Although relatively few schools have made changes as dramatic as Concord’s, plenty are working on a hybrid approach. Milton Academy, which bills itself a believer in AP moderation, and Noble and Greenough School in Dedham both offer a mix of AP and non-AP accelerated classes.
Nobles, as the school is known, now offers 14 AP courses. “We think we’ve struck a pretty good balance at Nobles. We don’t actually have that many AP classes,” says Michael Denning, director of college counseling. “While it’s possible for kids to take five or six exams, even the top students can’t really take more than four or five AP classes during their entire career.”
At Lexington High, 15-year-old Annie Ma is part of a younger cohort of students that is trying not to overdo it with AP courses. The sophomore could have taken two this year, but signed up for just AP biology, with the blessing of her mother, Ping Shen.
Shen, an ultrasound technician who worked in China as an obstetrician and gynecologist, says many families have a misconception about what students must do to get into a college. “The colleges, when they accept you, there is no solid line, no clear line,” she says. “My husband and I, we don’t push her. I want her to view learning as a happy thing to do, not as a burden.”
At the most, Ma predicts, she will take three AP classes a year as a junior and senior. “I know a lot of kids at LHS push themselves so hard that they start to overwhelm themselves, then they crash and go into depression,” she says. “You shouldn’t take so many just so you can compete with other people. You should do whatever is right for you personally.”
But then again, Ma is only a sophomore. There’s still plenty of time for her to get swept up in her school’s competitive culture.
FOR THE LAST THREE YEARS, Lexington High has had a policy that bans teachers from assigning homework for the first week of classes. The school wants to stress the theme “that we’re human beings” before the academic year begins in earnest, explains new principal Laura Lasa, who has worked at the school as a teacher and administrator for three decades. For a similar reason, she stood up in front of students at an assembly last year and said, “Perfection is not a standard that you should be striving for. It’s unreasonable to strive for that, and we’re not asking for perfection from you.”
It’s an admirable message, but even Lasa isn’t sure how well it’s getting through to the school’s most driven students. She has heard about Facebook pages, for instance, where AP students try to top one another with announcements about how many hours they’ve studied. And when she’s held meetings with students to discuss ways to reduce stress, some of the feedback has alarmed her: “A couple of meetings, students just spoke up: ‘No, no, no, don’t try to structure things for us to have fun. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to get an education and get into a high-performing college,’ ” Lasa says. “It was so disheartening. It was chilling.”
One challenge is that national and regional magazines often factor things like AP participation into their top-school rankings, muddying the message of moderation from other places, explains David Hawkins, the director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. (Lexington ranked second, after Weston, in Boston Magazine’s recent list of the state’s top public high schools.) “It’s a tough sell to students to say, ‘Hey, ease up on the accelerator a little bit,’ ” Hawkins says.
And even when students try to largely opt out of the race, they tend to make an effort to cover their bases by taking AP exams. Despite its faith in its Advanced Curriculum courses, Concord Academy still offers the exams, as well as some test review sessions, because families want assurances that there will be a way of comparing their kids with other applicants, explains John Drew. The school was not “running from the AP curricula,” he says. “We were simply saying that we trust our faculty to make the best choices about the courses they could offer to our students. It’s not like we were stopping having students take the exams.”
Students probably wouldn’t accept that. Kate Nussenbaum, a 2011 Concord Academy graduate, says her alma mater’s unique classes helped her choose it over Newton North. Newton had lots of AP courses, but Concord offered “Comic Spirit, which was about comedy in writing,” Nussenbaum says. “I took Literature of War. I took a Balkan history class.” Nussenbaum, though, also took five AP exams before graduation, and she got into Brown University, where she’s now a sophomore. Continued...