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Should Scarsdale Drop AP?

The new courses, the proponents say, will have more group projects, more labs, more research opportunities, more writing and more discussion than they think is possible when preparing students for AP exams. McGill said, "We want kids who can think, who can write well and who can persevere in the face of disappointment."

What interested me most about McGill was his sense that shedding the AP label will help, not hurt, Scarsdale's slow but steady effort to open up the high school's most challenging courses to more students. He says they still put up some barriers to AP, as they did with my son, but are more willing now to waive them for motivated students.

Part of the resistance to letting more students into AP at Scarsdale, and other schools, is a misplaced concern that the courses will become less challenging for the fastest students and that the high grading standards will tarnish the transcripts less brilliant students send to colleges. McGill said he was interested in my descriptions of what happened in similarly affluent public high schools in the Washington area who opened AP to all, and found both the dumbing down fear and the college admission fear to be myths.

There are some soft spots in the Scarsdale argument for dropping AP. They accept, without presenting any useful evidence, the assumption that because the AP program has grown so much, the AP courses, tests and grades must be easier than they used to be. This overlooks the fact that AP exams are given regularly to college students who have taken similar introductory courses, and the AP grading scale adjusted to match what the colleges are doing. Packer, the AP director, says if the colleges inflate their grades, AP stands firm. It only changes its standard if the colleges get tougher.

The Scarsdale proponents also give a deeply misleading answer to this frequently asked question "Is Scarsdale High School the only school questioning AP course designation?" They say: "No. Many public high schools, especially outside the Northeast, have never offered AP courses." That is technically correct. About 40 percent of U.S. high schools don't have AP. But almost all of those schools are very small, very poor or very religious. None that I know of comes close to Scarsdale's academic performance level or college-going rate.

The 12 PRIVATE schools that have dropped AP, on the other hand, are close cousins to Scarsdale in parental income and college-going. They are Calhoun (New York City), Carolina Friends (Durham, N.C.), Crossroads (Santa Monica, Calif.), Dalton (New York City), Fieldston (New York City), Oldfields (Glencoe, Md.), Putney (Vt.), St. Andrews-Sewanee (Sewanee, Tenn.), Sandia Prep (Albuquerque), Spence (New York City), University Prep (Seattle) and Westtown (Penn.). Like Scarsdale, they have the affluent parents and golden reputations that allow them to stray from AP without losing their ability to persuade selective colleges to accept their students.

If the Scarsdale educators are true to their word, and are dropping AP because they want to provide a richer educational experience for all of their students, then they will obliterate completely the sorting emphasis that has plagued the school up to now. About 70 percent of Scarsdale students take AP courses, which is very high, but that means 28 percent of their college-going students don't take them, and that doesn't make much sense to me. Two major research studies show that good grades on AP exams correlate with higher college graduation rates. If peeling the AP label off of Scarsdale's courses gives more Scarsdale students a chance to get a taste of college trauma and risk those disappointing results that McGill talks about, then I am all for the change.

I think the Scarsdale teachers, parents and students will have to be very careful that the quality of the new non-AP courses does not slip. Instead of measuring their work by AP exam results, the Scarsdale group plans to have visiting experts to look over student papers and the homegrown exams. That strikes me as both expensive and time-consuming, and very hard to maintain over the long haul. But the people I knew in Scarsdale were impressive in many ways, hard-working and smart in the extreme. If anyone can do it, they can.

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