The Compression of AP Classes; Its Impact, the Adaptations It Requires, and the Problem It Highlights

While it had been a great hope shared by many to get the spread of COVID-19 under control, the pandemic still rages on. It’s been seven months since the beginning of home-sequestering in Portland, when the district made the switch to a distance learning model. There were many problems with the spring’s learning system, so changes were expected to be made moving into the 2020-21 school year. The most remarkable change that the fall model brought was Franklin’s switch from a schedule of eight classes that spanned both semesters, to four classes each semester, compressing the curriculum into the new allotted time. While the new schedule solved some problems of student-teacher connection and class time, it raised a new challenge: What will happen with Advanced Placement classes? 

During the average school year, before in-person instruction was a public health threat, Advanced Placement (AP) classes already moved fast. The pace is an aspect of the challenge of the higher level courses, as students and teachers race against the deadline of the College Board AP tests that typically take place in May. In a normal, eight class model, teachers have eight months (end of August through April) to teach the content of their course and review old curriculum to keep their students on their toes and ready for the test. This new instruction model cuts the already limited time in half, and even more for semester two students and faculty. Semester one students will be in their AP classes September through January, but semester two AP students will only have February, March, and April, before the tests in May. Obviously, this raises major concerns surrounding the impact these circumstances will have on students and their scores, not to mention the difficulty of working around these time constraints. 

Last spring, at the beginning of these unprecedented times, College Board formatted the AP tests so they could be taken online. The tests themselves had also been altered. Certain tests were cut, and many multiple choice sections were shortened. In addition to formatting changes, the full content of each AP course was not included on each test. The current question is: will this grace extend into the 2021 testing cycle? As of right now, College Board’s statement is that tests will be administered regularly, and will test students on the full content of each course. They will release their final word in January, either confirming their original plan of moving as usual, or releasing a new statement and adjusting the tests accordingly, potentially letting some content go. 

The new schedule and time constraint is requiring teachers to make major adjustments in their classes. Greg Garcia has been teaching AP classes in the social studies department at Franklin for almost six years. This school year, he is teaching AP United States History (APUSH) and AP Psychology. Due to the compression, teachers like Garcia are having to prioritize the content that has the highest probability of showing up on the test, which as of right now, requires the full curriculum. 

After learning about this year’s four by four schedule, “I went through my entire AP US history curriculum and I broke them up into weeks of three lessons,” Garcia says. He also broke the lessons into groups based on their priority. Priority one is the “most important lesson because this is going to most likely appear on the test,” he explains. “Priority twos are important but not as important as priority ones, and priority threes can be cut.” Garcia then shared that even with all of his careful calculation, he will still be about five lessons short. “I cannot in good conscience leave the kids at semester one with that much material dangling,” he states. So, Garcia is offering a voluntary support class during semester two for his students. This will allow his students to continue to learn the content while staying fresh before the test. 

It’s vital to examine the content that must be cut in order to prioritize the content that will be tested on the exam. Garcia states a fact: “College Board is predominantly white Anglo Saxon Protestant.” So, the content of the tests follow suit, especially when the topic is American history. This means that the narratives of historically marginalized groups (women, black people, indigenous people, people of color, the queer community, etc.) do not fit into priority one. In order for students to succeed on the College Board test, Garcia is forced to move the “multiple perspectives” that he takes “pride” in including as a top priority, to the asynchronous folder. He’s had students get upset with him about this. Garcia says, “my rebuttal is yes, absolutely [these perspectives are] important. And under normal circumstances, we would be covering [them] in detail,” but there is no time. 

Franklin’s schedule has further exposed a mighty problem in College Board (and in society); the Colonial narrative is still the centerpiece of the education system. More diverse narratives should not have to be cut to fit the test; their importance matches and surpasses that of the Colonialist narrative. It is time to take a good hard look at both College Board and the narratives and perspectives this education system and curriculum continue to marginalize. 

