Discourse and high-level thinking don’t only take place in AP classes

Last year, PHS’s students took 1,580 Advanced Placement tests. That’s more than one test per student and triple the national average of tests taken per high school student. With every PHS student enrolled in an AP class encouraged to take the test, the ratio is much larger when freshmen are removed from the student count, because they theoretically aren’t allowed to take AP classes—although that’s not always the case.

It’s the culture at PHS for students to structure their lives around two letters: AP. How many AP classes? When are your AP tests? Bring your AP review books to AP review sessions! Which are the best AP teachers? Does that college accept AP credit? For what AP scores? There’s no escaping it. Even students who don’t take AP classes regularly hear classmates complain—and come early May, every student’s gym class will be displaced for AP testing set-up.

AP curriculum is determined by College Board, a national organization. When the College Board changes its curriculum, so do our classes. Instead of focusing on what they think is valuable learning material, teachers revise lesson plans to what College Board decides to put on its tests. For some classes, that means briefly mentioning changes—but for others, it means revisions or removals of entire units. It doesn’t make sense that teachers should have to do this solely because they are teaching a high-level class.

This issue isn’t just about standardized testing. In fact, APs aren’t even College Board’s most widely-taken standardized test—that honor goes to the SAT. Because there has been so much of a focus on AP’s over regular classes, students have been left with few alternatives.

This is not an issue reserved solely for AP students; it affects the entire school.

If the only course option that will challenge students to think in-depth or to meet college standards is an AP class, something’s wrong. Students should be able to explore advanced math without feeling pressured to meet the standards of a calculus or statistics AP exam. They should be afforded the opportunity to learn about music theory or art history in a non-AP setting. If they want to take multivariable calculus or organic chemistry, they shouldn’t be forced to take AP classes to get there.

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Graphic by: Nina Zhong

Starting sophomore year, AP culture gives students no chances when selecting classes outside their comfort zones. Even if they just want to try out a high-level class, their only options in most departments are AP classes, which teach a shallow, non-specific curriculum at a too-fast pace.

Let’s say a rising junior wanted to take a thought-provoking, college-level class that fulfilled the world history graduation requirement. Today, what options would they have?

There are two: normal world history and the more rigorous AP class. AP World can’t go into detail in many topics because of time constraints imposed by the ever-looming AP test, while the regular world class has no special designations as a difficult class. There’s no middle ground for students who want the best of both worlds: an interesting, in-depth class with no strings  attached.

This  is what we need: a middle ground. We need a non-AP option where students can still opt to challenge themselves. Teachers should be able to create their own curricula that they know are engaging and relevant. Students should  be able to advance thinking skills and thrive without fearing judgment from peers, low-level classes, and rejection from college because of a “light” course load.

We shouldn’t attend school in an environment where students enrolled in  Accelerated Sociology and Accelerated Oceanography are shamed for taking a GPA-booster that isn’t  hard because it’s not AP. We should have a school where students who are looking for a challenge do have these kinds of classes—ones where they are free to explore what they want without narrow course requirements or the pressure of an AP test.

So what can we do instead? We can ask for hard classes that will  demonstrate that we are  college-ready but where teachers are more free to determine their own lesson plans. They can be called whatever PHS wants, as long as they don’t cater to any higher organization that is already getting enough of our money as it is. We need classes that discourage the last-minute studying and  cramming that APs come with. We need classes that students stuck in middle feel comfortable in. We need  alternative   classes where we can have the same challenging PHS  experience without the ubiquitous AP culture.

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