Every year, thousands of determined high school students enroll in Advanced Placement-level courses, arguably the most challenging courses in the school. At Belmont Hill, many students choose an AP class simply because it is the most difficult; unlike many other schools, especially larger and/or public schools, there are no honors-level classes for subjects such as history, science, and some languages – only regular and AP. Although some students hope to test their academic skills, often times they choose an AP course hoping for a “5” on the exam, which will look good to colleges and exempt them from some college classes. Ironically, more and more colleges, such as Columbia and Brown, no longer accept any AP scores as a means of testing out of a class, understanding that an impressive exam grade does not necessarily reflect a student’s talents in the subject.
As students cram shallow, bulk learning over the course of a year for a prescribed exam, they force themselves to ephemerally learn as much as possible; as soon as the exam is over, the relieved students often forget the material which they had spent the year learning. A recent Dartmouth study revealed that 90% of 100+ high school seniors who scored a 5 on the AP Psych exam, expecting to be exempted from the college course, failed an entry-level, AP-style Psych exam the following fall.
Since each and every student who participates in these rigorous classes is subject to identical syllabi and exams, teachers across the country are limited in what they can teach. Educators, feeling a growing strain to assure that they do not stray too far from the set material, must curtail fruitful class discussions to adhere to the course guidelines. In addition, the College Board changes the AP syllabus often, further restricting teachers in what they can explore in the classroom, and forcing them to spend precious time adapting to the whole new curriculum and exam.
Yet another issue presents itself in the form of Belmont Hill-offered AP classes; the school is only able to offer a fraction of the AP courses that are available every year. Although this may be due to the size of the school or other factors, students are limited to choose from only the most essential AP classes, such as chemistry, European and U.S. history, and BC calculus. The school, moreover, has not yet deeply committed itself to the AP curricula due to the small number of APs offered, allowing for a fairly easy and smooth transition to an AP-free curriculum. Indeed, some of the original schools to adopt AP’s, such as Andover and Exeter, have questioned the reliability of the system; Exeter and Pomfret School have recently decided to completely drop AP’s, while Andover is only retaining a select few.
Clearly there are drawbacks to AP courses that outnumber the benefits. With these considerations, Belmont Hill should consider dropping most or all APs in favor of a BH-specialized, flexible, and equally rigorous level of courses.
Last year, over two million students took at least one AP course and exam, including more than fifty thousand Massachusetts high schoolers. AP tests widely consist of highly regulated courses with uniform curricula throughout the United States. These standardized exams provide a completely unbiased way of comparing the achievement of students in a given subject. For example, last year over two hundred thousand students from across America took AP Biology, an offered class for sophomores at Belmont Hill. Of these national students, just fourteen thousand (6.6%) achieved a top score of a 5, clearly separating the standout students, giving an easily interpretable statistic to colleges considering a potential applicant.
Another example occurs in Calculus BC, an AP usually taken by Belmont Hill seniors, which over a hundred thousand high school students from across the country take each year. In this exam, nearly 50% of the students who took the test last year achieved a 5, and about 65% achieved a 4 or a 5. Although a 5 in this subject may not be as outlying or statistically impressive as a top mark in an exam with lower standouts, the standardized format of the class ensures that the large number of students who did earn a 5 have a high level of understanding of Calculus sufficient to excel in the subject in college.
The challenge for schools that decide to do away with the AP system is establishing the same value and reputation for an advanced course as defined by the school. Although a school like Belmont Hill has built a high level of trust with elite colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, a shift from the AP system to what Belmont Hill defines as “advanced courses” would necessitate a significant amount of evidence in order to prove that the classes offered truly match or exceed the difficulty of an AP Exam. The ease of comparison provided by AP exams, as well as the assured difficulty of the tests, make the AP system superior to other options.