Beechert: The College's AP Calculus

by Michael Beechert | 10/5/15 6:22pm

As reported by this paper on Oct. 1, one year has passed since the College instituted its new Advanced Placement credit policy. Departing from its established practice, Dartmouth announced it would no longer grant credit for qualifying scores on AP exams taken in high school. The justification provided by administrators centered on maintaining standards of academic rigor throughout students’ four years in Hanover — high levels of achievement on standardized tests would apparently allow a significant number of students to circumvent the rigorous scholastic standards the College professes to uphold. This policy, keeping in character with a frighteningly large number of policy decisions made by the College in recent years, is misguided and should be reversed.

The College’s conception of “rigor,” which supposedly formed the basis for this policy shift, seems to morph according to the circumstance. In a Sept. 9 interview with The Dartmouth, College President Phil Hanlon explained how a theater course could qualify as a “high-rigor experience.” I would hazard a guess that most students, including theater majors, would not first think of that particular discipline when asked to provide an example of a traditionally rigorous course. If median grades are any indication of rigor — many would say they are — then Hanlon’s hypothetical theater course is not subject rigorous grading standards. An analysis from Dartblog shows that from 2007-11, the courses in the theater department had the highest average median grade — 3.90 — of any department on campus. While the type of active engagement with the material that is present in theater courses has tremendous value, it would be a mistake to characterize this type of experience as rigorous if a low bar for distinction accompanies it. Similarly, the College’s proposal to introduce earlier class times on Tuesday and Thursday mornings fails to accurately capture the meaning of academic rigor. Students who are more tired will be unlikely to retain or think deeply about what is discussed in class.

Rather, rigor requires a challenging and demanding atmosphere, where only the mastery of difficult material is rewarded. Anecdotally, I can attest that several of the AP courses I completed in high school fit this description better than some of my experiences at the College, and I am sure that many of my peers are able to say the same. Administrators act foolishly and arrogantly when they refuse to address the real problem behind the lack of rigor on this campus — that is, lowered expectations in the classroom — and instead point to AP credit and issues like late class start times as boogeymen. Princeton and Yale Universities, for what it’s worth, have no problem giving students AP credits that count toward graduation. They do not seem too concerned about any detrimental effect on the student experience or on their own institutional reputations.

The cynic in me suspects that the College’s choice to eliminate AP credit was at least partially grounded in rationale less lofty than upholding academic standards. Many students, myself included, could spend fewer than 12 terms enrolled in classes by taking advantage of the former policy. Doing so frees up time to concentrate on other pursuits, such as theses, and saves tens of thousands of dollars in tuition money. Under the new policy, it will be extremely difficult to follow the same type of path. I would be curious to find out how much additional tuition revenue the College will take in per year as a result of more students spending the full 12 terms in residence. My guess is that the sum is not insignificant.

Perhaps most regrettably of all, the College’s policy will give promising high school students yet another reason to choose different undergraduate institutions. The potential to open up one’s academic schedule by not having to repeat material already learned is naturally appealing, as is the ability to significantly reduce the cost of a bachelor’s degree. While it is true that some of our “peer institutions” do not grant AP credit, Dartmouth’s previous policy constituted at least one advantage over such schools in the minds of would-be students. The College has, once again, inflicted a wound upon itself with a short-sighted policy change. One can only hope that the College drops the latest iteration of its academic rigor script and chooses to reverse course.