SDMSC Discusses “Challenging” Students Testing Out of American Government and Economics

Source: Nolan Martin

An assortment of books used to prepare students for AP Government and Macroeconomics Exams

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Menlo-Atherton’s Shared Decision Making Site Council  (SDMSC) has recently been discussing the requirements for students looking to test out of American Government and Economics.

The current standard requires students to receive a score of 3 or higher on the AP Macroeconomics test to pass out of Economics, and a score of 3 or higher on the AP American Government exam in addition to the completion of the American Government final research paper to pass out of the American Government course.

The Social Studies Department, represented on the SDMSC by Ben Wellington, has stated its desire to raise the AP American Government test score requirement to a 4 or higher for students who challenge American Government.  The Social Studies Department has stated a number of reasons for raising the requirements, citing increased class sizes (Government lost one class section this year because of the number of students who tested out) and a desire to create heterogeneous classes reminiscent of freshman World Studies I and Life Skills, in which classes include a diverse group of students at all learning levels from various cultures, races, feeder schools, and economic backgrounds.  The Social Studies Department believes that diverse classes that include both “high-track” and “low-track” students encourage learning beyond the curriculum.

In the past three years, the number of students attempting to test out of American Government and Economics has doubled annually.  An overwhelming percentage of students who successfully tested out of American Government and Economics had taken AP United States History, according to statistics compiled by Gregg Whitnah, a math department representative on the SDMSC.  Whitnah also noted that he had taught a large percentage of students who tested out in his AP Calculus BC course.

M-A is unique in widely offering the option to test out of American Government and Economics.  Carlmont offers AP American Government and Sequoia offers IB (International Baccalaureate) American Government, while Woodside offers only regular American Government and does not advertise any option to test out of either class.

Silvia Torres-Garza, head guidance counselor, mentioned in the meeting that California Educational Code requires high schools to allow students to test out of any class they wish.  “We just don’t really advertise this to students,” admitted Torres-Garza.  The code does not specify any benchmark requirements for evaluations of students hoping to test out of courses.  She recalled a situation that occurred a number of years ago where a number of incoming freshmen challenged World Studies I/II.  The school was legally required to grant their request, and did so by having the students take the final exams for the course.

Students Justine Ferry, Tyler Finn, and Becca Milman presented the opinions of students for the SDMSC.  The majority of students who test out of American Government and Economics take Russian History and Literature, taught by John Florio and Lisa Otsuka.  The students also addressed the issue of the American Government paper, citing concerns about the essay deadline falling in line with the Russian History paper deadline and the submission dates for college applications.

The American Government paper has also come under fire this year as the Social Studies Department has strictly forbidden the submission of papers written for other classes, despite the fact that many students who tested out of American Government expected to be able to turn in papers from their American History courses junior year.

When asked about her opinions on the American Government paper, Diane Martinelli, who teaches the majority of senior government classes, refused to comment.  Christina Galliano, Social Studies Department chair, stated her belief that students who go through the process of testing out by taking AP tests should not have a problem completing the 6-8 page research paper.  Wellington, who was directly asked by Ferry about the purpose of the paper, claimed that the Social Studies Department wants to see the development of students’ writing from their freshman year to their senior year.

Because the SDMSC recognized that students who test out of both classes do so in order to take an extra elective, the council cited the Career Technical Education (new for the class of 2013) and Fine Art requirements as possible reasons for the increase in the number of students challenging the courses.  Students and staff supported these requirements, however.  Students offered that the requirements allowed them to take enjoyable classes they would not have otherwise taken, while Patrick Maier, who teaches a number of music classes, claimed that the “heterogeneous” class type the Social Studies Department aims to create in American Government and Economics represents the makeup of a large fraction of his music classes.

While American Government was the most controversial issue at the meeting, Ron Weiss, a math and economics teacher, mentioned the inadequacy of the AP Macroeconomics exam to test students on basic financial understanding, a key concept that students are taught in Economics class.

