Shortly after my post last week about whether students taking AP courses should be required to take AP exams, I received a thoughtful e-mail response (much more thoughtful than my post, in fact) from Susan Tree at Westtown School outside Philadelphia. Susan is someone whose opinion I respect greatly, and I asked her if she would allow me to publish her response. It is below, followed by a couple of closing thoughts.
I enjoy reading your blogs! Usually, I agree with your insights and feel your pain, but I have to express a contrary opinion on this one! I acknowledge up front that the value of AP courses and exams vary regionally.... in the greater Philadelphia area, the majority of independent schools have dropped the AP designation because it became clear that the value in the college admission process was negligible and it wasn't allowing our curriculum to evolve in this "new" century. And it certainly wasn't helping our high end students differentiate themselves in the applicant pools of selective colleges! Our faculty (after a lot of research including dialoging with professors of first year courses at colleges, from the Ivies to research universities to small liberal arts colleges) knew they could design courses that were more advanced, more 21st Century, and simply better than the AP curriculum.
Our college list is as strong as ever (actually stronger, from my perspective) as a result and we have been able to introduce some exciting, rigorous, advanced course work that takes our students to a higher level of college preparation. Colleges love it. Our kids stand out more in their applicant pools.
When we still had the AP designation on courses, we never required students to sit for the exam, believing that the value of taking a rigorous course is in taking the course, not taking the test. We didn't have trouble with kids slacking since these courses were well taught and kids were in it for the learning experience. Things haven't changed.
So I appreciate your perspective but it's simply not our experience that AP has gained in value in the college admissions process except at "the nation's weak and failing schools" (to quote George Bush and Gaston Caperton when the audit debuted) which truthfully, are the target audience for the whole AP program. Maybe AP is the gold standard... especially for schools that are under-resourced and whose teachers need a curriculum. I guess there are "platinum" standards too, especially for independent schools charging big bucks. We know that people in greater Philadelphia can go to good public schools and take all the AP courses they want - and many of those kids don't get in to the colleges our students get in to. Parents pay for the "value added", which is what we work hard to articulate, market, and deliver. Lots of student research, collaborative work, action based learning, interdisciplinary work, deep dives...
I think that colleges take each school at face value - and look for whatever it is that they value in an applicant (and what their professors want in their classrooms!). You and I know that applicants are judged in their own unique context. As the 21st Century continues to unfold, I think that AP will move out of well-resourced schools into schools that need to rachet up their teaching and curriculum. Expensive schools like ours will likely be looking at international curricula (and not just IB), research skill development, and interdisciplinary models... and other skills all the 21st Century research points to as critical for this generation. It's exciting.
This is ironic giving that I am proctoring the AP Comp Sci exam this morning! As long as we enroll international students, we will be giving AP exams... A few years ago at NACAC (ten, maybe!) I was on a panel called, "To AP or Not AP, That is the Question". Small world!
Best to you.
Susan K. Tree
Westtown School, PA
And a couple of thoughts:
1) I appreciate Susan’s perspective and her willingness to share it. My goal in blogging is to stimulate discussion about the ethical issues related to college admission, and I will be the first to admit that I am much better at asking questions than I am at providing answers (my philosophical background at work).
2) As I was writing the post I had the uneasy sense that I was defending the College Board far more than I planned when I started writing, but while writing the post I somehow convinced myself that when you call a course an AP course, your default position should be that students will take the exam unless there are compelling reasons not to. I am less certain about that than I once was, and Susan’s reflection on Westtown’s experience makes me even less so, but that’s still my default position.
3) I hope I didn’t come across as arguing that the AP program is the “gold standard” when it comes to curriculum. What I was trying to suggest is that the justification for the AP program has changed from college credit to curriculum rigor, and I expect that to increase under David Coleman as the College Board moves to position itself as the leader in assessing the Common Core. I work in a traditional independent school where the faculty generally likes both AP courses and AP exams, and yet my own sympathies lie with those schools that have moved away from the AP brand in order to design courses that engage students and require them to think deeply. I suspect Susan is right that a number of good, wealthy school will become “post-AP” in their curricula to better provide the skills our graduates will need in the 21st century world.
4) Susan may be right that the appeal of AP varies depending on geography. Unlike Philadelphia, the independent schools in Richmond continue to be committed to AP, and yet I have joked with colleagues from other schools that the commitment is for marketing rather than philosophical or educational reasons. Each school is hesitant to drop AP because of perceived marketing disadvantages, and it would probably require the independent school equivalent of the Camp David Accords to achieve AP disarmament.
5) I apologize for inadvertently borrowing a title from an old NACAC conference session. It proves once again that I am neither as clever nor as original as I would like to think.
I am doing a presentation this weekend on “Surviving the College Admissions Process—and Enjoying It” at the Community Conversation on Teen Stress: Fostering Wellness and Resiliency sponsored by the Superintendent of Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia. If any of you have thoughts on that topics, feel free to share.
On a lighter note, ECA hit two milestones last week. The blog received its 12000th view, something I would never have dreamed of when I started writing, and more significantly, received its first view from the last state we were missing, North Dakota. According to ClustrMaps, we’ve had readers from 63 other countries, but I’m skeptical about how many of them were actually interested in the ethics of college admissions. Thanks to everyone who reads and comments either publicly or privately on the blog.