New West Charter does not offer AP classes. When first embarking on this exciting and challenging journey to expand New West Charter Middle School, we set our sights on being the school for everybody, of offering all that we could. We believed and strove for various aspects we thought our 9-12 grades should have because every other school had them. However, in our elated vision of all these aspects, we did not come to realize that they would not be feasible but also that they would “not fit” with who New West was and has always been. We began our consultations and visits with different charter high schools in Los Angeles and northern California last summer, questioning and learning our way into our expansion. From there, our sights, our vision began to shift as these inspiring, top schools began to question us about our vision, our overall philosophy and our overall success as a top performing middle school. These schools and this questioning made us come to terms with exactly what was on our drawing board and what we really had to embrace as we continued to make the expansion, the 9-12 grades exist.
One line of questioning that brought us up short was Advanced Placement classes within our 9-12 curriculum. As we continued our site visits and consultations, we finally came to the decision to not offer Advanced Placement classes. This final decision came after detailed explanations, long discussions about New West, our charter and our success, many what ifs, and constant conversations with high schools who had made the same decision, such High Tech High LA and San Diego.
We decided to commit to not offering Advanced Placement classes based on the following:
- New West Charter promotes homogenous classrooms, which Advanced Placement classes would eliminate. The homogenous classrooms established in the eight years of middle school have allowed students to know each other and their various abilities. Those same classrooms have also allowed for better equality, challenging options and a strong family culture. In omitting Advanced Placement classes, we keep our school culture from becoming a tiered school culture. We don’t want just a group of students to succeed; we want all our students to succeed.
- In researching the Advanced Placement program and speaking to Advanced Placement teachers, we came to learn that Advanced Placement classes have a structured curriculum and to prepare students for the Advanced Placement exams in May, Advanced Placement teachers are required to teach to the test with a structured curriculum. With so many topics to cover for the exam, they have little time to linger on in-depth, critical thinking and creative activities. One of New West’s effective teaching strategies is not teaching to the test, but instead allowing teachers a freedom to be innovative and rigorous while following state standards. New West Charter teachers do not hinder themselves by following a textbook or pacing plan and they certainly have never taught to a test. In acknowledging that we would require our teachers to do so to offer Advanced Placement classes, we came to understand that that requirement went against our mission and philosophy. New West Charter prides its curriculum and teaching on the freedom of creativity and engagement, of offering students a different outlook to a subject, and of not following a structured plan that does not allow for student input – we want to keep it that way for grades 9-12.
- Advanced Placement classes increase the amount of stress, workload and student time as well as the amount of exams a student will need to take throughout their high school years. We confirmed this bit of information in our talks with Advanced Placement teachers, with parents and of course, with students taking Advanced Placement classes. An Advanced Placement student will spend five to seven hours completing class assignments, studying for class exams and attending Advanced Placement reviews. He or she will have no time for extracurricular activities, such as games, dances, time with friends, and/or time with family because there are not enough hours in a day to complete all that is required of them. With all this stress, pressure and time, a student will begin to hate school, to hate learning and go through the motions because his or her parents expect it of him or her. Moreover, two years ago, NWC staff were required to view a film titled, Race to Nowhere, where parents and students spoke of the increasing pressure placed by schools on students, the damage this pressure was wrecking and the students’ reactions of anger and hatred for learning, stress induced hospitalization, and of all extremes, suicide. Remembering the film’s plea for change and the Professional Development discussion NWC staff had, Advanced Placement classes did not support our newfound outlook and promise of change.
- Another tidbit of information we came across in our research of the Advanced Placement program was the fact that some colleges and universities will not give college credit for Advanced Placement classes if students do not score high on the corresponding Advanced Placement exams in May. These exams are a secondary component that exists to provide students with the potential for college credit and yet, some colleges require a score of 5, a perfect score, to receive college credit. The majority of colleges or universities require a 4 or a 5, not even granting elective credit to students who earn the minimum passing score, which is a 3. USC, for example, requires a score of 4 to get credit, as does Stanford. This means that despite enrolling and completing an Advanced Placement class, students do not get college credit unless they pass the Advanced Placement exam with a passing score of 4 or 5. In 2009, 44.9% of students in California scored a 1 or 2 on Advanced Placement exams overall and the number of failing scores continues to increase since then. New West Charter studied these test scores and we decided we did not want our students to feel they failed themselves, their parents or us in this respect.
