One phrase that inspires terror in the hearts of many senior schoolers come May is “AP Exams.” Advanced Placement (AP) exams are lengthy, cumulative, and diffcult; each test takes about three hours to complete and covers at least a whole year’s worth of material. However, these exams also have benefts, such as potential college credit, resume building and challenging academics. APs are often seen as a standard part of the Hopkins curriculum, but opinions about these courses vary among teachers and students.
AP courses were established nationally in the 1950s, and at Hopkins soon after. David Harpin, Dean of Academics, mentioned that Hopkins adopted this curriculum because “AP courses - being college-level courses- run at a high level of rigor, and were considered badges of academic achievement.”
A major problem associated with APs is fnding a balance between teaching the material that will be covered on the test and teaching the material deeply and fully. As AP United States History teacher Daniel Levy said, “What I dislike is how fast we are forced to move in order to fnish by the AP test. It is impossible to go into as much depth in places as I would like. We have no ability to watch good historical movies or to do many projects and creative stuff.”
Furthermore, teachers have found it difcult to cram the preset curriculum into a limited number of school days. AP Environmental Science teacher Allison Mordas said, “We have the added diffculty of covering the same curriculum as public schools, which are required to have 180 school days/year, in a much shorter time frame. Since the AP's exam is always the frst Monday in May, I have far fewer class days than a public school teacher to cover the same amount of material.”
Another issue is that teachers lack the freedom to design their own curriculum. Mordas said, “The curriculum for AP courses is determined by the College Board, not faculty at Hopkins. There are many, many things that I teach because I know that they will be on the AP exam, not necessarily because they better aid students in understanding the subject.”
Though discussions to phase out this curriculum have taken place before, nothing has come to fruition. Samantha Dies ’18 said, “They’re a good challenge and it’s nice that there’s the possibility to use the tests for college placement or exemption. I think they also help students delve deeper into subjects they’re interested in.” Katrina Tiktinsky ’18 also defended the courses, saying, “I like the advanced diffculty of the course, the challenge of additional work and the fact that there’s higher expectations for things like class participation.”
Many AP teachers, however, favor a switch to an Honors, rather than AP curriculum. David McCord, who teaches AP BC Calculus, said, “I favor home grown honors courses as a capstone experience within each discipline, much as the English program is set up with their Shakespeare electives for Term I seniors.” AP Biology teacher Kellie Cox agreed, saying “I love the challenging nature of my course’s material, but I hate ‘teaching to the exam.’ If it were instead a pure, honors biology course, we would learn the material for the unadulterated love of the subject, not because students want an “AP” class on their transcript.”
Levy also pointed out how much extra time an honors class would receive. He said, “The expectations and curriculum [for an honors history class] would be similar [to APs], but we would have three extra weeks to complete the course. The only problem is that, knowing Hopkins students, they will choose to take AP tests on their own, and this will mean additional work to get through all material on their own.”
He also offered an alternate solution: “I would advocate for AP classes getting additional class time - perhaps a lab period two times a week modeled on science. This would at least add a bit more class time to do interesting projects or watch videos.”
One Hopkins department that entirely escapes labeling courses as “AP” is the English Department. Tough two AP English exams are offered, Hopkins does not offer courses that exclusively teach the techniques of these exams.
According to English Department Chair Alissa Davis, “The AP English exam in literature tests students on the ‘bread and butter’ of what we do in every class: analyzing texts. All of the texts that we read in our curriculum provide students with ample depth to answer the big picture questions on the AP Lit exam.” Although Hopkins students may have to prepare for the exam on their own, the rigorous Hopkins English curriculum generally prepares students for these tests.
Furthermore, not offering English AP classes allows for more variety in the curriculum. Davis said, “By pooling all of our eleventh and twelfth graders together in the spring, we get to offer more amazing elective options. Similarly, we can offer so many Shakespeare electives in the fall because we have all of the Seniors in the mix to take these classes. This gives us more fexibility and more opportunity to meet student interests and needs.”
Students flock to AP courses because of the advanced difculty, tests scores for their transcripts and possible college credit, among other reasons. However, the AP curriculum often constrains teachers in terms of what they would like to focus on, and applies an additional time pressure to get through all the material before the May exams. For now, though, it seems as though APs are here to stay.