Tuesday, Jun 25th

As College Admissions Grow Even More Challenging, District Affirms Support For AT Program

ProfileAfter much research and careful consideration, in 2007 Scarsdale High School joined elite, independent schools like Hotchkiss and Fieldstone in a pivot away from Advanced Placement (AP) classes for their students. Instead of AP classes that follow a rigid and prescribed curriculum to prepare students to take a universal standardized test, Scarsdale opted to provide students with equally rigorous and accelerated learning, but through a curriculum that can be tailored to the student’s passions and interests and is designed to meet students needs.

The Scarsdale District asserts that offering Advanced Topic (AT) classes instead of traditional AP classes offers students a more flexible curriculum that promotes a student’s ability to dive deeper into the subject matter and for teachers to customize the learning to include current events. Though the District maintains that AT classes are in line with the District's values and their goals of helping to develop the whole child, some parents and students have concerns about the limitations of the AT program as it pertains to applying to college and the ability to obtain college credit for advanced classes taken in high school.

Since its inception, Scarsdale has continually reviewed the AT program, with tools such as annual surveys to solicit feedback from teachers and students alike, to ensure they are supporting students in the best way possible. But after a dozen years, the District initiated a more comprehensive self-study of the AT program, which included a visit from the Tri State Consortium, to assess its impact and effectiveness. At the Board of Education Meeting on Monday May 22, the district presented the findings of this review in their special education report.

Superintendent Drew Patrick began the presentation by extending his gratitude to all those who participated in the Education Report including SHS principal Ken Bonamo, administrators, teachers, students and alumni. He then described how when the BOE first adopted the resolution to implement the AT Program, they committed to a “course of study that reinforces a commitment to cultivate higher order thinking and otherwise prepares students for an interdependent world, promotes lives of contribution, and encourages a love of learning. The course expectations should be consistent with those that students will have to meet in the first year of college and beyond as well as with the Board's long standing commitment to provide a deep and rich education.” Central to the initial implementation of the AT program was assurances from prestigious college professors and admissions personnel that AT classes would be considered as high caliber learning and would be clearly recognized in the college admission process.

Dr. Patrick went on to explain that the resolution included an important compromise: The AP program removed the requirement for students to take course specific AP tests and exams but they did guarantee the opportunity to do so to any student looking to exercise it. Dr. Patrick sees this compromise as a careful balance of risk where, on the one hand, Scarsdale students take part in challenging courses truly reflective of college level thinking and on the other hand, the potential benefits of achieving on AP exams would still be preserved.

Though at the conclusion of the review, Dr. Patrick believes there is more evidence today to recommend the AT approach than even in 2007, he recognizes that some parents and students in the community might have questions and concerns. He hoped that the night’s presentation and the resulting conversation with BOE members, would serve as an informative platform and hopefully help provide some answers.

Next, SHS Principal Mr. Ken Bonamo went into further detail about the AT program and described how the academic departments develop their courses. He began by stating that the “objective of the AT program is to stretch students to their full capacity through an education that is powerful, distinct, and rewarding”. To attain this objective, the academic departments develop the AT courses in consultation with a visiting community of college and university professors in each subject matter which allows the departments to assess their own efforts and validate course quality. The departments also use established protocols to measure and to ensure academic achievement and that students meet expectations that are typical of those at highly competitive colleges.

Mr. Bonamo also outlined that AT courses emphasize independent work, deep exploration, close reading, developed writing, and complex thinking especially in the ability to analyze, synthesize, and to think originally which all aligns with the District’s Profile of an SHS graduate.

Superintendent of Curriculum Dr. Edgar McIntosh then talked about the dangers of teaching to a test that have been described by researchers and scholars for decades and cited a recent book by Annie Abrhams, “Short Changed” in which the author focuses on the deficits of Advanced Placement Exams. There is strong agreement in the field that focusing on fixed material that may be out of context or irrelevant by the time it is taught in the classroom, does not lead to best learning outcomes for students. He also explained that while standardized tests can give a snapshot of curriculum coverage, they are unable to assess and reflect on a student’s power skills such as flexibility, creativity, tenacity, collaboration, empathy, entrepreneurship, and so much more.

Instead of teaching to a standardized test, Dr. McIntosh maintains that it is important to prepare students for global competencies and quoted Harvard professor Veronica Mansilla who wrote, “Global competent individuals are aware, curious, and interested in learning about the world and how it works. They can use the big ideas, tools, methods, and languages that are central to any discipline (mathematics, literature, history, science and the arts) to engage the pressing issues of our time. Foundational to global competence ethics is an egalitarian model that deeply appreciates diversity and human dignity and prioritizes the common good.”

