This year at Berkeley High School (BHS), over 900 students registered to take more than 1,600 Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and last year, even in the midst of the pandemic, students in schools across California took more than 600,000 AP tests.
Despite the popularity of these tests, many private schools in the Bay Area are moving away from AP classes, including Lick-Wilmerding and Marin Academy. Among these is Head-Royce School, which recently decided to phase out AP classes and replace them with honors-level courses.
Mark Schneider, who currently teaches US History at Head-Royce, previously taught the AP version of the class. He described the rationale behind the school’s decision.
“Probably the biggest reason is that teaching to an AP test can be stifling,” Schneider said. “If done right, decoupling from APs allows [for] the opportunity for more innovation, collaboration, and deeper critical thinking in the curriculum, instead of … ticking off the checkboxes of what needs to be covered for the exam.”
Masha Albrecht, a BHS AP Calculus teacher, agreed with this critique. She added that the College Board, the company that offers AP exams, has too much power over the curriculum.
“It’s partly an academic freedom issue,” Albrecht said. “I am a mathematician, I know what calculus is, and I feel like having them make the decision for what my course looks like is inappropriate. That’s a decision that I can make wisely.”
According to Schneider, colleges assess the level of rigor the student has pursued based on the course options available to the student, which creates pressure for students to take as many AP classes as possible. Another major benefit of Head-Royce’s decision is that students no longer feel pressured to take AP classes if they are not interested in the subject.
“It’s not conducive to fostering a love of learning when students feel compelled to opt for the AP track, not because they intrinsically want to delve deeper into that subject, but solely because they want to impress colleges,” Schneider said.
On the other hand, Academic Choice (AC) junior Jade Feria described how students can still pursue their interests while taking an AP class. She took AP Chemistry last year, and this year she is taking three AP classes.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure to take harder classes, but I think a variety of AP classes helps because that way you can choose which ones you’re more interested in,” Feria said.
She added that while AP classes are more focused on the test format, they also tend to be more interesting.
Schneider also suggested that differentiation between AP and regular classes can be damaging to the development and self-esteem of students.
“It really can be detrimental to students’ development and identity when you have some students in the AP track and other students in the ‘regular’ track,” Schneider said. “I’ve seen the labels ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ substituted by students when discussing the ‘AP’ versus ‘regular’ tracks.”
Schneider added that standardized tests can be inequitably skewed because of unequal access to resources, such as private tutors. Albrecht emphasized this aspect of the AP exam as well, describing the racial disparities in test scores.
“I’ve witnessed the bias as a teacher, and it’s also well documented statistically,” Albrecht said. “Look at the scores by race on the math and physics tests. For Black students, it’s a whole unit lower. … I know my students as mathematicians. I am often surprised at how well the white boys do compared to the other students.”
Despite their many drawbacks, Schneider conceded that a possible risk of eliminating AP classes could be the loss of rigor.
“A potential risk is that the curricular freedom is misused, and a rigorous AP class could be replaced with an unstructured class in its place, which would be a disservice to students,” Schneider said. However, he also noted, “APs are seen by some as a proxy for rigor, but rigor does not have to be sacrificed without APs — that’s a false dichotomy.”
Schneider added that so long as the school and teachers continue holding themselves to a high standard, reform does not need to happen at the expense of rigor.
While that might be realistic for a private school like Head-Royce, it may not be possible at a large public school like BHS, according to Maya Cobb, a student in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), who has taken several AP classes.
“Obviously at private schools, you’re paying to be there and to get a rigorous curriculum,” Cobb said. “In public school, everybody’s lumped in the same kind of mold and you have to choose your own path. If you get rid of AP classes, it’s not like you can replace a regular school class with an AP-level class.”
One of the students who welcomes the challenge of rigorous classes is Feria, who described the importance of choice for students.
“AP classes tend to be more interesting,” Feria said. “It’s nice to have an option for a harder class.”
Matt Albinson, AP testing coordinator at BHS, also alluded to the high cost of AP exams, and the fact that they are administered by a company that many claim does not adhere to its “not-for-profit” label.
“I think the argument against AP is that AP is a company,” Albinson said. “They are charging our students to take their exams.”
Nevertheless, he emphasized that AP classes are critical to the school’s rankings, as they provide a uniform method of assessment across schools.
“It’s one of the few things that everybody in the country does,” Albinson said. “It gives our school a real, legitimate way of comparing ourselves to other schools. If every school is just doing their own thing, how do we know that BHS is a good school?”