Saturday, Aug 13th

AT vs. AP: What Best Serves Scarsdale Students?

cornellDespite the findings of a group of outside consultants who found that Scarsdale’s AT (Advanced Topics) curriculum was meeting its objectives, some parents are questioning whether the program best serves Scarsdale students.

As background, during the 2007-2008 school year, the district replaced the Advanced Placement (AP) courses with AT courses, that are designed by Scarsdale teachers. The decision freed SHS teachers from following a proscribed curriculum to prepare for Advance Placement tests at the end of the school year. An objective of the shift was to “promote critical and creative thinking, creativity, and deep learning.”

The implementation of the AT program was not originally intended to preclude students from sitting for AP exams. Reviewing the program in a report dated February 16-18, 2022,  the Tri-State Consortium report says, “The teachers of AT courses would discuss with students’ ways to prepare for Advanced Placement examinations, should they wish to sit for them. Practice AP exams would be provided to students throughout the year. AT students would meet with their guidance counselors to discuss the ramifications of taking or declining to take the AP exams.”

However, the report also notes that since the implementation of the AT program there has been a decline in the number of Scarsdale students taking AP tests. It says, “It should be noted that over the past fifteen years, the district has experienced a diminishing level of participation in AP exams, with the exception of mathematics, where there has been an increase in performance."

After assessing the consultant's report and listening to the presentation to the BOE, Jennifer Zola, a parent of students now in middle school, wonders if the decline in AP exams participation is truly a reflection of the strength of AT over AP or if it showcases that SHS students are not as adequately prepared to take (and succeed) in these college placement exams as their counterparts around the country are, putting them at a disadvantage. She is concerned that "removing access to AP exams will undermine Scardale students in the future and questions if a return to AP courses would better serve the community. At the very least, maintaining access to AP exams in our district is critical and the Consultant's report recommendation to untether the AT program from the AP exams is detrimental."

The consultants acknowledge concerns about the AT program, saying, “We were told that some parents and students worry that the AT program prevents Scarsdale High School from inclusion on some lists of the top high schools in America (those lists that use AP participation as the main criterion), that it has negatively impacted college and university admissions, and that it denies Scarsdale High School students the benefit of obtaining college credit and attaining placement in upper level college courses as freshmen. Moreover, not everyone with whom we spoke understands that AT courses are intended to be equivalent to first-year college courses.”

Their recommendation? They suggest that the school address these “misperceptions.” The report says, “Thus, the visit team recommends that these concerns be addressed annually, and directly, as new cohorts of students and parents enter the high school. Perhaps a brief Q & A “branding” document would be a helpful way to address some of the questions and misperceptions of parents and students – sharing accurate college acceptance data; listing the colleges that continue to (and no longer) grant credit for AP courses; listing the purpose of AT courses (critical thinking, creativity, depth of study, greater student agency, and enhanced personal advocacy), and sharing student testimonials and samples of student work.”

The question is whether parents’ concerns are just “misperceptions” or if the program is indeed hampering Scarsdale students. Does the Advanced Topics programs best serve Scarsdale teachers or Scarsdale students?

In order to assess the success of the current AT program, the consultants surveyed recent Scarsdale graduates to ask them how well the AT courses prepared them for the AP exams, how well the AT courses prepared them for introductory college courses, and how well they were prepared for college compared to classmates who had taken AP courses.

Overall, the responses to the student surveys were positive, however some are saying that the consultants answered the wrong questions.

Kate DiLorenzo wrote, “The recent AT review by the Tri-State Consortium cannot serve as a demonstration of AT’s superiority to AP. In preparation for this review, the school wrote its own three “essential questions” for the review team to answer: Are there clear expectations for success in AT courses? Do AT courses promote critical thinking, creativity, and deep learning and do AT classes prepare students for postsecondary education? These questions are not only leading questions that could only get a “yes” answer (for any class at Scarsdale High School, I hope), but they obviously avoid any comparison to AP classes (or any alternative, in fact). The right question would have been: Are AT classes better than AP classes for our students? (There were other aspects of the review, like classroom visits, examination of teacher-chosen student projects, and discussions, none of which attempted to address the relative efficacy of AT courses to AP courses.) In short, the school paid a group of consultants so that it could appear to be engaged in critical self-examination when it was really only engaged in affirming its own status quo. The only purpose of reviewing AT should be to compare it to AP, its explicit counterpart, not to ask if AT classes are “good” in a vacuum.”

