AP’s – Here to Stay?

By Simon Hoke

For a number of years at Manlius Pebble Hill, teachers and administrators have been considering the pros and cons of offering Advanced Placement (AP) classes. The classes offer a clear selling point to families looking to enroll their children in the best schools. Not every public school can boast AP’s, so simply offering these classes at MPH differentiates us. MPH has experienced, skilled teachers and engaged students, all of whom make the AP courses a diverse set of learning experiences. Furthermore, the AP exams themselves are appealing to potential MPH students as they provide a score that is applicable on a national scale, giving these students the opportunity to compare themselves to kids all over the country.

Yet, MPH has always identified itself as uncommon. Independent schools are few and far between in the Greater Syracuse area, and rigorous public schools such as Fayetteville-Manlius and Jamesville-DeWitt give MPH strong competition. When we offer AP classes structured around a uniform curriculum set by the College Board, we run the risk of deviating from the unique character and style of learning that make the MPH learning experience such a rich one.

Former MPH student Autumn Kerr decided not to take the AP English Literature test last year despite taking the class, and she developed a clear understanding of the recent issues surrounding AP’s.

“From my experience, students are so focused on what’s going to help them get a good score on the AP exam that the actual curriculum seems like it’s just going over their heads,” said Kerr. While she is certainly in the minority nationally, having taken an AP class but opting out of the exam, the number of students like Autumn who decide not to take AP tests or, furthermore, enroll in the classes is bound to increase as the dialogue surrounding the drawbacks of APs becomes more prevalent. At the same time, though, students who hadn’t previously had the opportunity to take an AP class are now being given that chance and taking it.

The College Board originally designed AP classes to be taken by only the very best students, but according to the College Board, about 38 percent of students in the class of 2017 throughout America took at least one AP class in high school. With this number so high, the idea that only excellent students enroll in AP classes has been refuted by AP critics. Furthermore, AP’s are no longer offered at only the best schools. While a select few of the most rigorous independent schools have dropped AP courses, the number of independent schools who offer AP’s has risen by 33% since 2014, according to the Washington Post. The expansion of AP curricula and tests is not necessarily either a positive or negative trend, but for the students of the independent schools who have recently began to offer AP’s, the courses will generally bring improvement in education as AP’s come with an audited, universal quality of education. Yet, the trend also suggests that the AP label might not carry as much weight as it once did, and that colleges are less likely to value these courses on a transcript with as much esteem as they once did.

Students at MPH have begun to come to this conclusion.

“If you take all these AP classes in all different subjects, most of them aren’t going to help much in college, and it would’ve looked better for you to get a better grade in a less intensive class,” said Ezra Hanlin ‘20.

Towards the end of the school year, students’ workload and stress levels tend to increase in tandem. The AP exams are always an instigator of stress for MPH students, and MPH alumna Maggie Carmen ‘17, who now attends Hamilton College, believes that this stress can come from the emphasis placed on the AP exams by the organization of the classes.

“I absolutely think the AP classes should not revolve around the exam because that emphasizes the importance of the exam score rather than the material,” said Carmen. “If the classes were structured the same but without the added stress of getting a 4 or a 5, they would be much more beneficial in terms of preparing students for a college-level course.”

Carmen gets at a key issue with AP’s. The classes being organized for and about the test is a stressor and is a hindrance to learning the material separate from the test, which most people would say is the goal of an education. One of the most appealing facets of MPH for prospective families is the absence of New York State standardized testing. When such a focus is placed on the AP exams, MPH blends in with seven or eight other schools in Syracuse that place the same emphasis on the AP exams.

Carmen did add, though, that there was a clear distinction between the AP courses she thought were worthwhile and the ones she didn’t enjoy as much.

“When the focus of the course wasn’t the AP exam but rather the material and high workload, the AP courses actually resembled some of my college seminar classes,” said Carmen. She believes that AP classes, when done right, are one of the best facets of an MPH education. There’s a fine line between AP classes being effective and being nonfunctional, but students still value what AP’s bring to an MPH education.

Recent critics of AP’s believe that many AP class curricula cover too broad a span of content in too short a time period. Most college classes, however, comprise less total material but consider much more detailed aspects of each topic they do cover, and the difference between the two is not ideal because AP classes are designed to mimic college classes.

MPH college counselor Will Cardamone believes that this structure and time constraint in the AP classes is an issue.

“Teachers don’t have time to let students explore, particularly, I’d say, in something like a history class where there are current events that might be very useful to discuss, but the teacher can’t afford time to talk about those things because they have to get through all of the material, ” said Mr. Cardamone.

The most common objection to AP classes by teachers, especially from humanities teachers, was that the class structure is very limiting in that it doesn’t allow for much exploration.

“It’s been very difficult because my tendency is to not necessarily follow a curriculum that causes rigidity,” said AP US History teacher Matt Twomey-Smith. “The exploration of American history, to me, is something that should be based on query and insight into what’s going on today framed by the history of America.” Twomey-Smith is of the opinion that the external curriculum doesn’t fit with the content he teaches, while other teachers are of the opposite opinion. The difference between the two schools of thought has been a major obstacle for MPH to reach consensus on the value of AP’s at our school.

This debate has risen in the past, and it leads to an even more consequential idea. Mr. Cardamone has been struggling for the 12 years he’s been at MPH with this question: Could MPH drop AP’s partially or entirely while maintaining our enrollment levels?

When faced with the issue, MPH AP English Literature teacher William Preston said, “The issue, as it often is in education, especially at a school that relies on people who are coming not because it’s their neighborhood school, would be how do we explain and market such a change? I think colleges would be persuaded by a compelling non-AP curriculum, but I think parents would be harder to persuade.” The most pressing concern when considering scenarios where MPH would drop AP’s seems to be financial. In the last few years, stories of Washington, D.C. and New York independent schools very publicly disposing of AP’s have made headlines.  These schools, though, had substantial financial resources that allowed them to take the enrollment risk that might accompany dropping AP’s.

While the School has not made any official statements about the possibility of doing away with AP classes, the idea has been on the administration’s radar. With a new Head of School and other changes in leadership at MPH this year, significant change in the school is possible. Fortunately, as with any issue, if students create a dialogue surrounding it, the administration is bound to listen.AP Story Photo