Graphic by Ellie Kalatzi
High school is an anomaly, a distortion, an alternate universe. A piece of weekend gossip travels at warp speed, a 7-hour school day is scheduled down to each second. Having no friends in free: the end of the world. It is a bubble.
Thus it is no surprise that matters such as GPA’s, AP’s, and the magic that unites the two–that .67 AP weight that conjures a B+ into an A–can be magnified to epic proportions when let loose within high school corridors.This extra GPA weight, an alchemy that no other school in Westport’s district reference group uses, is designed to reward students for the hard work and academic challenges they encounter in college-level courses.
However, due to the number of AP’s offered, as well as the grading policies within each class, humanities students (students who favor English and social studies) at Staples High School are currently at a disadvantage to their engineering-focused peers (students who favor math and science).
The facts are that Staples offers five AP science classes, five AP math courses and five AP social studies classes (one of which is AP Macro/Microeconomics, a course described in the course catalog as one that requires “excellent mathematics skills,” thus making it more of an engineering class than a humanities class).
With unanimous “fives” across the various disciplines, English arrives as a clear loser. Staples offers only two AP English classes: AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature. It’s not as if it’s anyone’s fault. That’s all that the College Board offers.
But while the addition of AP U.S. History for sophomores and A.P. European History (on a fast-track to BOE approval for the 2013-2014 school year) has narrowed the gap, it remains true that a student who excels in the engineering departments has more opportunities to take AP classes at Staples, and benefit from the weighting system in place than a student who excels in the humanities.
In fact, the divide is born even before high school. Math class leveling and advanced tracking begins as early as 6th grade. This acceleration allows students to take more AP classes sooner in their high school careers, and thus, potentially, boost their GPA’s–something that doesn’t exist in the humanities.
While some say this advanced curriculum is possible because of the sequential nature of mathematics, others argue that the addition of a new engineering elective soon to be offered at the middle schools in the absence of any equivalent English or social studies options suggests inattention to talented humanities students.
The Convenience of Natural Talents
The lack of diversity within the College Board curriculum has led students to question whether a high GPA is more easily achieved by a math/science driven student.
Just how significant the advantage is can be seen with a look at the eight students who were either valedictorian or salutatorian in the last four years. Of the eight, seven responded to an interview request, and every single one of the seven said they would consider themselves math-science students at Staples, having taken a preponderance of math and science courses. High-achieving students currently at Staples say the GPA advantage continues to play an important role. Additionally, they say, math-science students are offered many more opportunities.
Mrinal Kumar ‘14, a self-described “math/science person,” is confident that his preferred discipline is the most rewarding. “It’s much easier to get recognized for math/science talent within the school than it is to be recognized for English/social studies talent,” he said.
According to Kumar, countless competitions, such as Bio Olympiad, Chem Olympiad, Physics Olympiad, Moody’s, Siemens, Intel and AMC 12, are designed for high schoolers to show off their engineering talents. While similar competitions may be available for students interested in reading, writing or history, Kumar believes they are much less publicized.
“The school encourages extracurricular math/science efforts much more than it does English/social studies efforts,” said Kumar.
Kumar offers his personal math achievements as validation for his beliefs. Since 5th grade, he has been working his way through a series of challenges which have gradually funneled him into the most competitive math level in the school: next year he will be taking Differential Equations, a math class nonexistent at Staples prior to Kumar’s mathematical success.
This kind of an advanced track and leveling of classes is not available within the English or social studies department, which Kumar believes is evidenced by the large amount of students who take AP Language simply because that’s the only advanced English option for juniors.
Blythe Lewis ‘13 agrees that humanity-channeled students have less outlets to define their talent within the AP curriculum. “Excepting a few very talented students, I think most science and math track students are challenged much more than an average English-track kid like myself, which is sad,” said Lewis.
The argument that the College Board only offers two AP English courses and thus Staples only offers these two courses is undermined by such courses as Multivariable Calculus and the proposed Differential Equations, which are not offered by the College Board but have been introduced into the Staples curriculum to accommodate the needs of students like Kumar who are excelling within the mathematics department. These courses have no AP test in May, yet students receive AP weight from the classes in their GPA’s.
Lisabeth Comm, Director of Secondary Education, and former chair of the English department, says that the English department does have the capability to design a college level course beyond that which is already offered but questions the purpose of doing so.
“Are we just trying to inflate grade averages of some humanities students?” Comm asked. “Or is there a real need for more advanced English courses beyond the two AP English courses that are offered?”
Such a need is tangible in math, explains Frank Corbo, Mathematics Department Chair, since more advanced math classes are a necessity because of the successive nature of the curriculum.
“[Math] is sequential. Once you take course “n” you have to take course “n+1,” said Corbo.
Learning by Numbers
Some students said they are feeling disserviced by more than just a couple of decimal points. Lewis, who has a passion for English, feels as though she simply has fewer opportunities to challenge herself in the humanities, especially English. A junior strong in the sciences might take AP Chem, AP Environmental, AP Bio. A junior strong in English could take AP Language and Composition and Honors Myth and Bible, and the next year, just AP Lit.
“I want to be a writer. I love reading more than most everything,” said Lewis. “The most important thing to me academically is to better my ability to read and write well, and I think Staples could do more to challenge kids like me with similar goals,” she added.
Many believe the solution to this would be to do away with the differentiation between AP and honors, and instead put the focus on learning and development in every class.
As mentioned before, Staples is unique among surrounding towns in its system of weighting AP courses higher than honors. Furthermore, many schools do not differentiate between the GPA weight of A and B classes. D’Amico supports a possible move away from this system of grading.
“Whatever ways we can come up with to move the conversation away from points and toward understanding is the way we need to go,” said D’Amico. “When we start nitpicking GPA, nobody wins,” he added.
English teacher Christine Radler leans in a similar direction, favoring the abolition of all weighted grades at Staples.
“Students view grades as currency,” said Radler, adding that “the challenge of the course should be a reward in and of itself. I truly believe that.”
Adding and Subtracting Versus Editing and Revising
Inherent differences in content and grading between each department may also pose an obstacle for humanities students. Is it harder to get higher grades in humanities classes simply because of the nature of the subject? Perhaps. Curves, and generous ones at that, are much more common in math and science classes; they’re actually not permitted in nearly every social studies class. In addition, it may take a lot more sustained work to get an A or higher in the humanities..
Radler, for example, says that she will give an A+ on an AP English essay “if someone meets a 9 on the rubric” just like a math teacher would give an A+ if a student answers the question correctly. But essays take a lot of revisions, many more than students estimate, before they are fully “polished.” “Good writing is labor intensive,” she said.
By contrast, Steven Sobel ‘14, a self-described “math/science person,” explains that math and science grades are almost entirely self-evident, with set point values given for set answers.
“There is always something to improve in an essay, but if you do a math problem right, then you did as well as possible,” said Sobel.
English Teacher Meghan Scheck further described the reasons an A+ essay is rare.
“What is a ‘perfect’ essay?” said Scheck. “An ‘A’ on an essay means that not only is it technically close to perfect (mechanics, usage, etc) but the ideas are outstanding, unexpected, and original. That’s really hard to do. You really, really have to intellectually bring it on an essay to produce something ‘outstanding,’” Sheck added.
This, as Kumar sees it, makes it “ significantly more difficult to get an A+ in an English class,” he said.
“In math and science courses, perfection is objective and tangible,” Kumar added.