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A rich high school goes its own way

Scarsdale, the nation's first high school to drop

Scarsdale, the nation's first high school to drop AP courses. Credit: Angela Gaul

Scarsdale is the third-richest community (average household income: $388,000) and the richest school district in America. Scarsdale High is also the only public school in the country that has dropped the popular Advanced Placement program in favor of its own homegrown college-level courses.

I think those facts are related to each other, but that does not mean the Advanced Topics courses at Scarsdale are elitist scams. After a decade of operation, they seem excellent in nearly every way, particularly those AT courses that have replaced their final exams with long research papers.

Advanced Topics courses in that Westchester County village are important because the courses they replaced are important. AP and its smaller counterpart, the International Baccalaureate, are the most successful antidotes ever to America’s high school curricular blahs. AP has grown to reach a majority of U.S. schools with no loss of rigor and a significant increase in the percentage of low-income students participating. Any attempt to improve on it deserves a close look.

I have questions. Many AP critics anticipated that other public schools would follow Scarsdale’s example and drop AP in favor of their own courses. Why hasn’t that happened?

Scarsdale students say that excellent teachers have been a key to the success of AT. Talia Schulhof, a rising senior, said her AT statistics teacher “was great. She taught several sections other than my own, and I could tell she had a passion for the material.”

A recent Scarsdale graduate said he took AT courses in Spanish language, Spanish literature, macroeconomics, English literature and poetry, calculus, physics, computer science, and U.S. history. The quality of teaching in all but one of them “was exceptional,” he said.

Kelli Rainer, also a rising senior, said she loved her AT U.S. history course. “My teacher was really open to hearing what we, the students, wanted to learn about, and he actually implemented those ideas in the curriculum,” she said.

I applaud those AT teachers who assign a major research paper rather than a final exam. Sadly, the vast majority of U.S. high schools require no such assignment. Rainer wrote a 15-page paper about journalism’s impact on Watergate and the Vietnam War. Another rising senior, Talia Potters, said she wrote hers on the Zodiac Killer and his relationship with the media.

I have just one complaint. Given the quality of AT courses, why does Scarsdale bar some eager students from taking them? In many subjects, students have to earn top grades, get a teacher’s recommendation or pass an entrance exam to get into an AT course. AP at Scarsdale High had the same barriers when my son Peter was a student there in the 1990s.

When AT was launched a decade ago, the superintendent told me it would be able to waive such barriers for motivated students, but that appears not to have happened. About 30 percent of Scarsdale students were kept out of AP. The district does not have that figure for AT, but the school has always said that AT is selective, and I think it is likely that many students are left out.

Scarsdale High administrators say only students ready for AT courses should take them. As many teachers have explained to me, teenagers can mature rapidly and are often ready to respond to good teaching.

AT works for Scarsdale because the school’s wealth and influence can get students into selective colleges no matter what courses it uses. Other schools lack that clout and prefer to keep AP or IB. But that doesn’t mean Scarsdale has to be so restrictive. Why tell a student who wants to work hard not to bother?

Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post.