By Anna Mintzer
As the number one consortium school in New York City, at first glance Advanced Placement classes (APs) seem to contradict the ideas of the project based curriculum that Beacon High School encourages. With the recent addition of AP Environmental Science to the list of AP classes offered at Beacon and the possibility of other AP classes to be added for next year, one can’t help but wonder if AP classes are actually beneficial for Beacon students.
The AP courses at Beacon attract any student looking for an additional challenge in math, science, or language. Many students at Beacon– and all high schools in America– are attracted to AP classes because the course rigor looks favorable to colleges; admissions officers often say they prefer students who get an A in AP physics rather than an A+ in regular physics. Moreover, by getting a good score on the AP test at the end of the year students can receive college credit for the course, potentially saving families from paying a semester of college.
The glaring issue when considering adding AP classes to the course list is that the classes contradicts Beacon’s project based curriculum. The 2020 profile sent to colleges explains that “Beacon does not “teach to the test.” The rigidity and uniformity of the AP curriculums often prevent students from being able to think critically and creatively about the subject information.
The nature of AP classes requires teachers to quickly move through the curriculum in order to cover every topic that would possibly be on the test. However, Beacon’s four period a week classes often do not provide enough time for AP teachers to cover everything they would like. More often than not, fun and informative labs and projects may get replaced with drilling frequently asked test questions.
Teaching to a test is not a uniform process across subjects, and it is clearly more effective in some subjects than others. A student who took AP Spanish her sophomore year recounts that it was one of her favorite subjects at Beacon. She felt the heavy focus on conversation prepared her and her classmates well for the AP exam as well as generally improving fluency. A current AP French student, David Mercado, notes that AP French has improved his fluency greatly as well, even remarking “it doesn’t feel like we are teaching to a test.”
However, there are undoubtedly subjects where AP classes feel like a massive deviation from the traditional Beacon learning style. The major distinction is between working hard for a traditionally rigorous class, and assuming the role of your own teacher in order to get a passing grade on the AP test or learn from the class. Students may spend hours working on the hefty “flipped classroom” packets that instruct students how to teach themselves the chunks of the unit that were not covered in class. Sanai Rashid, a senior who has taken two science AP classes, says she has to approach the work for her AP classes in a completely different way. “Without a doubt I spend more hours a night doing homework for the history class I am taking this semester, but everything I am working allows me to think about what we worked on in class, with my science class I am teaching myself brand new material.”
When AP classes are added to the curriculum most of Beacon’s high achieving student body feel compelled to take the classes– even if they are not interested in the class– because they want the most rigorous transcripts to show colleges. When AP Environmental Science was added to the course list, so many students requested to take the class, a third band was added. However, this student demand is conditional on the existence of more AP classes at Beacon, if there were no more AP classes added, students would take the non-AP rigorous courses that are offered at the school or participate in College Now classes to show course rigor.
The self fulfilling demand for AP classes leaves little room for student protest. If Beacon students sympathize with the idea that additional AP classes would pressure them to take classes that they would otherwise not want to take, they should urge administration to reconsider adding more AP classes to the course list for next year.