The College Credit Crisis: Examining the Relevance of AP Classes at Staples High School

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Isaac Stein ’12 and Brendan Rand ’11
Senior Writer and News Editor

No matter what classes they are taking, a mountain of AP textbooks is not an uncommon sight for students like Sean Christie ’12, who study in the library. | Photo by Isaac Stein ’12

According to the College Board AP classes are designed to help “earn college credit, stand out in the [college] admission process, and explore your interests and discover your passions.”

Staples High School currently offers 22 of the College Board’s 30 AP classes. This causes several questions arise among teachers and students about how measurably relevant AP classes are to college admissions and college credit, and why students take these classes to begin with.

Zoë Greenblatt ‘12, who is enrolled in AP US history, among other courses, expressed her rationale behind going AP. “Honestly, I really like history… and a course like AP US also keeps me motivated to learn. I wouldn’t want to be in a setting a group with people that didn’t really care [about the class], which you might find more often in a section of standard US history,” Greenblatt said.

Among senior AP students, a common theme shows that students take certain AP classes chiefly due to their interest in the subject. “I’m taking [my AP classes] in math because math is a subject area where I’m especially strong in, and I didn’t know much about statistics and I wanted to learn more about that,” said Max Samuels ’11, who is taking AP Statistics and AP Calculus AB. “I also had such a great experience in Pre-Calculus Honors that I wanted to continue into Calculus, and I also wanted a challenge in my courses for this year.”

James D’Amico, the Social Studies Department Chair for both Bedford Middle School and Staples High School, and a former AP US teacher, affirms that students such as Greenblatt and Samuels have positive motivations for taking AP classes. “You would hope that [the student] is taking a class like AP US out of genuine interest because if you don’t like US history, it’s going to be a long year,” D’Amico said.

D’Amico noted that there are two distinct camps of AP students. The first group of students may take AP classes because they are interested in the subject material, while the second group may feel more pressure to just put AP courses on their transcripts. At Staples in particular, D’Amico believes there is a sharp division between these two types of students.

Elaine Schwartz, Director of Guidance at Staples, carries additional insight into the some of the students D’Amico refers to. “Oftentimes, students feel like they need a lot of AP classes to get into college and I feel it’s not the right reason to take them because then the stress is too much and that in turn makes [the student] unhappy and unhealthy,” Schwartz said.

P.J. Washenko, a guidance counselor at Staples, agrees with Schwartz that the significance of many AP’s in a student’s schedule may be overblown, and acknowledges that colleges look at more than just the quantity of AP courses a student takes.

“I’ve had students take four or five AP classes in a single year. But colleges look at more than a student’s schedule, transcript, and the number of AP classes they took in a year,” Washenko said. “The transcript is just a piece of paper; what also really matters are good letters of recommendation. [Colleges] really want to hear who you are as a person.”

Some students said they thought the opportunity to receive college credit was a definite benefit, although it wasn’t the main reason they were taking their classes.

“Looking at some of the colleges I’m applying to, some of them do accept college credit and if you do well on the AP test you can place out or get credit for the course distribution, which is a plus,” said Stephanie Ostroff ’11, who is taking three AP classes. “But I don’t think it’s the main reason I’m taking them.”

Some AP students at Staples do admit, however, that there may be other AP students who view the classes differently than they do.

“I do believe that there are students who try taking as many AP classes as possible to look good for college, who are not really interested in the subject,” Ostroff said.

Andrea Stefenson ’11 has additional insight. “I’m sure many people take AP classes for college credit and also to show colleges that they challenged themselves in high school,” Stefenson said.

However, some students, including Brandon Edelson ‘11, believe that there are also negative consequences to AP college credit. Edelson believes that students will discover that for college level courses, it is not enough to just pass the AP exam, but knowledge and interest in the material are also crucial.

Additionally, D’Amico expressed his sentiments about how the AP scope in terms of college credit has changed over time.

“It used to be, at least 15-20 years ago, that a three, four, or a five [on an AP Exam] got a student at least some type of college credit. However, more and more colleges are only taking fours and fives and some aren’t taking the scores for credit at all,” D’Amico said.

According to D’Amico, there are several compelling reasons behind the declining number of colleges accepting AP scores for credit and the devaluation of AP scores.

To begin, D’Amico stated that colleges have a definite monetary incentive to refuse AP scores. This is because colleges can make more money by forcing their incoming freshmen to take introductory courses as opposed to skipping over them from AP.

In addition, the College Board has expanded the AP program tremendously in terms of the number of courses that are offered. Therefore, the significance of the scores is being questioned. Finally, it’s the individual departments of particular colleges who make the decision of whether or not AP scores are accepted. Because of this, the relevance of AP in terms of credit becomes further confused.

Another factor that could be considered in determining the relevance of AP courses at Staples, is what Staples would be like without them. In recent years, schools like Scarsdale (NY) High School as well as private schools like Calhoun and Dalton (NY) have done away with their AP programs in favor of alternatives, according to the New York Times.

Students and teachers, however, don’t seem to agree that taking away AP courses would benefit Staples.

“I think that AP classes add more diversity to the schedule and create more classes from which students can choose from,” Stefenson said. “Also, they challenge students, and help them to transition to college courses.”

Edelson agreed, acknowledging that the wide variety of AP courses offered at Staples give the school its reputation. “Without the AP classes we wouldn’t be nearly as good a school,” he said.

Staples teachers also like the AP curriculums. “I really think the curriculum is great, and I think the questions are great and the concepts are great,” said Robin Sacilotto, who teaches AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC. “The only thing that I don’t really like is the whole time constraint. If I could actually teach the AP curriculum throughout the whole year I think the students would have an even more enriching understanding, and there would be more people taking AP.”

In the end, teachers suggest that students taking AP classes consider a variety of factors such as their schedules and their interests.

“The first thing I usually ask students before they take an AP course is to virtually consider their whole schedule and how many AP courses they are taking, and also with that how much time they going to be able to put into the course,” Sacilotto said. “Specifically to my AP courses, ‘do you love math?’ is my first question. Secondly, ‘are you willing to challenge yourself and are you willing to put the time in to really make the connections?’”

Julia Horowitz, a social worker at Staples, believes that a student’s experience with AP or a similarly challenging course depends heavily on the individual.

“AP classes are like ultramarathons. There are people who think that they can do far too much. It’s necessary for a student to gauge his or her learning style and capacity. As I say, ‘know thy self,’” Horowitz said.

What are your thoughts on AP courses at Staples, as well as the students choose who take them? Tell us in a comment below.

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