- To confound matters even more, we also came to learn that just because a student receives a high score on the Advanced Placement exam, it does not necessarily mean he or she will receive college credit. Yes, this contradicts Reason number 4 and when we discovered this known fact, we were not only stupefied but also frustrated. Most universities today restrict how and when Advanced Placement credit can count toward degree requirements. Why? Many universities do not consider an Advanced Placement class in high school to be synonymous with an actual undergraduate college-level class, which is usually a three-hour, lecture-based course with varying degrees of homework. Because of this new outlook, colleges and universities are reassessing just how much credit Advanced Placement students will receive upon matriculation, and they are now limiting those credit units. Each college has its own system for determining credit given for passing scores. Where a student could matriculate as a sophomore because of the amount of passing scores on Advanced Placement exams, a student is no longer allowed to do this. There is no guarantee of any college credit and it is difficult to use Advanced Placement scores alone to get a student ahead of the four-year track. This contradiction made us question whether Advanced Placement classes and/or exams were even beneficial in the long run.
- The Advanced Placement mystique is so powerful, it draws students into classes in which they have no real interest, and this forecloses their opportunity to get involved in classes or activities where they may have genuine passion and aptitude. At New West Charter, we feel that a student should be engaged in what he or she is learning but if he or she goes about the mechanics of learning without investing his or her heart and passion, then NWC becomes just like any other school in Los Angeles. We pride ourselves in being an alternative to regular education and what kind of alternative are we if we made our students feel the same way they would feel at a regular school? Our teachers are passionate about what they teach and that passion filters into their students. Forcing teacher and student into a program in which both cannot find passion makes our vision, our philosophy false. In addition, parents and students feel the pressure to take Advanced Placement courses beyond what a student can successfully handle, leading to Bs and Cs in these classes. The popular thought that a B or C is better than an A in a regular or honors class is not the case.
- In confirming our final decision, we questioned the other schools we visited as to other avenues for acquiring college credit. They assured us there was two avenues students could pursue if college credit was indeed such a concern and/or priority. Please note, however, that these two avenues are the sole responsibility of the parents and students to research, locate information on and implement within their students’ educational career. New West Charter has no involvement in these two avenues other than to inform parents and students that the avenues are available for all. The first avenue was allowing students to take college courses at a junior or community college. Dual enrollment would allow students to earn college credit for classes. The dual enrollment was recommended for summer and not throughout the school year, and certainly not throughout the day when students would be in NWC classes! The second avenue was assuring parents that even though students were not enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, they would still be eligible to take an Advanced Placement exam. This avenue would be the sole responsibility of the student and his or her parents. It would be up to them to research when to register, how to register and where to take the test as NWC would not be facilitating anything connected to Advanced Placement classes or exams. If a parent or student is interested, then we recommend browsing the College Board website, which is in charge of the Advanced Placement program.
We are confident in our final decision, its right fit at New West Charter and the belief that not offering Advanced Placement classes will not hinder our students’ future. As stated before, we have come to learn, understand and embrace that colleges consider a student’s course work within the opportunities available at NWC, not every other high school in California. Students will not be penalized by colleges for our lack of Advanced Placement classes. They will instead gauge the rigor of each students’ classes based on what we offer. If a student attends a school with honors classes, colleges will expect the strongest students to take advantage of all the honors classes offered. Likewise, Advanced Placement scores are not used in the college admissions process, meaning our students will be competitive with other students.
A major realization we have come to accept as part of our journey is the fact that we cannot be the school for everybody. This really disappoints us but we understand why we cannot be the school for everybody, and we have come to accept the reality that we are who we are, have always been and will always be.
We are New West Charter, a new direction in Education in which students are our priority, their engagement and passion for learning our main objective, and their ultimate comfort level that as family. Our students will matriculate because we will make sure they have every opportunity to matriculate. And in our journey to get them there, we hope that you will make the decision to share it with us.
Disclaimer: According to College Board, “If you are a homeschooled student or attend a school that does not offer AP, you can still take the exams by arranging to test at a participating school... Call AP services no later than March 1 to get the names and telephone numbers of local AP Coordinators...Once you locate a school willing to administer the exams, that school’s AP Coordinator is responsible for ordering your exam materials, telling you when and where to appear for the exams, and collecting your fees (note: the school may elect to charge a higher exam fee in order to offset additional proctoring or administration costs). That school must administer the exams for you; it cannot forward them to you or your school for handling.”