Letter to the Editor

A letter to an editor in response to “Ditch the A.P.’s” by Kerry Garfinkel

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Jonathan Schneiderman (’21) is a first-year student at Harvard College and a Spectator Opinions Editor Emeritus.

Kerry Garfinkel is right, and it’s good someone—especially someone who is a teacher—is saying it on The Spectator’s platform.

As Garfinkel says, A.P. tests in the humanities do not measure real aptitude. On this point I will add only two corollaries: one, A.P. tests do not measure mathematical aptitude either. Calculus classes at Stuyvesant prioritize learning how to use and apply theorems over proving their content and over understanding proofs generally. I am currently taking a college linear algebra class, and when differential equations came up recently, I had completely forgotten how they worked. Why? Because I never really understood them. I never really understood what a differential was in the first place. I knew that I didn't understand it at the time. But my teacher wasn’t able to go into the matter in great depth; we had to pass a test. And, to my teacher’s credit, I suspect I would have gotten a five on that test had I taken it. I don’t hold any of this against her; I hold it against a system that subordinates understanding—the real heart of math—to application. It is the capacity for the latter, not the former, that the A.P. Calculus exams, wholly free of proof-based and definitional questions, measure.

Two, A.P. classes qua A.P. classes are not preparing you for college. Both of my A.P. history courses, United States History with Robert Sandler and European History with David Hanna, certainly put me in an excellent place for the wonderful history seminar I am currently taking—but no more so than the non-A.P. class on global history that I took in freshman year with Josina Dunkel. (As an aside, the decision to get rid of that class was perhaps the worst administrative decision of my time at Stuyvesant, and any effort to ditch A.P. courses for advanced topics courses should begin with reversing it. But this is a subject for another time.) And given how good the work Messrs. Hanna and Sandler did with an A.P. test looming over them was—how much better their work could have been without that gespenst haunting them! To the extent that what is done in preparation for an A.P. test is valuable, they would continue doing those things; to the extent that it is not, they could ditch them.

So much for A.P. tests vis-à-vis pedagogy. As Garfinkel discusses, A.P. tests also create an A.P. culture. What concerns me about this is not only the needless fear and numbness it breeds but also the way it stultifies learning. Within the culture of A.P. tests, the creation of one’s course load becomes a Pokémonian effort to catch ’em all, to rack up appearances of “A.P.” on one’s transcript, rather than a joyful search for intellectual fulfillment. What a vicious deadening of the human spirit we behold in this world where maintaining one’s simple devotion to learning for interest requires grit. One is tempted to weep, but one has taken too many A.P. tests to remember how.

It should be said by any advocate of ditching A.P. tests that Stuyvesant has a peculiar advantage in this arena: its reputation precedes it. People—a phrase which here means “college admissions officers”—know that Stuyvesant is rigorous. If Stuyvesant says it is ditching A.P. tests not to escape rigor but to seek it out, it will not be speaking without credibility, and colleges will not react with incredulity. That great elder sibling of the gespenst of A.P. culture, college admissions, should be no cause for trepidation in members of the Stuyvesant community contemplating the prospect of abandoning A.P.’s.

Finally, I wish to point out a benefit that A.P. tests have that I have not seen discussed: they allow students for whom paying for college is a significant challenge to earn credits at many institutions nearly gratis, thus saving large sums of money. This is a compelling reason to keep A.P. tests in place; possibly it is so compelling that they should remain in place. I do not know. If the reader is puzzled by my decision to undermine myself at the close of my letter, I can say only that ambiguity is a vital gift and that real life is not an A.P. thesis essay.