Examining academic rigor at the high school
By Clara Atwell, Editor-in-Chief, and Isabelle Spence, Associate Editor
History of academic success
The Vashon community has long valued education, supporting the school district through volunteering for organizations such as Partners in Education, Vashon PTSA, and the Vashon Schools Foundation. The community consistently votes “yes” on local levies, funding from which most notably helped pay for construction of the high school building and the new track and field.
This focus on education is reflected in the high school’s high graduation rate, which stands at 94 percent, compared to the state average of 87 percent, as well as above average standardized test scores. These factors ranked VHS at number 12 out of 315 public schools in the state by SchoolDigger.com — a website that evaluates schools based on students’ standardized test performance — for the 2017-2018 school year.
The school also ranks highly in comparison to state and global averages in AP test scores, which notably exceed standard in social science classes such as AP Human Geography and AP U.S. History, both of which are consistently offered. However, state test scores do fall behind state averages in many STEM-based classes that have been offered inconsistently, such as AP Chemistry and AP Computer Science.
The overall reputation of academic excellence at the high school has caused large numbers of commuter students from West Seattle and Port Orchard to attend Vashon schools.
“I came here because the middle school and high schools were lacking in my area, and [I] continued [to attend the Vashon schools] because I made great friends and built strong relationships with my teachers,” junior and West Seattle commuter Margot Armstrong said.
One strong indicator of quality education in the U.S. is the usage of the national AP curriculum. AP classes are used in classrooms across the country, and emphasize a rigorous, in-depth look at a class’ subject matter. Each year, the course closes with an optional exam, for which passing scores are often accepted as college credit.
The varying number of AP classes offered at the high school in recent years further impacts the level of rigor at the school, at least on paper. Next year, four additional AP classes will be offered for the first time: AP Literature and Composition, AP Chemistry, AP Statistics, and AP Spanish and Culture. These classes will be offered in addition to the six AP classes that have been consistently offered at the high school.
AP classes tend to appeal to students because they can gain college credit through the corresponding AP test, and college admissions officers perceive these classes to be more rigorous.
“College admissions officers … know that the curriculum is standardized, and they know that the assessment is standardized,” high school principal Danny Rock said. “That is hugely advantageous for college admissions folks when they are trying to sort out who’s ready for college.”
However, implementing these classes takes significant effort on the part of the school. For a class to have the AP label, the curriculum outline must be approved by the College Board, which involves submitting an outline of what the class will cover, as well as how material will be taught.
“You need the course to be compliant to what the college board is expecting, otherwise you aren’t going to be able to prepare your students [for the AP test] very well,” Rock said.
Finding teachers to staff these classes has proven difficult in the past because instructors must apply to the College Board to be certified to teach AP classes. It is also recommended that teachers attend an instructional training course in the summer.
This additional workload can deter some teachers from teaching AP classes. Additionally, the AP curriculum can require a very structured classroom in order to adequately prepare students for the end-of-year exam.
“The first thing I’m looking for in a teacher, if they are willing or interested in teaching an AP [class], is ‘Are they prepared to get some extra training and to conform to the requirements of the AP course?’” Rock said.
This lack of flexibility may limit a teacher’s creativity while they create lesson plans, steering them away from instructing AP courses.
“I’m a very outside-the-box teacher,” math teacher Andy Callender said. “I don’t like having very set standards with what I’m supposed to do. I think there is a place for that in certain classes, but I would much rather have the freedom and the time to make them very creative.”
In the end, Rock believes it is important to have a teacher who is invested in teaching the AP curriculum.
“You can tell as a student whether someone is enthusiastic about what they are teaching,” Rock said.
Despite the challenges for teachers, AP classes offer students the ability to cater their schedule to meet their personal needs for academic rigor.
“I think the infrastructure is here if you want a rigorous academic course load all four years,” Callender said. “Next year, with adding these other AP classes, we are making it a bit more [rigorous] in [the math] department, at least. … It’s really up to the individual student on how rigorous they want [their high school experience] to be.”
The high school’s AP curriculum gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their readiness for college in the an ever-competitive college admissions process. However, the AP label doesn’t always translate to more rigorous courses.
