Eager for Flexibility, a Handful of Schools Drop AP

Tom Laichas teaches American studies and history at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, Calif., where he says he is happy he no longer teaches AP courses.
Tom Laichas teaches American studies and history at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, Calif., where he says he is happy he no longer teaches AP courses. (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Roger Weaver, headmaster of the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, Calif., said his staff first discussed dropping Advancement Placement courses four years ago during a meeting in the O'Keeffe Room.

That's Georgia O'Keeffe, the artist. Rooms at Crossroads don't have numbers. They have names. That's just one of many things about the independent-minded private school that indicated it would never be entirely comfortable with the College Board AP courses and tests rapidly becoming standard curriculum for the best U.S. high schools.

"People were saying, 'If we could get rid of AP, it would open up all kinds of opportunities for us,' " said Weaver, himself a former AP English teacher.

Last month, after a long series of meetings, panels, articles and more meetings, Crossroads -- with a Hollywood clientele that includes Dustin Hoffman's daughter -- became the 11th school in the nation to join a small but influential movement to try to counter the growing strength of AP courses.

The anti-AP schools have excellent teachers and affluent, well-prepared students with good SAT or ACT scores, so they have not suffered in the competition for selective college admission -- even though they are rejecting courses those colleges like to see on transcripts. Their fortune lies with their students, some of whom are so accomplished that they take AP tests and do well even without formal AP courses.

"Because our senior classes run between 54 and 65 students, we are able to offer classes that appeal to students more along the lines of interest and learning style," said Arlene L. Prince, director of college and career services at University Prep in Seattle, one of the anti-AP schools. Instead of AP biology, chemistry or physics, for instance, the school offers organic chemistry, astronomy, optics and waves, special relativity and biotechnology.

The 11 schools, which might be joined soon by the Westtown School outside Philadelphia, represent only three-hundredths of 1 percent of all high schools in the country. They appear not to have affected, so far, the growth of AP, which gave tests to 1,173,000 students this month, twice as many as 10 years ago.

Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program, said that occasionally a private school will drop AP but that the trend is in the other direction, with 15 percent more private schools using the program this year than last. "Such schools embrace the standards required by the AP examinations as a powerful support for providing increased rigor and intellectual excitement for their students," he said.

Some public school educators have dismissed the Crossroads decision as a mix of snobbery and marketing. "They could easily do AP, but to differentiate themselves from strong public schools they feel they must demonstrate how much 'better' their curriculum is," said Stephen Williams, the college counselor at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles.

Crossroads and the other schools deny this and say they just don't want the College Board to tell them what to teach. Every year since 1999, Bruce G. Hammond, director of college counseling at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, has convened a meeting at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling called the Non-AP/AP Concerns Interest Group. Attendance has fluctuated between six and 30 people, he said.

"The number of schools intrigued by the idea of dropping AP far outnumbers those which actually go through with it because of the intense pressure that can be brought to bear by the parents," Hammond said. Parents who are willing to pay tuition for high school -- Crossroads costs about $22,000 a year -- are reluctant to send their children off to the Ivy League admission wars without some AP armor.

And yet such educators as Hammond persevere and love to describe their courses that depart from the AP practice of covering, as college introductory courses do, the major topics in a subject.

"At my preparatory school," Hammond said in an article for Education Week, "the most demanding history course is American History Through Film, which covers the 20th century from 'The Birth of a Nation' to Oliver Stone's 'JFK.' Students might view a film such as 'High Noon' as a reflection of Cold War America, or 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' as a critique of post-World War II suburbia. Along the way, they are required to write, each semester, seven papers of approximately five pages each, with midyear and final take-home exams of from five to 10 pages."

Next year at the Carolina Friends School near Durham, N.C., Elizabeth Clark will take, instead of AP courses, a senior seminar course exploring good and evil. "I have already received my summer reading list," she said. "It includes Aristotle's 'The Nicomachean Ethics,' [Hannah] Arendt's 'Eichmann in Jerusalem,' [Khaled] Hosseini's 'The Kite Runner' and 'The Epic of Gilgamesh.' On top of this, we have to watch 11 movies ranging from 'The Godfather' to 'Lacombe Lucien' and write a paper, all before class starts this fall."

Clark took just one AP test this year, in European history. Despite her unorthodox program, she is unlikely to have much trouble being accepted at a good college. Her first try at the new SAT yielded a score of 2210 out of a possible 2400.

Rogers Brubaker, a Crossroads School parent, said he was concerned initially that dropping AP also might mean an end to honors or other accelerated courses. But he accepted the change after being told that rigorous courses would survive, many bearing a special honors designation from the University of California. Besides, he said, departments that want to continue offering courses that prepare students for AP exams can do so.

His son Benjamin, a sophomore, said, "If a department like math or Latin wants to teach an advanced course that's similar to what the AP courses cover, they should be free to do so."

Weaver, the headmaster, said he is happy the change has been made with so little rancor. Some of his staff members are thinking about reviving a senior projects program, which before could not compete with May AP exams.

"I am so excited about the possibilities that lie before us now," Weaver said, "and about taking back the senior year from the AP calendar."

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