Yuan: Advanced Pace Over Place

Dartmouth's AP policy change unfairly pressures students.

by Ziqin Yuan | 3/29/18 2:00am

Dartmouth is more difficult than it used to be, and it isn’t because of the professors or the changing student body. Rather, changes to Dartmouth’s Advanced Placement course acceptance policy that were implemented for the Class of 2018 began to truly manifest themselves last year, as the Class of 2017 graduated and the Class of 2018 stepped into their positions for extracurricular and academic activities.

Five years ago, Dartmouth’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to no longer grant students course credit for qualifying AP scores. Students can still use AP scores to place out of some introductory courses, but can no longer count these scores toward the 35 credits needed to graduate. At the time, then-Dean of faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael Mastanduno stated that “the decision to modify the policy was made to require our students to take full advantage of the faculty expertise and unique academic resources that characterize a Dartmouth educational experience.”

The debate on whether this was an appropriate educational decision is contentious. Some proponents cite an informal study run by the department of psychological and brain sciences, which found that a 5 on the AP Psychology exam did not correlate with actual success in Psychology 1: “Introductory Psychology.” In fact, when the Psychology department tested over 100 students who had scored a 5 on the exam, 90 percent failed. Opponents may argue that this decision, which effectively forces students with qualifying scores to take — and thus pay for — additional classes, can result in an additional tuition expenses, disproportionately harming lower income students.

Putting aside its ideological merits, the change forces students to spend more of their time taking classes. Because AP credits no longer count for course credit, students cannot graduate more than one term early; without having to use at least two out three four-course terms allowed. Up until the Class of 2017, students with qualifying scores on five or more AP exams — a plausible feat for students who gained a spot at the College — could easily take two terms off without taking any extra classes. These two terms could be used to help students graduate up to a year early (with the help of a few four-class terms), work extra internships to gain work experience or devote more time to club leadership. Starting with the Class of 2018, students no longer have that flexibility in shaping their Dartmouth experience.

More insidiously, this change has increased pressure on the student body as a whole. Dartmouth does not appear to release statistics on the numbers of students who had qualifying scores on AP exams. However, as the number of high school students taking AP exams rises for almost every subject, it is increasingly plausible that a large portion of Dartmouth students have at least one or more qualifying scores, especially since those with lower scores are less likely to have been accepted in the first place. Yet they cannot take advantage of the fruits of this labor. By taking away course credit for AP scores, Dartmouth students now have to work much harder to achieve the same levels of success as students who graduated just last year.

A seemingly obvious solution would be to lower non-academic standards and expectations for all students. If students are spending more time taking classes, they should not necessarily be expected to do as much outside of the classroom as their older peers had been able to. It is much easier, for example, to run a newspaper while taking a two-class term than it is to do so while taking a full course-load; it goes without saying that it is even easier to do so while on an off term covered by AP credits. However, students — especially members of the Class of 2018, who had no other models to judge by — may not be aware of this distinction until it is too late, and thus uphold the standards of previous classes without necessarily realizing the additional work and mental exhaustion that may come with it.

The new system has some obvious benefits. Mastanduno’s statement alludes to the idea that Dartmouth’s main goal is to provide students with a strong academic experience, and to some, additional off-terms or leadership roles may not translate as directly to a liberal arts education as additional courses may. The new policy also levels the playing field for students entering Dartmouth.

Yet these benefits do not change the reality for many students, which is simply that to succeed in the way their their upperclassmen peers did, they must work significantly harder. Regardless of the pros and cons of Dartmouth’s current AP policy, it may be helpful for students wondering how previous classes achieved all they did to remember that school may just have been a little bit easier.