Examining the future

The High School’s curriculum, like most other schools – and nearly all other features of ASL, for that matter – is an ever evolving structure. “We never stop growing as a school, as a faculty, as a community, and as that process is constantly ongoing, those decisions are made by the people who are in the best place to make them,” Assistant Principal Karen Bonthrone said.

With the start of second semester, next year’s – and the next several years’ – curriculum has already begun to be discussed.

Aiming toward being viewed as a more academically rigorous school, changes are expected to occur in the coming years regarding the standards which classes in different Departments will be aligned to. In addition, there is an ongoing debate regarding the necessity of Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

The discussion developing about AP courses is part of a broader conversation about the High School’s curriculum that is taking place, one that is expected to take several years. “All departments are working hard on establishing our Standards Based Curriculum; that is a multi year process. And as departments go through that process, they will look at the AP as part of that, and that will be part of the decision that’s made,” Bonthrone said.

The main purpose of the AP program now, besides offering a challenging course in many subject areas, is the AP program being seen an external benchmark for admission to universities around the world. “We don’t have many of those in the American system, unlike, for example, the British system, where there’s multiple external measures, so it is one way of establishing an external measure,” Bonthrone said. As Bonthrone explained, the AP system is necessary for students who would like to apply to British universities. Students who apply to these universities cannot be accepted with just internal grades, they also require standardized test scores.

And this function extends to schools in the United States, albeit with a different viewpoint. “It also sends a message to U.S. colleges, although they look less at the actual scores, but it does establish where we are in terms of rigor in our program,” she said.

With ASL comparing itself to other independent high schools in the United States, an easy mode to do so is through AP courses, according to Social Studies Teacher Mike McGowan. “In my short experience here it’s [clear] that ASL is trying really hard to be an American high school and the belief is that many American high schools are using the AP program.”

While there are drawbacks to having AP courses, High School Principal Jack Phillips sees potential flaws in other types of curricula in other schools which are deemed as difficult as AP courses. “I think there are certain frustrations that we have and there are tensions that are created when we’re at an AP school,” he said. “But that’s going to be the case if we were an IB school, that would be the case if we were an English system.”

McGowan, who has 13 years of experience with teaching AP History courses sees both negative and positive aspects of schools including AP courses in their curriculum. “For me, the big drawback [of teaching an AP course] is having to rush through the content. You really sometimes let the content of the exam drive the course and it can be a real problem to that course,” he said.

Additionally, McGowan sees certain courses as better fits for the AP exams than others. “I see it more with AP U.S. History than AP Economics, it’s so much content and you really don’t know what the test is going to focus on. I’ve had experiences in the past where the Document Based Question is something I’ve zeroed in on in 15-20 minutes,” he said. “It’s kind of like playing Russian roulette on a certain level.”

But for some courses, such AP Calculus AB or AP Calculus BC, the structure provided by the AP curriculum matches up almost entirely with how the teacher would seek to teach the course. “If you were telling me that you wanted me to teach a more advanced [course] for students who wanted to study engineering or go into math, physics, AP Calc BC is really what a first semester class would look like,” Math Department Head Neil Basu said. “And if you wanted a calculus course that students who would enter college and take a calculus, maybe retake a calculus at that or a higher level, or might be doing calculus in a field like economics or medicine, [AP Calculus AB] is exactly the calculus course that I would develop. So, it doesn’t vary from the types of learning that we’re going for.”

For Director of Academic Advising and College Counselling Patty Strohm, there’s an important difference to note between AP courses and AP exams. “If ASL can show rigor, we don’t need AP courses,” she said. But, because of the fact that students apply to UK universities, which require AP exam scores for admission, “we need AP exams.”

A second part of the evolution of the High School’s curriculum is the movement toward classes re-aligning themselves with the Common Core State Standards Initiative and having standards based assessments. Teachers, when designing assessments, will know exactly what the learning outcomes should be, which are based on the standards of the particular course. Associate Director of Curriculum for Assessment and Data Alethea Young explained that, “standards say what students know and should be able to do.”

The Common Core, which is being implemented in public schools across the United States, has gained political controversy for to a variety of reasons. “Some States have said ‘We’re going to use this document and write our curriculum to it, and we’re going to institute a new teacher evaluation system that if you’re students can’t pass the standardized test, you’re going to get paid less’,” Young said.

However, because ASL is an independent school, it does not have to follow the rules put in place by U.S. schools. “We think this is a really good document of skills and we are not impacted in any way about the political ramifications in it [as seen in the U.S.]. We have our own internal evaluation system which is created by ASL, and we’re going to keep it,” she said.

The purpose behind the realignment of the standards in academic subjects is to avoid redundancy and ensure that students have certain skills at the end of each unit – and school year. “The standards are just there to ensure that the basic content and skills are a progression. Most of the standards we’re already teaching, it’s just the idea that these [the Common Core Standards] are written down so there’s a progression from grade to grade,” Young said. “The standards will help us decide things like what type of essay prompts should a ninth grader work with versus an eleventh grader, what types of citations we should have at certain grade levels.”

But even though the school knows the direction the curriculum is going in, there’s still a certain amount of uncertainty with regards to what will actually be taught in five years. And it’s that uncertainty that excites Phillips.  “I would imagine [that] as we are engaging in these really meaningful conversations – I know that a lot of them are sort of behind the scenes, they’re in departments with just the teachers right now – but I think ultimately that will lead us to creating opportunities that we can’t even imagine right now, and that’s going to be really exciting to see.”