Striking College Board compromises

By Dana Glaser

Tacked up in the senior art studio, alongside posters for Rhode Island School of Design summer art school and newspaper clippings of recent exhibitions is a poster with the words “AP Studio Art: Drawing and Painting” plastered across its front. The poster exhibits several examples of what the College Board has deemed “outstanding concentrations” (a concentration is a 12-piece body of work united by a theme of the artist’s choosing) along with the grading rubric for the AP, detailing what the readers look for. It’s as much a reference for student artists – whether they know it or not – as the frayed references of the historic masters lying below it, because the AP standards inform the whole art program.

Not every classroom has a poster, but the influence of AP exams is felt on campus long before the students sit them in May.

“The College Board provides all the information we need [for AP classes] and checks to make sure we are using it,” Director of Studies Deborah Dowling said.

The College Board communicates the necessary information through detailed websites. Every teacher must be “certified” to teach AP, which entails signing a statement that the teacher has in fact read over the curriculum requirements. The teacher is also required to mail the Harvard-Westlake syllabus to the Collegeboard, she said.

Aligning the College Board curriculum and Harvard-Westlake’s goals provokes a variety of responses in teachers trying to keep up with changes in either program, both past and present.

AP Studio Art

When Hall received this year’s AP rubric, she was confused. At least two or three of the glossy photos of the sample work were clearly based on photographs, but the College Board’s online material emphasized the importance of drawing from life.

She decided to attend an AP Studio Art workshop put on by the College Board.

“I wanted to know what was going on with the rubric, we spent a lot of time at this. The students deserve to be rewarded for what they do, they put a lot of thought, a lot of imagination into it,” she said.

Last year’s senior class scored way below what they would have in any other year, Hall said. She has taught AP Studio Art for over 20 years; she was “shocked” at the scores (out of 15 students, six scored a 4, six scored a 3 and three scored a 2). She believes she discovered the reason when she attended the workshop.

“The woman [leading the workshop] mentioned that last year they had 37,000 or 39,000 portfolios,” she said. The last time she had been to a workshop several years ago, they had received 4,000 portfolios and had hired 100 readers to evaluate them. “And I asked – ‘and how many readers did you have?’ Still 100. So I started to do the math.”

Thinking of how many hours the readers must work, and how tired each group must be after just one hour, Hall asked the leaders of the group, two readers with eight and 30 years of experience, how much time each group dedicated to a single portfolio.

“The woman didn’t answer it, she kept saying ‘everyone is trained really well; they get really fast at seeing what’s going on,’” Hall said. “I said “yes, but how much time?” Finally the woman responded “about 15 seconds.” The man interrupted, ‘more like five.’”

In the question and answer sessions that followed, the leaders of the workshop emphasized the importance of not confusing the readers, of not making the concentrations “too intellectual,” Hall said. They urged teachers to encourage all of their students, even those with learning disabilities, to participate in the program.

“I’ve always made the analogy to my students that the concentration is like a play, or it’s like a poem, or it’s like a novel with a beginning, middle and end with the grand ‘aha!’ as the thesis,” Hall said.

After she attended the workshop, however, Hall felt she had to inform her classes – the seniors, who were half way through their concentrations, and the juniors who had hopes of doing the same – of the College Board’s new standards.

“They want to get it in a flash – it has to be like a poster, a sign, not a work of art anymore,” Hall said.

Student Reaction

Hall was surprised to find that several juniors still wanted to participate in AP Studio Art the following year knowing their portfolio would only receive five seconds of evaluation.

“I had heard of the restrictions on the readers and how they were going to not have time to look at it, but it didn’t really change my decision because I’ve been doing art since I was so little, and it was like I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t go to the highest I could in high school,” Nicola Kronstadt ’10 said.

When she discovered the “disarray” the AP program was in, Hall discussed the possibility of creating an honors art course not associated with the College Board but ultimately rejected the idea because in order to be certified as an honors course, a class must have an equivalent regular course. Hall also worried that the shift might affect the popularity of the class.

Spanish teacher Roser Gelida has experienced a similar student reaction to AP Spanish Literature. In 2003 the College Board alerted teachers of the class to a massive overhaul of the curriculum to make it more like a survey course. Where teachers were once allowed to choose all the works they taught from a list of four 20th century authors, they were now given a list of over 50 works they were required to teach, some dating to the Middle Ages, Gelida said.

