Placing the Value of APs


By Harry Scholes

It is perhaps one of the best feelings in the world: finally eking out the last scribbled words and dotting the very last period. Every person does it in a moment of pure contentment—we lean back and sigh with bacchic euphoria, too satisfied to care about the agonizing cramps coursing through our exhausted hands.

Now that that time of year has rolled around again, the clock has run its course and we are at zero hour, D-Day. The time when most of us want to wind down is ironically when we have to start gearing up for exams; of all the trials we must face, perhaps the fiercest is the AP.

These seemingly innocuous college creditors can induce the most stress in juniors and, to a lesser extent, seniors (having gotten into college, they tend to be less hectic about the process). Sometimes there can be a sense of such fierce competition at Latin that we feel compelled to push ourselves beyond our limits because everyone else is doing it. The playing field is not only leveled but raised, and unhealthily so.

So what is the point of putting ourselves through all that stress? The AP website claims that it lets colleges know we are able to succeed in an undergraduate environment, and, according to Ms. Pleshette, “the most highly competitive colleges are known to look for challenges of Honors or AP courses in a transcript”. However, she added “at Latin there’s a certain unfortunate mindset, or perhaps mind-lock, to fixate on colleges that value AP classes as proof of academic rigor” while we ignore the fact that the “Latin brand” smacks academic rigor of its own accord, even in standard classes; courses such as Nazi Mind can be even more difficult than an AP class even though they don’t have the magical AP name. By no means, then, are they necessary–it all depends on your individual motives and the colleges you are applying to.

Take me, for example. In the UK, every student in the country must take a series of free response exams called A-Levels. These, combined with the 10 GCSEs you take in sophomore year, are integral to your application, and universities will look at exam results before anything else–you need not keep your grades at a passable level year round, so long as you achieve straight As come May. There are prerequisites: the websites of most English universities state that in order to qualify for application, a certain standard must be achieved.  Now, as a mix-mash of both cultures, I am looking at places on both sides of the pond and have to satisfy the requirements of each. In researching which exams to take, I wondered at the sheer diversity of opinion across departments–why some courses were geared towards the exams and why some aren’t; why those in AP classes didn’t take the AP exams when they had the option available to them; why students seemed so unfazed by them, when I was treating these tests as monolithic milestones, the American equivalent of an A level, to be studied for at least two months in advance.

To find out, I did some research on the kind of APs Latin kids take. Latin offers a wide range of classes specifically designed for taking the AP: Art History, European History, Psychology, French, Latin Literature, Spanish, Calculus (AB and BC), Environmental Science, Physics (Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism), and Statistics, to name a few. The school proctors even more exams, but refrains from offering courses in some subjects. The two APs in English, for instance, do not have an actual class. When I questioned Mrs. McGlinn about this, she remarked how unnecessary it was to have a class in AP English because our current English curriculum is so rigorous that we are already more than prepared for the exam. More prominently, the AP class in US History was dropped last year and replaced by an honors course, while AP European History continued unaffected. To explain this schism, I went to Mr. Fript. “One of the reasons I have stayed with the AP is that it provides good grounding,” he explained, leaning back in his chair thoughtfully. “It teaches critical basic skills, such as true, in-depth analysis of a document, and looking beyond the mere facts for a general theme, which I’m a great believer in.” Certainly, the AP seems to have more credibility as an exam than the standard ACT or SAT, but I have heard complaints and praise alike for its challenging nature.

However, Ms. Hennessy had a differing opinion when she explained why she dropped APUSH. “It was just unrealistic,” she mused. “We couldn’t cover the entire course load of material in the same depth in time for the actual exam. The expectations are such that we would have to rush through everything.” Even today, under the new curriculum, HUSH had only just begun to learn about Reagan’s election when the AP exam came around, so it is understandable that time and spacing is a problem. Now that the course is not officially an AP class, responsibility for covering the missing years falls to the student and not the teacher. However, despite the lightening of the load, little seems to have changed; American history is still explored with the same depth and intensity as the old course, and students still opt to take the APUSH exam despite not being in the AP class.

On the other hand, most students in an AP course usually take the corresponding exam. None of the APs are compulsory at Latin, but they are usually highly recommended. In the entire Calculus AB course, only 2 students abstained from taking the actual AP exam  itself. The pressure to take the exam can mount up in typical Latin School style, and not just from the hyper-competitive peers. While snooping around the science labs, I bumped into Mrs. Schmadeke and Messrs. Carpenter, Coberly and Legendre, all of whom teach AP science classes. Opinion seemed divided when I asked if students taking an AP course should opt for the exam. “As always, it depends on the year and the individual plans of each student,” Miss Schmadeke responded. However, as Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Coberly and Mr. Legendre pointed out, “Sometimes it can be wasteful for those not taking an AP to have to sit through review classes or when we learn how to take the test.” While there is supposedly “an advantage of emphasis on the science, and not the exam” for such students, the goal of a certain score on the exam can be very beneficial “if students want to push themselves.” Eventually, this three resolved that it is important“to make the class the most meaningful it can be.”

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter about the score a student receives if they choose to sit the exam because they can display or hide it as they wish. It’s extremely beneficial to have the option of taking it, although with the stress of  upperclassmen these days, these exams can be the haystack that breaks the camel’s back. Furthermore, though a student only misses 3-4 classes on exam day (which isn’t much considering the total number of classes in the year), even that can be a new stress—the amount of work piling up is phenomenal if you don’t spread it around. Since most classes carry on without accommodating to students’ busy AP schedules, putting school on hold to get through these tests can be difficult. I’m still paying my penance for treating these things with such reverence that all else became irrelevant to me. Ultimately, it’s your decision whether to take an AP or not, but nobody can deny that wonderful feeling of completion at the end of the AP.