“Last semester, I had three AP classes, and I felt the hardest class in my schedule was Literature and the Elusive Now, which is not AP,” junior Hank Rogers said. “I don’t think AP necessarily means [more academic rigor].”
This sentiment is understood by both students and staff.
“I think AP is a valuable addition to our school, but I don’t by any means think that’s the only way to have a very valuable rigorous school experience,” Callender said.
Another perceived benefit of AP classes is that they generally offer a consistent curriculum year after year, compared to regular classes whose curricula depend greatly on the teacher and subject field.
“There’s definitely no consistent curriculum across the fields,” senior Ava Bostock said.
Bostock has had challenging experiences in humanities classes at the high school, but has not found the same to be true in most of her science and math classes.
“I’ve been the guinea pig year for multiple curriculums multiple times and it’s definitely super-frustrating,” Bostock said. “I have good math teachers, but they just don’t know how to teach what they are supposed to be teaching because everything is constantly being shifted up on them.”
This idea was echoed by another student.
“I feel like we have some teachers that are very good, and some that are not necessarily qualified to teach what they are teaching,” an anonymous senior said.
College-bound students have expressed concern over this perceived decrease in school difficulty. In a world full of colleges that are increasingly more difficult to get into, students are looking for the best possible opportunities. Some are concerned that VHS is not providing these chances for its students.
“I don’t know if this is an administration shift, but I know that both of my brothers had way more homework [than I do] when they were in high school, and now I have barely any homework, and I think that, as much as I love having free time, it’s probably making me learn less,” Rogers said.
This decreasing emphasis on the level of homework occurred around the same time that the high school switched from the trimester schedule — 12-week-long trimesters with five 75-minute classes in a day — to the semester schedule — 18-week-long semesters with six 55-minute classes a day — in 2013. During this time, many teachers were forced to reevaluate their course load.
“Several teachers [had] literally never taught in a semester system before, so the switch took time to settle into reasonable and appropriate expectations regarding homework, lesson pacing, and even unit-and-course pacing,” Rock said. “At the same time, our staff also was in the midst of a shift around the value of homework — from the rigor of quantity to the rigor [and] relevance of quality homework.”
The administration is aware of concerns related to the homework decrease, and is working to uphold high academic standards.
“This is a good school,” counselor Paul Peretti said. “I think the teachers here do a really good job of preparing students, and I think the students work really hard, and it’s demonstrated by our scores.”
Appearing as a unique candidate to colleges drives many students’ choices of classes and extracurriculars throughout high school. Many families pour thousands of dollars into private education in order to provide their children with a high-school experience specifically geared towards preparing for and and gaining admission to competitive colleges.
On Vashon, 64 percent of students go on to a four-year college the year after graduation, while 13 percent go on to a two-year or community college. This is an improvement from the state average of 34 percent of seniors continuing to a four-year higher education, and 28 percent continuing to two-year or community colleges.
When applying to competitive schools, many students are deterred by the fact that other applicants come from schools with more opportunities to take AP and honors classes. However, colleges review individual students with the context of the school they are coming from and the courses available.
“[Colleges] ask for each school’s profile, … and in that profile we list SAT scores, average scores, … [and] how many AP and honors classes we offer so they have that in front of them when they look at a particular student’s transcript,” Peretti said.
This system is designed to even the playing field between high schools that receive varying degrees of funding, which translates to varying amounts of opportunities for more rigorous classes.
“We would never penalize a student or an applicant for not taking advantage of opportunities that weren’t there in the first place,” University of Washington senior admissions officer Erin Waldschmidt said.
Colleges also put an emphasis on reviewing each prospective student’s transcript through a realistic lens.
“We don’t expect students to be taking AP or honors classes in every single subject because we don’t expect students to be strong in every single subject, so it’s all about striking that personal balance,” Waldschmidt said.
These policies allow students from smaller schools to have the same chances at getting into colleges as those from a larger school. As a result, Vashon students ideally have an equal chance of entering their preferred college. The high school’s small size and dedicated counselors also serve to give a leg up to students.
“I started commuting because I didn’t like my other options for schools,” senior Alex Lee said. “The previous principal of West Seattle High School told a bunch of people that if we wanted to go to college, [we shouldn’t] go to West Seattle. I got into a bunch of colleges by [getting an education] at Vashon.”