“Now we don’t have room to maneuver, to change, to say ‘I don’t like this, I’m going to change this’ or ‘I’m bored of this, next year I’m going to do something different’ or ‘Kids don’t like this, I’m going to change it.’ Can’t do it,” she said. “That’s the list, it’s proscribed, and I have to follow it. And if I have to prepare the students for the exam, I have to teach everything.”

Every year, Gelida gives her students a survey, asking them, among other things, whether they would choose an honors course that focused more narrowly on certain Spanish writers or the current AP course. The students choose the AP course every time, she said.

Shelby Layne ’09, a current AP Spanish Literature student, understands the statistic but feels she has a different perspective having taken the course.

“If you had the choice between an honors and the AP you’d want the credit for college purposes. But kids don’t know exactly what they’re getting into,” she said. “I have learned so much from this class because we have covered a huge volume of work, but I felt that each piece was very rushed. I know a lot of other schools did away with the AP once it changed. For example, Marlborough only has a one semester honors course.”

If students responded in favor of an honors course, Gelida would attempt to create one, she said. Teaching an honors course would be a much easier task, though the class would remain challenging.

Without the pressure of exams, which drive the focus of the class toward writing essays, Gelida would add a presentation element and the chance to compare the assigned literature with film interpretations.

“I would hear what the students have to say…That happens with what I am teaching now. I mean there are things that they don’t like, things I can tell are not interesting, but I have to teach it year after year,” she said.

The AP Advantage

Dowling, who is a teacher of AP Physics B in addition to her role as Director of Studies, finds freedom within the restrictions of the College Board.

“We have to teach what they say we have to teach,” Dowling said, “but there’s a little bit of freedom in how we teach it, particularly in what we emphasize and how quickly we go through stuff.”

The creation of curriculum is an ever-changing process, Dowling said. Teachers are constantly “rethinking” their lessons, changing worksheets and homework problems a little every year.

“I think that any course that is written by someone other than me is going to make me think ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do it that way,’” Dowling said.

For example, Dowling cited the treatment of rotational motion in AP Physics B as a topic that would go under the knife if she had her way. The class right now covers the topic in about a day and a half. Dowling thinks it should be either a few weeks or not at all.

“There are lots of bits in the AP physics course that I think ‘oh that’s a bit silly,’ but I do it anyway because that way, I know the students are getting what other students are getting, and the colleges can trust that my students have got something they can understand” she said.

Preserving a balance between the demands of the test and what the teacher believes is important is a concern in the new class AP English Language, Department Head Laurence Weber said.

“They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but there’s a research component, there’s a research passage to the AP [Language] program,” he said. “Our program is the mind of the student meets the mind of the writer; we want our students in conversation with [George] Orwell and Emily Dickinson and sort of communing and coming away with a larger understanding of life. But we don’t want them going to the AP Language exam not having done the equivalent of our little weird DBQ kind of thing, which is a researchy thing they have to do.”

The English department’s AP program has been in flux for the past few years. This year the department has again settled that all seniors take either AP English Literature or AP English Language, which is a rhetoric course. Though the AP is not offered until senior year, the standards of the test inform the whole Harvard-Westlake English program. Even students reading Orwell’s “1984” in sophomore year are working in an AP style of reading, Weber said.

Rhetoric, the study of how writers make arguments, is a discrete study but not unrelated to the study of literature and composition. Both are linked by analysis of concrete detail, Weber said.

“There was an inherent unfairness in providing an AP class to the seniors who were already kind of earning a majority of the higher grades in English, so they were getting kind of this double springboard effect, which when we examined it seemed unfair,” Weber said, explaining the decision to include AP English Language in the senior curriculum.

Dowling too sees a number of advantages in sticking with the AP program. For one thing, she believes the ability to absorb lots of knowledge quickly (referring to the rush of the crammed AP curriculum some teachers, like Gelida, feel) will be a useful skill in many of the fields Harvard-Westlake students are bound to enter, even if it doesn’t result in perfect retention of AP Physics B in 5-10 years time. She also believes it is “healthy” to set an outside standard.

“It keeps us part of the broader community and not sitting up on our little mountain saying ‘we’re better than you, na na na na na.’ We can have plenty of courses that go beyond the AP and do more exciting stuff. We have regular Physics for those teachers who want to go into the topics they think are particularly exciting at the depth that they want to. We have SSR for students who want to do something that’s really exciting and go beyond what an AP course could ever deliver. But we also have AP for those who want the standardized course,” she said, “and the popularity suggests that people want it.”