Students from Harvard-Westlake School, an elite private campus in North Hollywood, turned in a remarkable performance on the 2005 Advanced Placement exams. That's hardly surprising, but whether it's a good thing depends in large part on where one comes down in the growing debate over AP courses.
Among large high schools worldwide that offer the college-level courses, Harvard-Westlake had the largest proportion of students scoring at least a 3 (on a scale of 1 to 5) on AP exams in five disciplines: calculus AB, physics B, English language and composition, English literature and Spanish lit. The results were contained in a report released this month by the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit that administers the program.
The only school that came out on top in more categories -- six -- was Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., a large public school serving students gifted in biological, physical, mathematical and computer sciences. Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., had the widest segment of its population scoring 3 or above in three categories. Most other schools named in the report -- whether small, medium or large -- were cited in just one or two categories.
For anyone familiar with Harvard-Westlake's reputation and its glittering array of graduates (Candice Bergen, astronaut Sally Ride, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gray Davis), it's not exactly shocking news that its students would excel on AP exams. Most of the teens who attend the school have grown up in affluent circumstances, with all the attendant advantages. As a group, they are regarded as highly motivated learners who set their sights on the nation's most selective universities and colleges.
But Harvard-Westlake's exemplary performance comes against the backdrop of a growing backlash over the wisdom of emphasizing AP classes. Many critics denounce AP curricula as prescriptive and superficial.
Across town, another private school, Crossroads School in Santa Monica, made waves last year by announcing that it would stop teaching AP classes and instead develop its own college-level courses, beginning with the 2007-08 school year. Crossroads joined a small but growing list of prestigious private high schools that have moved away from providing AP classes.
"The AP, in the eyes of some critics, is a mile wide and an inch deep," acknowledged Thomas C. Hudnut, Harvard-Westlake's headmaster. "I feel more pragmatic. The UC system gives a break to students who are taking AP in determining their GPAs. We are in California. We'd be shortchanging our students not to provide this opportunity."
Harvard-Westlake opened in 1991 as a coed campus after the merger of Harvard School for Boys and Westlake School for Girls. This year the upper school has 837 students, including a senior class of 260. The 739-pupil middle school is in Holmby Hills.
The upper campus could pass for a tiny liberal arts college, with an emerald-green football field, fountains, lush landscaping and a courtyard where students dine al fresco under umbrellas. Classes tend to be no larger than 15 students, and some have as few as a handful.
The College Board launched the Advanced Placement program 50 years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, to encourage accelerated learning and to allow academically advanced high school students to earn college credits. The program has boomed. More than 15,300 schools worldwide, including 60% of U.S. high schools, now participate in the AP program. One-fifth of the participating schools are private.
Schools can select from 35 AP courses and exams offered in 20 different subject areas. The College Board enlists a panel of college faculty and experienced AP teachers to develop each course description and exam.
The courses are intended to give students the experience of learning a rigorous, college-level curriculum. On average, schools offer eight different AP courses; Harvard-Westlake provides 32.
In 2005, according to Harvard-Westlake data, 554 students (including 30 sophomores) took 1,719 AP exams, with 91% earning scores of 3 or better; 40% achieved scores of 5. Many colleges and universities allow students scoring 3 or higher to receive college credit, to place out of introductory courses or both.
Even at Harvard-Westlake, where enthusiasm for the AP program runs high, opinions among students and teachers differ on the courses' value.
Remy Greeno, a senior who has already won early admission to Princeton, is taking four full-year and two one-semester AP classes this year; last year, she took five yearlong AP classes. "I think it's a great opportunity to learn more information if you want to," she said. "It's neat that other schools are taking the same class; you're able to relate to people at other schools."
Joey Katona, a classmate, is less enamored. "I feel that [AP teachers] are confined to teaching toward the test," he said. "It's sort of a necessary evil. My favorite classes this year are not AP."