There is currently a pretty big controversy going on right now back at my high school, Arcadia High, about a plan in which school administrators are considering to push AP Junior English (Advanced Placement Language), to the senior year (currently the AP Literature course).
Via the Pasadena Star News:
Freshman honors and junior AP English classes would be moved in a curriculum change under consideration by school administrators, who want to make the academic level more accessible in hopes of giving students better chances to get into college.The junior AP English class would be shifted to a similar class for senior students. In its place, high-performing students will be mixed with others in a general English class. That would give underclassmen more time to qualify for the AP course, Principal Brent Forsee said.
There is a movement going on pushing against this change, from students, parents, alumni, and others, including teachers. I have been following some of the conversation, admittedly not very closely, but I am a bit distressed by those who want to preserve the current status quo (AP 11th and 12th grads, and keep Frosh Honors).
I have been in both regular, college preparatory English classes as well as honors classes, despite not taking AP Language nor Literature either my junior or senior year of high school. And I have been extremely dissatisfied in the wide disparity between the two “levels,” so to speak.
In taking freshman English Honors as well as sophomore English Honors, I was appropriately challenged, pushed to produce my best work, and strive high for academic excellence. In my junior and senior years, despite thoroughly liking my teachers, learning a lot, I completely felt the difference in expectations, level of challenge and difficulty, amongst many other things, which I will outline soon.
This is not to say I did not have excellent teachers. I asked my junior English teacher to write one of my two letters of recommendations when I was applying to college, because I had faith in her understanding of who I was as a student and I knew I (at least to me) tried to produce my best work even though there was a stigma that college prep classes are very “easy” and “not a big deal.” My senior English teacher was probably one of the best teachers I have ever had throughout my K-12 experience, pushing me to think, to question myself, and to look at things from perspectives I would have never previously considered.
And were the two classes a breeze? To many, a college prep class for a once-Honors student should have been easy and a piece of cake. Instead, I saw myself consistently reminding myself that I could not view these classes as such, and that they were no lesser in importance to my other AP classes. For me, the simple reason why I did not take AP English either junior or senior year was because I had different priorities. I did not want to buckle under pressure and take on a workload in which I could not produce my best work. I did not have an extensive interest in English in high school (even though I cannot stop reading or writing today in college). Most importantly, I wanted to focus and turn to other classes which I actually knew I would be motivated to push myself.
But here is the kicker and what I was dissatisfied with in terms of moving from a Honors level to a College Prep level: I saw my friends, many of which were in AP English, striding far ahead of me in college readiness. So “College Prep” my ass. By the end of their junior years, many of my friends that took AP Junior English had a binder full of research on colleges and universities, anticipating application season within a few months. They had already prepared college essays, etc., which they all prepared after AP season had ended.
I came out of junior year with nothing, only knowing that I should probably start researching and applying for colleges soon.
Granted, my senior English teacher helped us extensively in college essay preparation and writing drafts. He helped us edit and revise, and I was extremely grateful and happy from what I got out of that experience when I had to press “Submit” on the Common App or the UC App.
But was it fair? I’m not so sure. This is what’s wrong with the American education system. There are so many layers of preparation from different K through 12 systems across the country, and even within one school district, there’s that gap. In college now, I’m shocked to realize many of my peers, who all had respectable grades in high school and are alongside me, rightfully and perhaps more deservingly, at a prestigious liberal arts university, cannot format their papers in MLA (not counting those that use other formatting styles). I have noticed a pretty big gap in the quality of writing between different students, amongst other differences, despite many of us being the best our high schools across the country had to offer.
Arcadia High School always irked me in how proud we were of our high performing status. Counselors, in anticipating our graduation and college application season, pretty much seemed to tailor much of their spiels towards higher performing students, or even assuming most of us were in that category. I didn’t know many of my peers that I know are brilliant and smart didn’t get near perfect grades. I didn’t know not everyone took the number of APs I did. Call me ignorant or stupid, but the environment that Arcadia has created is not just insufferable, it’s forcing students to take on too much, underperform, and fall out of the running into getting into a good college.
Looking back, I want to go to every person that told me it was stupid and a college-killer to not take AP English and give them a huge “F*** you.” Because guess what. I didn’t take AP English, I didn’t take AP Chem, Physics, or Calculus BC, I didn’t participate in every extracurricular out there (in fact, I participated in only a couple), and I fucking made it. I did what I believed in, took the classes I was interested in, pushed myself to look to the future and have a goal in mind, and tuned out all the bullshit I had been fed my entire life.
Now, I don’t necessarily support either getting rid of AP Junior English and Freshman Honors or keeping the status quo, I’m fairly indifferent. I just know that I’m glad to be out of the Arcadia bubble (it totally exists), and have been forced into the reality of inequity in this country. Arcadia is only contributing to this inequity and hurting the students that cannot perform at the high achieving levels.
In reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I have been looking back at my own K-12 education and comparing it to that of my peers. I didn’t have the grades to get into Honors classes (math) in middle school, even though I tried time and time again. Going into high school, I made the A needed to qualify for Honors in math for my freshman year, but somehow, it never happened. I couldn’t get into English Honors at Arcadia High in my first attempt, through the test administered near the end of 8th grade. It was thanks to my 8th grade English teacher, who I am eternally thankful for believing in me, who pushed to get me into freshman English Honors.
It was never easy for me to reach the “high performing” level Arcadia pushes onto its students to reach for. Just because I couldn’t write the greatest paper did not mean I did not deserve to get into freshman English Honors. So it does not mean those students who are in college prep classes are undeserving of being pushed and getting the great education higher performing students get.
Arcadia High School, and Arcadia Unified, needs to reevaluate where they stand. Sure, getting a high scoring Academic Performance Index is fantastic, it’s great to have such a high graduation rate, it’s great to have such a high percentage of students moving onto college, but they really need to ensure that students, all students, not just AP students, are getting the help, and genuine support, that they need. It’s not uncommon for a student to get a couple of “lesser” grades at Arcadia High and throw their hands up, giving up because they don’t meet the standards. I have seen it happen, and I have seen it happen to people extremely close to me. When the climate of an academic institution is all about grades, taking APs, getting high SAT scores, there is something fundamentally wrong with the institution.
High school should not only be about preparing for college, but preparing for the real world. And while Arcadia High overprepared me for college, I got absolutely nothing about the real world. Even going to different parts of the LA County is a huge culture shock to me. It’s ridiculous.
Arcadia High School’s commitment needs to be to all of its students, and not only those who can churn out the fantastic stats for the district. I’m thankful for the fantastic education I received from Arcadia Unified, but extremely worried that AHS is not serving all of its students in full.
So the conversation should not only be about keeping AP and Honors for higher performing students, it should also be about how to ensure that college prep students are just as prepared for college, and to ensure that no student is left behind. At the same time, Arcadia needs to be reevaluating the message it sends to its students and the culture that has been cultivated on AUSD campuses. Because having dozens of salutatorians is wonderful, having so many students in APs is great, getting such a high API is fantastic, but it’s not about the numbers nor just the AP students.
It’s about all of us.