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Advanced Topics Courses Offer Upper Schoolers 'the Perfect Mix of Rigor and Flexibility'
Posted 01/12/2018 04:03PM

Advanced Topics class

One October morning, students in Dr. Fiona Halloran's Advanced Topics US History class engaged in a lively debate about whether Thomas Jefferson or John Adams was the best candidate for president in the election of 1800. Scribbling notes and whispering—preparing their rebuttal while the other side spoke—students displayed passion, conviction, and fierce competitiveness about a contest decided over two centuries ago. After one young woman asked how John Adams could govern the country when he couldn't control his own party, the stunned silence in the room quickly dissolved into laughter. The students' enthusiasm was contagious, and as they dispersed after the bell rang, their energy remained high.

Advanced Topics (AT) courses aren't exactly new at Rowland Hall—French teacher Doug Wortham started teaching AT French IV and V five years ago—but they are special. Considered the most rigorous in our curriculum, AT courses focus on inquiry-based learning, hands-on practice, field studies, and collaboration between departments. Dr. Halloran described her AT US History class as "designed for students who read quickly and fluently, who are interested in theoretical questions about the discipline, and who have a reasonably strong grounding in the basic narrative already."

In some subject areas, including US History and French, Rowland Hall no longer offers Advanced Placement (AP) courses. The change came about partly in response to unwelcome changes in the AP program—controlled by the College Board—which would have required teachers to spend a significant portion of class time teaching material or skills solely for the AP exam. Both Dr. Halloran and Mr. Wortham believed students could benefit more from a course that would prepare them to succeed in college, not merely on a year-end assessment, and Rowland Hall's leadership agreed.

The freedom and flexibility of AT courses stem from the individual instructors, who each design their curriculum to cover in-depth content while bridging the material to real-world experience. For example, Mr. Wortham's students in AT French V spend the fall semester learning about French colonialism in Algeria and read news articles to connect their historical knowledge to current events.

How does the change in curriculum translate to student learning? According to seniors Sophia Cutrubus and Allie Zehner, having classes that are not driven by a test allows for time and space to explore topics that are more interesting and useful to students. Sophia called AT courses "the perfect mix of rigor and flexibility." Both girls took AT US History and AT Precalculus and are currently enrolled in AT math courses, but they made different choices when it came to the AP exams: Allie opted out, while Sophia sat for the AP US History test last May. No Advanced Topics course at Rowland Hall requires students to take the AP exam, but Dr. Halloran does discuss the decision with her students. Sophia said that while she did some independent studying, she felt well prepared for the test based on what she learned in class.

Mr. Wortham said he values the autonomy Rowland Hall gives him, particularly through AT classes: the beloved teacher of 40 years can keep his passions and interests at the forefront of the curriculum, and his students reap the benefits. "I can tailor the material to what is being taught in colleges today," he said, adding he constantly re-evaluates his AT French curriculum based on what is happening in the world. And what's more: Mr. Wortham knows that nowadays, most colleges require students to take language placement tests, so there's no impact from missing AP courses or credit (none of Mr. Wortham's students sit for the AP exam).

Director of College Counseling Michelle Rasich has been surveying college admission professionals on their perception of AP and AT courses, and the results are revealing. Among representatives from the 100 colleges our students most frequently apply to, no one answered yes when asked whether our students would be at a disadvantage if their transcripts included AT instead of AP classes. Most survey respondents emphasized their reliance on the college counselors to provide a clear description of course offerings, including which ones are the most rigorous. Mrs. Rasich and Coral Azarian, associate director of college counseling, provide such information via a detailed school profile—a document sent to every college where our students apply—and they carefully crafted the language describing AT courses based on input from college representatives. One college admission officer commented: "We take counselors at their word when it comes to informing us about the rigors of various curricula."

The majority of college representatives also indicated that they had noticed the trend of high schools shifting away from AP courses to AT or honors courses. Kirk Brennan, the director of undergraduate admission at USC—which for the past three years has received the second-highest number of Rowland Hall applicants, after the University of Utah—expressed concern that independent schools might be reluctant to make curricular changes based on a fear that it would negatively impact college admission prospects. "Please do not settle," he wrote. "If you are educating students better and engaging your community more richly, of course you will help college admission." Mr. Brennan reiterated the need for clear communication—primarily via the school profile—as the key to influencing how admission officers read applicant transcripts. "Just help us understand what you're doing, and stay focused on your mission."

Providing our Upper School students a stimulating learning experience that prepares them for college success is the primary motivation behind the transition to AT courses, though both Mr. Wortham and Dr. Halloran understand that it isn't one size fits all, and AP classes may still be a good match for certain subjects at Rowland Hall. When students are engaged and challenged—studying material that is relevant to their future learning—and teachers feel connected and passionate about their curriculum, the course title might become irrelevant.

View all Upper School course offerings, including Advanced Topics.

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