Students arriving at Swarthmore for the first time are in the middle of one of the annual challenges to newcomers here: figuring out just what their high school education means now that they’ve come to college. Many students arrive having taken AP or IB exams in high school — tests offered to advanced high school students that are meant to replicate the material that is taught in an introductory-level college course. Yet these high school courses are not always seen as truly comparable with the Swarthmore equivalent of these courses. Each department has its own policy — some will accept certain scores as a full credit in the department, while others offer students who did well on the AP and IB tests the chance to get advanced placement but without credit. Some tests are not accepted at all, no matter the score received.
New students also must figure out how well AP and IB classes have prepared them for the way classes are taught at Swarthmore. Does taking an AP or IB course in a topic give you an advantage over your classmates when you are taking its college equivalent? Is it redundant to take the college version of a class you could opt out of, or is it too risky to jump ahead to more advanced classes without having had the same preparation as your peers?
Sciences are especially difficult to gauge, as high school science courses tend to be taught far differently than they are taught in college. Swarthmore’s science departments design their courses to teach students how to think critically and ask thoughtful scientific questions. Memorizing facts and vocabulary play a small role in the coursework, but ultimately students are evaluated on their ability to engage the material deeply and inquisitively.
On the other hand, high school students are often taught sets of facts and equations that are necessary to pass certain proficiency tests, the SAT subject tests, and the AP tests. Some courses intentionally or inadvertently focus on memorization and repetition in an effort to “teach to the test.” (This trend is not as pronounced in the IB curricula, which place more emphasis on learning the material in depth and using written evaluations rather than fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice testing).
AP science exams are especially problem-laden, simply because they must cover so much material. AP chemistry packs together a year of so many solubility rules, flame test colors, mole ratios, and pKa calculations that there is precious little time to explain the significance of any of it. Biology, prior to its reform in the 2012-2013 school year, often required students to be responsible for a textbook of over 1,000 pages, as well as a handful of required laboratory experiments that were fair game on the test as well. And of the two physics exams, AP Physics B and C, teachers must either opt to give an algebra-based course (B), which is rarely accepted by colleges, or wait until their students have enough math experience to teach calculus-based physics (C). And even this calculus-based course leaves something to be desired, since it’s material covers advancement in physics only until around the year 1860.
The College Board is in the midst of a long-needed overhaul of these science tests. As mentioned above, they have already implemented a new AP biology curriculum that took effect last year. Changes in the other AP tests are sure to follow. These modifications to the old tests include a greater emphasis on key concepts in the discipline, and a greater emphasis on in-depth learning. In biology, for example, the test will focus on evolution, cell structure, how organisms respond to external information, and biological systems.
But these new changes will surely make things worse before they get better. It will take time for college policies on AP credit to change, and to adapt their policies on granting credit. Students who have taken these reformed AP courses will have a different set of information than did previous years, and will perhaps make the transition into college differently. It will also take time to see how these new APs compare with the IB curriculum, which is not due to undergo any changes of that magnitude.
As high school AP science courses change, institutions like Swarthmore ought to be doing their best to change with them. New students could use the advice of informed faculty and departments as to what level they are in when beginning college. This holds true for other disciplines beyond the natural sciences — the College Board is revamping a number of other AP tests as well to make them more like the college equivalents that AP classes are meant to replicate.
Swarthmore students ought to be getting the credits they deserve from their high school courses. This means that, as the tests evolve, Swarthmore’s credit policy ought to evolve with them. AP courses require high school students to make a substantial investment of their time and energy, as well as often a financial investment for the cost of the tests. It will be a challenge for the College to adapt to the changes in the way many members of new classes are being taught, but staying in-step with policies of College Board will make the transition of new students into college easier on all.