AP: Advanced Placement, or Aren’t Prepared?

Benjamin Burnette, Editor

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Welcome to Marshall Fundamental, arguably the leading high school academically in the district of PUSD. Renowned for its AP program, the most rapidly growing in the district, the phrase “soaring to success” is popular at Marshall. And yet, the pass rate for APs leaves much to be desired. For example, the pass rate of AP Language and Composition test hovered around 35% at Marshall,  well below the national average passing rate of 55%. The dichotomy of a school renowned for a for its AP programs even as over half the students taking APs fail raises important question about student placement. After all, failing an AP does nobody any good.Would some students be better off in an on level  or honors class as opposed to an AP class?

Some teachers view low AP pass an issue unrelated to student placement. One teacher stated, “Even though not everyone will pass the AP, it’s good to encourage students to push themselves,” arguing that there was merit in AP classes even for those who might not pass a test. Another teacher believed that even those who students who might be better suited for an honors class in terms of academic rigor nonetheless contributed to the class dynamic, bringing interesting and valuable perspectives to discussions to AP classes.

Students had thoughts on the AP issue as well. Several expressed reluctance to join an on level class despite feeling not fully qualified to be in some AP classes, partially because they felt the learning environment in non-AP classes was not up to high school standards in terms of academic rigor and classroom control, and partially because they feared it would not look good on college applications. Several students expressed interest in honors classes, although bemoaned the fact that in some subjects, it is either AP or on-level. If students want to take Psychology, they don’t even have an on-level option, instead given the choice between AP or nothing.

One factor further complicating students decision making around APs is the culture at Marshall. Marshall’s culture strongly encourages taking a large amount of AP courses and, subsequently tests. A junior at Marshall in the AP program can expect to take between three and four APs, and some seniors take as many as six.Those who say that just because a student takes an AP class does not me they must take the test are technically correct, but a representative from UCLA who visited Mr. Ganschow’s AP Language and Composition class last year said that she would almost rather see bad scores on an AP exam for which a student has taken the class then see that the student opted not to take the test. However, colleges much prefer to see two fours as opposed to four twos on AP tests. So the paradigm of taking many APs or none is not one that benefits students. Students need classes with ample learning opportunities, but without having to deal with consequences of taking an AP and getting a bad score, or of not taking the exam at all and the repercussions of that decision.

So is an honors program the answer? One teachers felt that while the current system was less than ideal, “…at a school Marshall’s size, it will be difficult to implement an honors program.” Unquestionably, that statement holds some merit. How can counselors, responsible for managing hundreds of students, effectively decide where to place kids. Is it based on transcripts? Does the student decide? If a student were to decide between class levels, could he/she be trusted to choose an appropriately challenging class? Obviously, Marshall’s administration has no easy task on their hands. It would be unreasonable to expect this problem to go away overnight. However, perhaps there are steps administration should be taking, because failing a class that a student is not prepared for does nothing for the student, the class as a whole, or the teacher of that class.

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AP: Advanced Placement, or Aren’t Prepared?