Mr. Bonamo went on to discuss the ways in which the AT program has changed and evolved and outlined many of the current AT course offerings including:

Art 2D, Art 3D, Art History, Constitutional Law**, International Relations**, Macroeconomics, Psychology, U.S. Government, U.S. History, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Computer Science, Entrepreneurship**, Linear Algebra**, Statistics, English, Music Theory, French, Mandarin, Spanish Language, Spanish Literature**.

He also made clear that around three quarters of students take at least one AT course by the time they graduate as opposed to only two thirds of students who took AP courses before the program began, which is due in part to the development of the new AT courses. Mr. Bonamo also explained that there has been a moderate diminishment in students electing to take AP exams with the exception of mathematics.

The District continuously solicits feedback from their alumni in regards to their experience in the AT program. Recent graduate and current Harvard student, Michael Waxman was present at the BOE meeting to provide his feedback in person. Mr. Waxman described how the five AT classes he took at SHS, thoroughly prepared him for the rigorous courses at Harvard where he studies Government, Environmental Sciences, and Chinese. As an example, Mr. Waxman illustrated how he continues to use the techniques and unique ways of thinking he learned in his AT classes when writing research papers at the college level. He described a full length research paper he wrote in his junior year at SHS where he was able to choose the topic and design the research process. He asserts that he was able to dive deeply into the topic out of pure interest because he had the flexibility to decide what he wanted to learn about. He also maintains that the independence in study and figuring out what interested him, was amazing preparation for college. Mr. Waxman further elaborated on how the AT classes he took helped spark a greater involvement with his community and become a more engaged community member.

Janet Johnson, teacher of Art 2D, then took the podium to speak about her AT art classes. Ms. Johnson delightedly spoke about the honor of being able to teach art in a manner that creates effective learners and not just efficient ones. She lauded the flexibility of the AT program that allows her to teach students how to see and think like artists and not just become skilled craftsmen. She explained the flexible framework also helps her students to be more creative, dive deeper, and to take more risks.

Next, World Language Chair Mary Leech spoke about her appreciation that the AT program allows her students to use authentic learning materials such as poetry, stories, and film, and permits the teachers to prioritize a student’s voice and choice. Ms. Leech also described the interdisciplinary work in the AT language program and showed some samples of the comprehensive portfolios that students have completed as a form of assessment in their AT classes.

Current AT Spanish student Amanda Nudelman was also present for the report to provide her perspective on the benefits of the AT Spanish class. During her presentation, Ms. Nudelman discussed how her work on her impressive final research project and portfolio was impactful because she had the freedom to do her own research on a topic that was of great interest to her. She also contended that the AT class encouraged her to be an active part in her education and to be an informed global citizen. Details of Ms. Nudelman’s final project can be found in the presentation slides.

Social Studies Chair Jennifer Maxwell spoke about the role Advanced Topics plays in Social Studies. Ms. Maxwell started by emphasizing how the AT program allows the department to take advantage of teachers' particular knowledge base and to meet students where they are and meet the interests of this particular community. She also credited the flexibility of the program in allowing for more creativity and to speak to the issues that students want to learn about. Ms. Maxwell went on to describe how the AT Psychology course goes far beyond the Intro to Psych curriculum and allows students to become researchers themselves. It gives students an opportunity to have a deep, authentic learning experience that many students in this country do not have access to. To add to this, AT Macroeconomics teacher Christopher Paulison provided a comprehensive look into how the AT program benefits students in his and his colleagues' Macroeconomics classes.

Mr. Bonamo then explained that in response to the program review, the District:

● Facilitated summer and committee work
● Conducted research with colleges
● Revised program description
● Implemented a triennial curriculum review

Director of Counseling at SHS, Oren Iosepovici, gave voice to the work he did with college representatives in connection to the review. Mr. Iosepovici began by noting that every year, 150 to 200 admissions representatives visit SHS in the fall and the spring. In 2021, the District surveyed them regarding the AT program and asked questions regarding its impact on the admission process. Over 100 institutions responded and their results can be found in the link in the slide. The slide also relates that:

● Admissions offices evaluate applicants within the context of their school. (And not having AP courses does not put our students at a disadvantage).
● Colleges recognize our curriculum and that our students are well prepared for the rigors of their institution. Our school profile provides additional insight, and is included with every application.
● Deans are in constant contact through various means with colleagues on the admissions side regarding our program and practices.

Mr. Iosepovici also shared a quote from admissions colleagues at the University of Chicago who communicated, “It is so wonderful that Scarsdale focuses on this enriching curriculum and is doing what's best for its students.”

Mr. Bonamo further explained that during the summer work, AT teachers collaborated on revising the program description which now reflects the program’s evolution and current educational goals. The revised program description, which can also be found in the slides, includes:

● The AT program's objective is to stretch students to their full capacities so that they can attain a higher degree of independence, enthusiasm, and resilience in the subject area.
● Pedagogical approaches in these courses encourage student collaboration and exploration, while covering concepts and habits of mind specific to each discipline.
● Students are expected to construct meaning from authentic sources, explore interdisciplinary connections, and develop sophisticated approaches to the discipline.
● Academic departments develop and review AT courses in consultation with visiting college and university professors in each subject.
● AT courses help prepare students for Advanced Placement examinations where they align with the content of AP courses.

