When we were growing up, my wife and I attended only public schools. Most of our three children’s K-12 years were in private schools.
The instruction was usually excellent, just as I found it to be in my reporting on the seven Washington-area private high schools that recently announced they are dropping Advanced Placement courses — Georgetown Day, Holton-Arms, Landon, National Cathedral, Potomac, St. Albans and Sidwell Friends. An eighth school, Maret, doesn’t have AP but signed the announcement anyway. Given their selectivity and faculty strength, the schools’ decision is not going to harm their students in any significant way.
The leaders of those schools wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post justifying the move. Why was it so tone-deaf and misleading? These are fine educators. They could have mentioned how much AP and programs such as International Baccalaureate and Cambridge have helped millions of students prepare for college. They could have said their teachers just wanted to try something different.
Instead, they felt they had to defend their decision with this falsehood: “The truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth.” When I asked for evidence of that, they declined to provide it.
AP courses and tests are not perfect but are designed to resemble college introductory courses, also not perfect. That is why more than 4,200 colleges and universities give credit for good scores on AP tests. The three-hour AP exams (which the eight schools’ students can still take) are heavily weighted toward essay and problem-solving questions that demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis. The seven schools have been teaching AP courses for several decades. Did the courses become bad only when they decided to dump them?
Frazier O’Leary Jr., a recently retired AP English teacher at Cardozo High School in the District, said, “The argument that a school would need to get rid of an AP class in order to provide intellectual stimulation for students presents a grave disservice to those teachers who do this every day in AP classes.”
Kande McKay, an AP English teacher in Madison, Ind., criticized the schools’ reference to “the diminished utility” of AP and its statement that “almost 40 percent of high school students enroll in AP courses, meaning it is no longer true that only a few, exceptional students take them.”
That assessment ignores the past 30 years in which public high schools have found AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge to be robust tools to challenge more students — about 2.7 million in 2017, including many exceptional ones who couldn’t afford private school. Enrollment officials from 13 universities including Yale, Michigan, Stanford and UCLA have rejected the eight schools’ contention that AP courses are of “diminished significance.”
One AP government teacher, Michael Grill of Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., said, “When administrators can trade on the cachet of their school’s reputation to help get their students into college, it’s really not that bold nor courageous to abandon a metric that can contribute to leveling the playing field.”
“We believe in access to rigorous college-level course-work, regardless of socioeconomic background,” said Assistant Principal Robert J. Quinlan of the Brooklyn High School of the Arts in New York, where AP enrollment has increased by almost 1,500 percent in the past decade.
The seven private schools join an anti-AP movement that has not had much success so far. All of the schools involved in that movement educate fewer than one-half of 1 percent of U.S. high school students. Their leaders hoped when Scarsdale High, a public school in a rich New York town, replaced AP with its own courses and tests a decade ago, others would follow. But Scarsdale remains the only public school in the country to make the move.
One of the co-signers was Bryan Garman, head of Sidwell Friends and one of the best U.S. history teachers I have ever seen. Our daughter Katie loved his course. He encouraged depth and analysis. The course was not labeled AP, but he prepared everyone to take the AP test.
Our family was very happy when he was made the school’s leader. But that means he is quite busy. I wonder if he had a chance to read that opinion piece with his usual care before he signed it.