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Unshackled from the golden handcuffs of AP [Letter]

I read The Sun's investigative report on Advanced Placement courses ("Some parents, educators are rethinking role of AP," Jan. 18) with great interest, in part because our school, on principle, has never offered AP classes. Our rationale is simple: We believe the AP program and its heavy weighting toward the memorization and recitation of facts inhibits the development of critical thinking skills and deeper conceptual understanding.

It is heartening to see that the College Board has begun to acknowledge and address this significant pedagogical shortcoming. In a 2011 New York Times article, Trevor Packer, College Board senior vice president, said "the new AP needs to be anchored in a curriculum that focuses on what students need to be able to do with their knowledge." We concur wholeheartedly with this assessment and have acted on this conviction by continually adapting and evolving our curriculum to develop students who are highly engaged creators of their own understanding, rather than passive recipients of a static body of knowledge.

As reporter Liz Bowie noted in the article, over the past decade a growing number of highly regarded public and private high schools have made the decision to drop AP from their curriculum for precisely these reasons. (Anecdotally, I can tell you that when colleagues at other schools learn that we have never offered AP, they often express the wish that this were the case at their own schools.)

One key to further unlocking the "golden handcuffs" by which many schools find themselves bound to the AP lies in disabusing families of the inaccurate notion that the AP is a necessary credential for admission to the most highly selective colleges. Our school's experience is consistent with the comments from Dean Ellen Kim in your article. Johns Hopkins (and, by logical extension, other highly selective universities), "wants applicants to have taken the most challenging course work available to them. … When an applicant's school doesn't offer AP, the student isn't penalized," she said. Like Scarsdale High School Principal Kenneth Bonamo, we have found that, in the absence of the restrictions imposed by AP classes, "(t)eachers have the ability to go more in-depth into topics in the curriculum." And, as with Scarsdale, "(w)e have seen no impact on college placement," as a result of our long-standing decision not to offer these courses.

Indeed, despite choosing not to offer AP courses, the quality and rigor of the experiences that our students have in their upper-level classes prepare them well for taking the AP exams. In recent years, the majority of our students have sat for one or more AP exams, with 93 percent scoring a 3 or higher. Given that our college placement list includes the full complement of the nation's elite universities, we feel that our approach offers a "best of both worlds" scenario, in which our students have an opportunity to reap the benefits of enhanced college acceptance, credit and placement while enjoying the numerous advantages that a truly independent curriculum allows us.

Matthew Micciche, Baltimore

The writer is head of school at Friends School of Baltimore.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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