Other parents we spoke to felt that Scarsdale students were clearly at a disadvantage if they did not pursue the AP exams on their own or do well enough to earn college credit. This left them with fewer options than peers who did well on AP exams.

Specifically:

-The Scarsdale students had less flexibility in their coursework, as they had to take the maximum number of credits each semester to graduate.

-Compared to those with AP credits, Scarsdale students were unable to place out of introductory level classes.

-For those who desired to study abroad in college, they had fewer options as they had no extra credits in the case that the foreign study program did not fulfill graduation requirements at their schools.

-Entering college with AP credits permits some students to graduate early, yielding significant savings on tuition costs.

DiLorenzo also noted that the lack of an AP program might also be impacting college admissions. She wrote, “In a competitive college admissions environment, AP credits also help to show academic merit in a world in which grade inflation is rampant, making GPAs more difficult to interpret (see the school profile, which shows that 55% percent of grades given at Scarsdale High School are A- or above in all departments except social studies, where that figure is 72%).”

Another frustrated parent pointed out that Scarsdale High School offers 25 AT courses, but from the list, it is not clear which ones do and do not cover the AP curriculum. Though some of the math courses, such as Calculus, prepare the students for the Calculus AP, others on the list, such as a new course in linear algebra are “unique courses without analogs in the AP program.”

The data shows that most of the top colleges in the country do grant placement, credit or both to students who do well on AP exams. So though Scarsdale faculty cite the benefits of designing their own courses, colleges and universities are offering benefits to those who demonstrate success in the approved AP curriculum.

According to US News and World Report:

95% of top 20 liberal arts colleges give placement for having taken APs
90% top 20 universities give placement for having taken APs
85% of top 20 liberal arts colleges give credit for APs
75% of top 20 universities give credit for Aps

And the following top schools offer placement or credit or both:

APChart

Claire Paquin also feels that returning to AP model aligns with two of the school’s missions: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as well as Student Health and Wellness. She says, “The school profile shows that, in each of the last three school years, approximately 300 students have taken approximately 500 AP exams. In great numbers, students are choosing to take AP exams for which AT classes don’t prepare them. Having AP classes would eliminate the need for parents to pay for outside tutors or prep classes, which can be a significant financial burden to families. It would also make it unnecessary for students to use their valuable personal time to study untaught material (and remember: they still need to do all the AT work). This creates another stress on the students, negatively impacting their mental health and overall wellness. The data shows that students are taking AP exams in large numbers (no doubt because they see the many advantages). The question is whether they will do this with or without the school’s support and accountability.”

Despite concerns about college admissions and credit, the consultants lauded the educational benefits of the program to both teachers and students. The report noted the AT programs success at promoting critical thinking and deep learning. It says, “Another benefit of the AT program, shared with us by teachers and students, is the opportunity to think like a person engaged in a specific discipline. For example, we heard that the math courses are intended to help students think like mathematicians, the social studies courses help students think like historians, and the art courses engage students in thinking like artists. One staff member with whom we spoke said, “Advanced Placement courses are a promise to students– we will do all we can to help you excel on the AP exam ... AT courses also are a promise – we will teach you to think like a person in the discipline.” This is an important promise to fulfill, and an equally important goal to convey to students and parents, and it is linked to assessment: to what extent are AT course assessments designed to promote thinking like a writer, an historian, a musician, a scientist or a mathematician?

What is the correct balance between providing an enriched curriculum and putting Scarsdale students in their best position to succeed in college? As admission to top colleges becomes increasingly competitive, does Scarsdale need to change course to align with national norms? These are question that the Scarsdale School District is expected to continue to examine this fall.

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