Advanced Placement at Nightingale
by Kitty Gordan, acting head of school
When a Nightingale student signs up for an Advanced Placement (AP) course, she selects a college-level course whose syllabus is designed by a committee of leaders in every discipline in higher education.It culminates in a final examination graded blindly by readers drawn from schools all over the country. In May 2011, nearly two million students from 18,000 schools around the world took 3.4 million AP exams offered by the College Board.
The AP program was created in the early 1950s to bridge the gap between college and high school and to enable talented and motivated students to avoid repetition. Students who earned a score of three or above (out of five) on the AP exam would receive college credit in that subject (some colleges have raised the cut-off in recent years) and those who took three or four APs in high school could graduate in three years. Colleges and universities across the United States and in 60 foreign countries recognize AP examinations scores in the admission process, for placement purposes and/or credit.
By their junior year, many Nightingale students are ready for college-level work and want the challenge. Approximately 74% of juniors and 90% of seniors elect to take one or more AP courses in any given year. Over 90% earn a three, the threshold for college credit, and 70% earn fours and fives. Although the number of Nightingale students taking one or more APs has stayed constant over the last 10 years, our students are taking more AP courses on an individual basis, and more are taking science APs (30% on average). Our students perform equally well in the humanities, math, and science courses, and while we do not offer AP English, the quarter of any given class that takes the exam anyway earns fours and fives. These impressive results have held steady over time.
The evolution of educational and cultural priorities over the last decade led independent schools to give serious thought to the role of APs in their programs. While some schools have increased their AP offerings and others have made no changes, some schools (such as Fieldston) have taken the position that the AP program was at odds with their educational and social purposes and have dropped out of the program entirely. Nightingale looked at APs through the lenses of its educational values, the current educational landscape and its vision of how best to prepare our students for the modern world. We considered the importance of some survey courses to the foundational role of the high school in liberal arts education; the strength of the AP program in math and science; and the value of measuring ourselves against national norms; ultimately, we decided our policy should be flexible out of respect for the wisdom of our faculty and the strong identity of our departments. Consequently, they may choose to participate fully or partially or not at all in the AP program, and our academic advising encourages students to think about their priorities and their strengths as students when making their course selections.
In certain areas of study, AP courses serve our students well. The mathematics department sees AP Calculus as a very good senior-level course for talented math students, which is not surprising given that the 2003 assessment by the Third International Mathematics and Science study found that AP students who earned a three or above in AP Physics and AP Calculus outperformed other advanced physics and math students both in the United States and abroad. Recent research also confirms the value of AP courses. The science department offers AP Physics to juniors and AP Chemistry and AP Biology to seniors because it feels the AP curriculum is appropriately challenging and has seen that the experience encourages students to continue with science at college. New syllabi are being phased in over the next three years, which allow for more of the hands-on teaching with a focus on inquiry skills that the science department believes in. AP Virgil is a much valued rite of passage for our classicists who excel in it year after year, and AP Art History, while daunting in its scope, provides students with an invaluable artistic cross-cultural experience. Still, not all APs are relevant to Nightingale, as is the case with AP English. The dense AP English curriculum does not allow for the focus on writing that is one of the strengths of our English teaching and would also require that we abandon our highly successful junior/senior elective program. In addition, although AP American History and AP European History are both excellent courses, we decided to stop offering AP European History because we wanted to make space for such culturally broader electives as World Religions, The World Now, Economics, and China. We also offer the AP language courses in French and Spanish and plan to offer AP Mandarin, but we do not offer the AP literature courses because our modern languages department prefers to offer more thematic literature courses with a significant cultural component.
APs are one of many options students weigh as they design their program for their last two years of high school. To thrive in AP courses, a student needs a genuine interest and solid foundations in the subject and the desire to meet the challenge and compete on the national scene. Intellectual and personal fit is equally important; some students want the freedom to pursue their personal interests and to work in more depth than the APs permit. Many students believe that APs will strengthen their college application profile, which is a logical assumption given nationwide grade inflation and highly competitive college admissions, but it still has to be the right course for the individual. There is no question that when a student takes the most demanding course available and performs at a top level nationally, it sends colleges a message and further validates her transcript. In the words of Heather Beveridge, our director of college counseling: “Our students consistently earn excellent results on APs, which is a validation of our overall program.” Still, there are many other ways outside of the AP program to demonstrate excellence and the discipline that comes with it.
The Nightingale curriculum is a work in progress and the AP courses co-exist with our rigorous core curriculum, in-depth electives, interdisciplinary work, independent study, and off-campus programs. They support the academic and personal values that are key to a lifetime of learning in a world where our students will have to cope with the books that have yet to be written and the scientific discoveries that have yet to be made. Consistent with the values we teach from Kindergarten onward, AP courses reinforce the intellectual habits and the confidence that come with the conquest of difficulty and competing in the outside world.