School removes AP courses for incoming freshman class

Caroline Goldenberg, Staff Writer

As a new class of ninth graders enters the Upper Division for the 2018-2019 school year, a new change comes with them. The school is preparing to transition to a system with no advanced placement (AP) courses offered for these incoming freshmen, who make up the Class of 2022, and for classes of students who will follow. 

Although the change will be implemented beginning with the Class of 2022, the consideration of removing APs from the school’s course selection has been in the works for the last eight to ten years, and more actively for the last four, Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. 

“There has been a growing, clear dissatisfaction with the AP program among the faculty,” Levenstein said. “It’s been an open understanding that we think the school would be better without being tied to the AP program.” 

During the 2016-2017 school year, the year before Levenstein became Head of the Upper Division, she took part in more concrete discussions with Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly and Canh Oxelson, Executive Director of College Counseling, about such a change, she said. 

Levenstein knew heading into her first year as Head of the Upper Division that the future removal of APs would be her top priority to tackle, she said. 

A number of factors contributed to the decision, including the constraints of AP curriculums. 

“The most important thing for me is that, in the end, it felt like the AP program, for all its strengths, was holding us back from our potential as a school. We know that our faculty are unparalleled, and that they can construct courses that would be as challenging and rigorous, but could be more innovative, more responsive to student interest, and allow for deeper inquiry,” Levenstein said. “I wanted to make sure the faculty had the chance to develop those courses.” 

While Edith Herwitz ’16 believes the discontinuation of the AP system will allow more room for students to take courses they are particularly interested in, her experience with the AP system was positive, she said. 

Herwitz felt that the learning of topics she especially experienced in her AP US History and AP Modern European History courses “enhanced her understanding of the material,” and allowed for exploration, while also preparing her for her AP exams at the same time, she said. 

According to an information packet of frequently asked questions distributed to members of the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees, the curriculum in some of the new upper level courses may resemble those of APs that they replace, but will allow students to grow in their academic learning more effectively than advanced placement classes, which focus heavily on the test taken at the end of the year. 

While students will still hold a strong academic foundation, the elimination of APs will allow for both students and teachers to be more interested and engaged, Oxelson said. 

Foreign Language Teacher Michael Dalo enjoys teaching both AP and non-AP courses, but believes that foreign language AP classes allow more freedom in terms of curriculum rather than other AP courses, he said. 

As the elimination of AP courses approaches, science teacher Dr. Megan Reesbeck looks forward to having more time to freely discuss topics that are not necessarily tested on AP exams, as well as assign projects during which students can explore scientific literacy, presentations, and self-initiated work, she said. 

Govind Menon (12) believes that the replacement of AP courses with honors courses at the advanced placement level will allow teachers to have more freedom with courses and curriculums, he said. 

“Students can often sense the tension that their teachers are feeling between wanting to honor the questions in the room, or the interest in the room, and wanting to prepare students for a test that’s not set by the school. Teachers are constantly trying to navigate that tension,” Levenstein said. 

The packet also noted that the upper level courses that replace APs will have requirements that differ by department, but “in many cases past performance and department approval will continue to be prerequisites to ensure that students in these courses have the skills necessary to thrive in class.” 

Other factors noted in the frequently asked questions section included the pressure on students to choose AP courses over other classes that might align better with their interests, as well as the interruption to the academic curriculum during the two-week AP testing period and the decreased availability for teachers proctoring these exams to meet with students during this time. 

Josie Alexander (12) remembers feeling more inclined to sign up for AP courses due to the fact that colleges look for academic rigor on transcripts, she said. 

“For sure, APs have affected how I’ve chosen my schedule,” Menon said. “I remember, I did summer physics because I wanted to be able to take an AP science my junior year.” 

“I definitely think there was pressure on my part as I was choosing my senior year schedule – that was definitely on my mind. Who knows what my schedule would have been if that wasn’t a thought?” Chloe Bown (12) said. 

By the summer before the 2017-2018 school year began, the administration had put together a package of material to present to the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees and had requested that teachers begin outlining possibilities of courses that could replace APs, Levenstein said. 

Beginning in the fall of 2017, the administration began to mention to prospective families at open houses that the school would possibly be discontinuing the AP program, and as the year went on, it became more and more likely that this change would be implemented, Levenstein said. 

Many other schools around the nation have already dropped the AP curriculum, including Dalton, Fieldston, Spence, Nightingale- Bamford, Packer-Collegiate, Riverdale, Choate Rosemary Hall, Concord Academy, Germantown Friends, the Lawrenceville School, and Philips Exeter Academy. According to the packet, independent schools that are several years ahead in the removal of APs have reported no effects on admission results at selective colleges due to this change. 

Levenstein believes the discontinuation of APs to be more effective for the college process, as unique transcripts that reflect the true interests of students could make a bigger impression on universities, she said. 

Further, selective colleges have been growing less interested in exempting students from courses due to AP credit, Levenstein said. 

“We surveyed over 50 colleges and universities that are very well-known to HM students and asked them for their opinion on the proposed change and for any advice they might offer,” Oxelson said. 

The packet adds that placement exams in place of AP credit are either required or available, and more universities do not allow AP scores to replace placement exams. 

Iva Knezevic, a sophomore at Ethical Culture Fieldston School, enjoys that the non-AP system there allows for “teachers to teach the curriculum they want to teach.” Not having APs, however, does limit the number of scores students can submit on college applications, Knezevic said. 

Anabel Henick (12), however, wonders if the discontinuation of AP courses in combination with the recent elimination of final exams may alter students’ readiness for exams in college, she said. 

“Studying for APs is good preparation for studying for midterms in college,” Henick said. 

Oxelson believes that the move away from AP courses will allow students to be even better prepared for higher education, as students will gain more genuine interest in what they are studying, allowing them to be enthusiastic about and prepared for college courses, he said. 

The change will also extend the time period of teaching and learning to be extended by at least five weeks, as AP exams will not be administered, nor would review weeks be necessary, Levenstein said. Levenstein believes that this extension of teaching will increase motivation and interest in classes that has often been lost after AP exams, she said. 

For Dalia Pustilnik (8), a member of the Class of 2022, the change is not much of a concern. “The way we’ve heard it from other students, it sounds like APs are more centered around the test,” Pustilnik said. “I think replacing them with other advanced classes is better” because it allows for more exploration of the course, she said. 

“I really like learning for the sake of learning, and I have a lot of opportunities to do that at Horace Mann, but it is limited in AP classes,” Henick said.