Reevaluating the AP Culture at Stuyvesant

With the conclusion of this year and programming selections for AP classes, Stuyvesant students share their perspectives on the importance and value of AP courses and exams.

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By Sabrina Chen

Due to the ongoing pandemic, Advanced Placement (AP) exams were offered online and in-person this year. Despite the teaching restrictions that many teachers faced throughout the semesters, exams were full-length. The overall struggle of these exams, along with the onset of programming selections for AP classes in the forthcoming year, has caused many to reassess the value of AP exams and the benefits and downsides to taking them.

Because of the altered schedule this year, some students had difficulty adjusting to remote learning for an AP course. “Because of the block schedule this year, we had a lot less class time, which made us rush through the curriculum. This wasn’t only for my AP class, but that’s where I felt it the strongest because of the pressure of the AP test,” sophomore Manolee Merlet said. “My teacher provided us with a lot of resources to help us, though, so by the time the test came around, I felt okay about it.”

Some teachers recognize the problem of students overloading on APs and taking them for the sake of taking AP courses. “Students should take AP courses/exams, and not just because it is part of the ‘game’ of getting into a good college,” English teacher Emilio Nieves said. “An AP course/exam is supposed to be an academic challenge, [and] actively seeking academic challenges for learning’s sake [should come] first. The learning is not only about the subject matter, but [...] each individual student [also] learns something about themselves in terms of how to approach difficult circumstances and challenges.”

Merlet also feels that the general culture surrounding AP courses causes students to unnecessarily take AP classes that they are not interested in. “A lot of people take on a lot of APs just for the sake of taking them because that’s what they see a lot of other people doing, and they’re scared of falling behind or not standing out as much to colleges,” Merlet said. “It just makes you really stressed because you’re taking on so much work for classes you’re not necessarily interested in.”

While other students share similar sentiments, some end up enjoying their classes nonetheless. “Some people sign up for it just because it is an AP, not because they are very interested in it,” junior Xiaoshen Ma said. “When I was a freshman, I signed up for AP Environmental Science because I could ask for it [...] No regrets, [since] I still ended up learning a lot of things, albeit, it [was] not the stuff that I expected.”

Though AP exams are annual exams designed to measure students’ understanding of courses, physics teacher Daisy Sharaf believes they are not the most effective in doing so. “The AP exams and AP curricula are aimed at a minimum level of mastery of any given subject, so they shouldn’t serve as an indicator of academic rigor,” she said. “Students who struggled in a course can usually [prepare] and cram successfully for the exam if they have the willpower to do so, but there are also students who excelled in the course who just aren’t good test-takers, especially under the enormous pressure of standardized exams.”

Some teachers also believe that the College Board syllabi for their respective AP classes are too rigid for both students and faculty. “Especially in my field, it’s ridiculous that a teacher who’s extremely well qualified, which most Latin teachers are, [is] not allowed to teach anything else,” Latin teacher Dr. Susan Brockman, who has taught the course for 19 years, said. “You teach better when you make up the course yourself [because] you’re teaching to your own expertise [and] your own passion. You’re likely to teach a better class. [The AP guidelines have] created a stranglehold on American education.”

With various colleges having placed less emphasis on AP exams as part of their admission processes for the past few years, many teachers believe that the value of the exams is diminishing. “Colleges emphasize grades from AP courses, rather than exam scores, [and] there is an increasingly short list of colleges that will grant students meaningful credit for the exam,” computer science teacher Samuel Konstantinovich said. “The idea of saving money by taking AP exams is overblown. There are often anecdotes about the student [who] cut a semester or more off their college bill, but no statistics that show how often courses save a student money.”

Given the shortcomings of AP courses, some teachers propose introducing alternate electives that are just as advanced. “[A] step that might minimize overemphasis on AP courses would be to support the development of advanced elective courses also taught at a high degree of rigor. Stuyvesant has a reputation for academic rigor, and it would be a shame not to leverage it by developing advanced courses that are more in-depth than a typical AP course,” Sharaf said.

Stuyvesant has made progress by introducing a new computer science course next semester called Java with Creativity and Rigor: NextCS, which is similar to an annual AP Computer Science course, but without the AP class labeling. “Under most circumstances, teachers can create non-AP advanced courses that are better for Stuyvesant students than any standardized AP course,” Konstantinovich said.

Some have suggested transferring into a different curriculum altogether.“There’s something called the International Baccalaureate curriculum [...] that a lot of the upper private schools are doing,” Dr. Brockman said. “It’s more flexible.” The International Baccalaureate curriculum includes programs that permit students to choose their own topics and projects to learn about while the teachers are responsible for supervising rather than teaching the material.

Regarding the future of AP exams, some teachers feel they will not be as valued in the coming years. “I believe that there will be a movement away from the AP courses and exams in the near future. The fact that many selective colleges are no longer accepting the SAT as part of admissions is a strong indicator that standardized exams are becoming less important and less prestigious,” Sharaf said.