Due to the very limited time in semester two, Garcia is also offering an optional semester one APUSH support class to his semester two students. Covering the content of the test in less than three months is an impossible task. “If they are still on the hook for everything, there is no physical way we can do that,” he states. This support class is an encore of the priority one lessons. “My student teacher and I basically recreate the [priority one] lesson after school every Thursday from 3:15 until 4:30 or later, and then whoever’s available drops in and participates in it,” Garcia explains. As for the students in his AP Psychology support class, they “come in on Monday and cover basic psychological concepts so that we can build on that foundation and do more complicated things in the three months that we have.” 

Mr. Garcia is no doubt pushing his limits for the benefit of his students.  “I am contractually at capacity,” he shared, “but it doesn’t matter because I sold kids on an experience and a skill set.” Mr. Garcia’s classes are known for the opportunities they provide. He has connections with NASA and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, along with many other organizations, to provide opportunities to his students during his public history project “where my kids research, design, and build their own museum exhibits on the history of anything they want,” he says. Mr. Garcia believes that the loss of these opportunities for his students is the “greatest casualty” of distance learning.  In his support classes, Garcia has chosen to provide interactive roleplay lessons in order to keep attendance numbers rising and the fun alive.

While the schedule has created more work for Garcia, he recognizes that it solves more problems than it creates. He believes that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” He says that if he were in charge of the district, he would definitely go with a four by four schedule. Last spring’s transition into distance learning upheld the eight classes on student schedules for purposes of continuity. Due to the amount of classes, teachers only saw students once a week. In this model, students are required to connect with teachers daily, and there is more time and resources for “things the greater community depends on, like SPED services and ELL services,” Garcia comments. “That clearly comes first.”

Tod Grobey has been teaching at Franklin for nine years, and is currently teaching AP Spanish. Grobey recognizes what it must feel like as a student to be asked to complete the amount of work in such a compressed time, but states it might be counterbalanced by the fact that students only have four classes now, not eight. He expressed that while this year presents challenges both in school and out, “challenge will produce growth.” That’s his hope for his students, that the compression ignites a level of strength in students to persevere. 

As for student morale, it could certainly be better. Eliza Giles (12) has a whopping four AP classes on her schedule this semester. While she’s up for the challenge and is succeeding so far, she’s worried about whether or not her classes will be able to cover all of the curriculum in the allotted time. “Teachers were always stressed about fitting everything in when we had a full school year, so I am so confused on how we’re supposed to get a whole year of material in,” she shares. She’s also concerned about the four months between the end of the semester and the test, and feels she’s expected to just retain the information during the gap. When it comes to the second semester and participating in support classes, Giles is not concerned about fitting them into her schedule, as she is only taking one class. “I feel bad for the sophomores and juniors who have a bunch of classes next semester,” says Giles. Support classes could certainly impact the schedule of students with a full second semester course load, especially if they have a second semester AP class. 

One of the symptoms of distance learning is the isolation of students. Giles, like many, misses being able to turn to a table partner and ask a clarifying question. “I don’t like talking on Zoom,” she says. Giles expresses that online school makes it easy to get lost on a topic, as teachers feel less accessible now that students can not just call them over to the table. Giles is signed up for all of her exams, and is prepared to spend a lot of her time next semester leading herself through the material. “I think they should modify the tests,” she comments. She understands that not every school in the country is dealing with this compressed time, but with the state of the world as unpredictable as it is, she feels as though it’s irresponsible for College Board to stay focused on facilitating the tests as usual. “What’s it going to look like in the future? We just have no idea.”

The four by four schedule has fixed more problems than it created, but Advanced Placement classes have certainly fallen victim to the compression of the courses. Teachers are adapting curriculum to fit as much content in as possible while students wonder about how they will succeed. Franklin’s AP students and faculty are feeling the heat of the deadline approaching as the weeks tick by. The true impact of this compression will come in the spring and summer, when tests have been taken and scores roll in. Will College Board change the tests to cover fewer units? As of now, many questions remain unanswered. What we do know is that the Franklin community is strong, willing, and able to persevere through these uncertain times. 

Eliza Giles’ four AP textbooks for the first semester. Franklin’s new schedule with four classes each semester has caused many challenges for those taking and teaching AP classes, including some students having all AP classes concentrated in one semester. Photo credit: Eliza Giles (12)

Leave a Reply