Gearing Up for AP Exams

Monday, May 06, 2013 - By: David McCarthy

Students look forward to the spring term for many reasons: good weather, the Grad Ball, Regatta, Red Saturdays, the list goes on. Sandwiched into a frenetic May and probably not making most students’ Top Ten list are the AP exams. Created by the US-based College Board and designed to offer university equivalent courses to high school students, the AP (Advanced Placement) program is, I believe, an excellent vehicle for enrichment. At Brentwood this is our primary reason for offering a host of AP courses.

Though teachers are free to adapt the curriculum, they must first put together a syllabus using rigorous guidelines and have it approved by the College Board before being allowed to teach their subject with the AP designation. In addition to the course material, the exam itself emphasizes higher level critical thinking and the ability to synthesize ideas. Another goal that helps drive these classes to higher levels of achievement is that candidates who score a 4 or 5 on the exam (there is a 1-5 scale) are able to use these results as credits for most universities and colleges in North America and increasingly worldwide. This can represent a substantial saving in time and tuition for those who use their exam results towards their university transcripts.
Though students are encouraged to take the exam as part of the rigor of the course, it is only mandatory in those subjects where there is an equivalent “regular” Grade 12 course offered by the BC Ministry of Education. This allows students to look at their likely use of the credits and their overall academic and co-curricular load in the middle of our busiest term before making a decision. US schools typically start earlier and finish sooner than us, making the timing of these exams less than ideal for us.

Often the curriculum is extensive and difficult to cover in the time available. It can be a challenge for teachers to avoid “teaching to the test” and some schools have moved away from APs as being overly exam focused. The College Board have been somewhat willing to change their approach in some subjects in response to more progressive views of education that believe we should focus more on skill development with enduring understandings rather than memorization of facts. It is a balancing act that continues to spark debate amongst faculty. With information being so readily available online, the balance is slowly shifting towards applying the principles rather than absorbing minutiae.
Being able to diversify our senior electives beyond the standard British Columbia course offerings into subjects such as economics, art history, psychology and human geography is another important rationale for having a rich AP program. Without the AP designation, these types of courses are considered “locally developed” and cannot be used for university applications.

Finally, I believe it is professionally a very healthy thing for teachers to re-engage with material at the university level and also to take advantage of the extensive professional development opportunities that exist in support of each Advanced Placement course. This year over 150 students, mainly Grade 12s, will write over 270 exams. The great majority, (last year it was over 80%) will score a 3 (qualified), 4 (well qualified) or 5 (highly qualified). Every year, alumni tell us how valuable the AP experience was in helping them achieve success in the courses they took in first year. Getting a head start, having a positive first year post-secondary experience, and exploring options while still at high school are great reasons for all students to get involved in the program.

Mr. David McCarthy, Director of Academics

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