After the presentation, the BOE took the opportunity to ask questions and to share their thoughts and concerns about the AT program and its recent review. Some of the highlights of that discussion include:

Ron Schulhof expressed his concern about the mental health of students and the college application process. He worries that if some students deem it necessary to take the AP exams, whether for college acceptance or for placement out of certain college courses, that having to take the AP exams on top of completing all of the work in an AT class can add stress and unwanted pressure for the student.

Mr. Bonamo responded by acknowledging that the college admission landscape is changing very rapidly and very dramatically and that parental concerns are not undue. The quick move away from SAT scores in the application process is a transformational shift that changes the game in a profound way, which has people naturally grasping at whatever leverage they think they might need. While it may be true that AP courses will help in a narrow set of circumstances, he hopes that parents will remember the feedback provided by college admissions directors and consider the District’s “Portrait of a SHS Graduate” and the best path to attain these aspirations. He also believes it is key to separate the ideas of the kind of education they are trying to provide and how they prepare students for the college admissions process. Mr. Iosepovici added that the AT program allows the deans to work closely with the students and to evaluate whether or not they need to take an AP exam and to support them through that process.

James Dugan spoke next and shared his concern that (especially because the college admission process is changing so rapidly) AP programs in other highly regarded schools are not going away any time soon. He also believes that a strong interest in taking the AP exams at SHS will remain and wonders how the high school plans to address that need. He further articulated his concern that AT classes at SHS are difficult to get into with a stringent process not seen in other schools who offer AP classes.

Again Mr. Bonamo expressed recognition that there is a real interest in AP exams in our community and referred back to statements made by Dr. Patrick earlier in the presentation where he described a compromise made during the implementation of the AT program. The compromise allows for our district to pursue our goals and visions for our students, while also maintaining some alignment with the AP exam (in addition to providing tutoring hours) so when students want to take the test, the support is there. He went on to say that the contacts that our deans have with colleges are long-standing and deeper than you would find at a typical school and we are constantly informed of their feedback. If that were to change, Mr. Bonamo maintains that the school would respond in kind and be transparent about the feedback.

Suzie Hahn Pascutti spoke about her appreciation of the presentation to demonstrate why giving teachers and students agency is so important and how fundamentally different it is from the AP program. She feels that what is being done at the high school defines Scarsdale and something to be really proud of. She also appreciates that there is flexibility to pivot the curriculum to respond to current events. Ms. Pascutti also wonders if there is room for more student feedback in regard to taking the AP exam (why they didn’t take it/if they did take it, did they feel prepared/Did they have to do a lot of outside work to prepare?). Mr. Bonamo saw the value in Ms. Pascutti’s suggestion and would like to incorporate that sort of feedback into the AT program.

Jessica Resnick-Ault also expressed her concern with student’s mental health and well-being and wanted to make sure that they don’t feel pressure to sit for another test on top of all of their already heavy course load.

Robert Klein shared that he feels incredibly positive about the AT program but sees the need to regularly share updates and accurate information about the program and what the current situation is.

Colleen Brown communicated that she agrees that the AT program supports our Profile of a SHS Graduate but she is concerned that some students can’t get into the classes and also wonders how the students who choose to take the AP exams are supported by their teachers.

Mr. Bonamo expressed that when AT teachers prepare curriculum they do so with the AP exam in mind. Additionally, for every course that has a corresponding AP exam, the teachers offer five hours of test prep outside of class time especially where the information is not provided in class explicitly. What’s more, teachers will offer exam prep time during the day and in the evening hours to accommodate everyone’s schedules.

During the Public Comment Period Kate DiLorenzo expressed that she greatly appreciated the comprehensive presentation and that it addressed many of her questions and concerns. She went on to suggest that there seems to be a false dichotomy being set up between AT versus AP classes, where only AT offers rich, in-depth learning and AP only teaches to a standardized test. Ms. DiLorenzo conveyed that when she went to SHS and took AP classes she was very much engaged in critical thinking and deep exploration that instilled a love for learning. She also appreciates that the AP curriculum was developed by a group of experts and that it has accountability to some standards.

Claire Paquin also spoke of the AP classes she took at SHS and agreed that they provided all the hallmarks of the AT program within the AP structure. In addition to the incredible education she received, Ms. Paquin felt that she had more time to pursue passions outside of school such as sports, charitable work, and religious studies because she didn’t need to study and prep for the AP exam in her own time.

This article provides a shortened version of the presentation and the discussion that ensued. To watch the program in its entirety please visit the District website or click here. To see a copy of the slides from the presentation click here.

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