I felt pressure to take them, but I took courses that I felt passionate about and wanted to learn more.” — Carly Grizzaffi
Of course I felt pressure to take them, but I took courses that I felt passionate about and wanted to learn more.”
— Carly Grizzaffi
All students who desire to take APs at Masters must receive departmental approval (in the case of AP English, students must also take a timed essay test), and the school only permits students to take a maximum of three AP classes per year, unless they receive permission from the Dean of Students.
Choate Rosemary Hall (Choate), a preparatory boarding school in Wallingford, CT, has been “AP-free” since the 2017-2018 school year. Masters senior Zeynep Ozturk, who attended the school in the midst of the transition, said that students’ perceived motives for taking AP courses had a lot to do with the change. “What usually happens is people take them to look good for colleges and to have them on their résumé, but if you’re really passionate about a course and you’re sitting in a classroom with students who are not as passionate and are just there to get an ‘A’, it starts to become not as extensive and beneficial for learning,” she said.
Ozturk explained that the school switched to offering honors classes which required students to complete an extensive application process to be eligible for admission. In her honors English class at Choate, she noticed a big difference. “This time I actually felt like people wanted to be there,” she said.
The Ethical Culture Fieldston School (Fieldston), a private school located in Bronx, NY, did away with APs 20 years ago for a variety of reasons. An article from the Independent School magazine, written by Rachel Friis Stettler and Joseph Algrant, both of whom were at the center of the change, noted that it was justified and based on concerns similar to those raised by various Masters faculty members. “Over time, we came to the conclusion that the AP program at Fieldston was not only at odds with our educational and social purpose, but it lacked courses with multicultural content… it left little room for divergence. The AP courses encouraged teachers to cover a great breadth of material superficially… time for grappling with ideas and synthesizing knowledge was curtailed,” said the article, which was published in the Winter of 2003.
The switch was drastic, but applauded by many of the top universities nationwide. Fieldston’s current Assistant Principal and Director of Studies Robert Cairo feels that the school has actually gained a great deal. In the 18 years that I have been at Fieldston, it is clear to me that colleges are very comfortable with the decision that we made and that not having an AP program has not put our students at a disadvantage. In fact, it has been viewed positively because the colleges see us as a progressive school, know our program well, acknowledge that our junior-senior electives are college-level courses, and that our students are well prepared for the most competitive colleges.” — Robert Cairo
In the 18 years that I have been at Fieldston, it is clear to me that colleges are very comfortable with the decision that we made and that not having an AP program has not put our students at a disadvantage. In fact, it has been viewed positively because the colleges see us as a progressive school, know our program well, acknowledge that our junior-senior electives are college-level courses, and that our students are well prepared for the most competitive colleges.”
— Robert Cairo
Though Hackley’s decision to eliminate APs in English and History was lengthy and well-thought out, according to Robinson, it was made easier due to the fact that many top colleges, at the time, had made it more difficult to earn college credit for performing well on AP exams.
Shear believes that the financial benefits available to students who do well on APs were proving detrimental to colleges, which is why they are making it harder for students to take advantage. Sometimes, doing well in on an AP means a student is exempt from introductory college level courses. Because a student will have to take fewer classes, it can mean saving money, and graduating earlier. Shear said, “In college, you pay by credit hour. When they were granting APs, they [colleges] were actually admitting students who over the course of four years, were going to pay less money.” He continued, “Colleges got wise to this and have said that APs are important on your transcript, but they only give credits for certain ones or not at all. Basically, they want you to pay for the courses at the university, so they can make more money.”
According to Hackley junior Alex Crispi, the students still have some concerns with the lack of APs in English and History at Hackley, where AP classes are weighed more heavily. “When colleges calculate GPA, it won’t be as high because while some people are very capable of getting an ‘A’ in those [English and History AP] classes, they can’t get a 5.0–they’re stuck to a 4.0,” he said.
Crispi plans to self-study for both the APUSH and AP Language exams and noted that many students at Hackley do quite well on the English and History AP tests because of the fact that the curriculum, though not listed as “AP” or “Honors”, is still very difficult, he believes; however, not all Hackley students are thrilled with this.
Crispi said, “Some students are also upset because their English course is so hard. People who are not that excited about English would rather have a normal English course. There are two sides of the spectrum.”
Whether eliminating AP courses would advance or compromise Masters reputation for academic prestige is a question with which the school must wrestle. Junior Aiden Coleman, who is currently enrolled in four APs and is also a Gold Key tour guide, recalled that prospective families often inquire about the school’s AP curriculum. “It seems like something people are looking for in a school. I don’t know necessarily if they should be,” he said.
Envisioning Academic Identity:
While opinions on the role of Advanced Placement (AP) classes within the Masters curriculum vary, a revitalized discussion on the matter will have potential implications for students and faculty alike. The school’s Academic Committee, which consists of administrators, counseling faculty and department chairs, among others, is grappling with the subject “a little more closely,” considering the necessity, or lack thereof, for APs at Masters, though it is not clear what changes, if any, Masters will be making to its AP program.
The purpose of Masters’ Academic Committee is to engage academic leaders from all facets of the school in dialogue regarding important academic issues. Dean of Faculty Sam Savage, who is one of the co-chairs of the committee, explained its purpose. “It’s a place where people can bring ideas to discuss so that they can get a lot of different perspectives before making a decision. Sometimes the committee votes on things and they will either move forward or not based on committee vote,” he said.
Because Masters is a private institution, the school has the ability to shape the curriculum to align with their academic philosophy and mission.
Though they have only met for three hours thus far this year, Savage notes that the members have pondered over some essential questions. He recalled the basis of the conversation. What does it mean to have an advanced curriculum? We have the ability to teach anything, why this? Fundamentally it’s about what skills and content does our curriculum offer our students and do we have the best curriculum for our students at this time?” — Sam Savage
What does it mean to have an advanced curriculum? We have the ability to teach anything, why this? Fundamentally it’s about what skills and content does our curriculum offer our students and do we have the best curriculum for our students at this time?”
— Sam Savage
The talk of potential change is ongoing and Savage explained that this is commonplace at private schools. “For the last 18 years, every school I’ve been at has been having this conversation. Everyone’s always doing this,” he said.
Masters has been around for almost 150 years and the school’s identity is always developing, so determining the intentions of school can be quite difficult, hence the continued conversation.
Though the committee is still in the early stages, Savage hopes that by the Spring the school will have more clarity on the AP curriculum; however, with the possibility of change lurking, he explained that there will be no immediate alterations. “It [not offering APs next year] is not on the table,” he said.
Shear recalled the school’s mission statement and believes that Masters should be fully committed to whatever decision is made with regard to APs. “Either we go all-in on APs and change our ethos, or we get rid of them and stick to our current ethos,” he said.
Editorial Note: While the AP curriculum discussion is one that directly impacts both the admissions and the college counseling offices, neither director was available for interview prior to publication.