Weiss’ opinions reflect the opinions of a number of teachers who want to reconsider how students are tested when they challenge a course.  Whitnah mentioned that the AP exams may have been chosen for convenience, eliminating the need for staff to create tests for students challenging courses each year.  However, these AP exams do not necessarily align with the curriculum of the regular courses that seniors are otherwise required to take.  The council is currently discussing the potential creation of a broad policy for students challenging any course, not just American Government and Economics.  The SDMSC will continue to discuss the topic for at least two more meetings before they make any decisions on this issue, which has become anything but black and white.

UPDATE (1/19/13):  The Social Studies Department has decided to raise the required AP American Government test score and the AP Macroeconomics test score to 4 or greater to pass out of either class.

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8 Responses to “SDMSC Discusses “Challenging” Students Testing Out of American Government and Economics”

  1. josephrabinovitsj on October 11th, 2012 6:40 pm

    I personally find it a strange notion that certain members of the SDMSC insist on combining students of all levels in terms of social studies in government and economics classes while there is a clear division between “high” and “low” social studies tracks among sophomores and juniors. I believe that the SDMSC should recognize that there ARE in fact two separate tracks within the social studies department and should stop believing that mixing the two after two years of separation will have any positive benefits for anybody. It is fruitless and unfair to force a student who has spent two years in AP history classes during his/her junior and sophomore years to sit through two semesters of standard history. A class half-full of disdainful students is a bad situation for everybody. Therefore, the SDMSC should either continue to let students test out of Government and Economics or offer an AP alternative to these standard courses.

  2. Helmi on October 11th, 2012 7:55 pm

    While I agree that there are different levels of history classes, I believe that just because someone is not in an AP level history class does not mean that they are “remedial.” Maybe it just means that history is not their passion and they want to focus their energy on other classes that they enjoy more. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and just because history is not necessarily one of them does not mean that they are not as smart as an AP-level student.

  3. egrose on October 11th, 2012 10:35 pm

    Joseph, I respectfully disagree with your view. I agree with Helmi that if someone has not taken an AP history course during their time at M-A, it does not qualify them as “remedial.” Students are not being “forced” into taking a regular level history course to begin with – this article states that the standards for testing out of Government and Economics are being altered, which should not be a problem for students who are much more advanced in their knowledge of history. I also disagree with your comment that mixing students at different levels of learning will not have any positive effects. Combining these tracks provides a more diverse environment to learn in, which can allow higher level students an opportunity to help those who may not be as well-versed in the subject. At M-A, there are plenty of opportunities to take prestigious courses where the majority of the students may be on the same track, and students who wish to acquire more knowledge in Government and Economics than offered in the regular course may do so by meeting the requirements of the SDMSC.

    ewebb Reply:

    As a sophomore, I took AP European History, but as a junior, I took regular US History. My experience in US was not one of a remedial class, as it did challenge me at times, but I didn’t have any trouble getting an A. However, in Government this year (I have Mr. Florio) I feel like I’m learning a lot and being challenged, but I also know that a lot of people in the class are struggling with it. In addition, I rarely interact with people who I have a different background from – because it’s a lecture-based class, I mainly talk with people I’m already friends with to check up on notes and tests and I never discuss anyone’s background or personal experiences.

    In the end, I think that having mixed classes for a subject like history is a poor model after having different tracks for two years. It hurts both groups – those who are higher achieving don’t learn to their full potential and those who are lower achieving have a lot of difficulty with the class and struggle to maintain good grades. I think it would be a really good option to offer an AP Government.

    I’ve had plenty of opportunities to be in diverse classes. The thing is, everything that the SDMSC thinks can be gained from a mixed class can also be gained in a non-academic mixed class. In Guitar and Audio Production over the past two years, I’ve had a ton of chances to meet people from different backgrounds from mine, and I actually interact and collaborate with them in those classes, where we share a common interest in music.

  4. David Schmitt on October 12th, 2012 9:05 pm

    I think that offering the AP courses would offer students who would have previously tested out a chance to expand their knowledge of these subjects. Cramming for the exams for a month or two (which is what most students do anyway) is no substitute for a year-long class in which the concepts are reinforced. I think that so long as there are teachers willing and able to teach a higher level of coursework, students should be able to pursue it.

  5. Amir Heidari on October 12th, 2012 11:18 pm

    I think that the SDMSC’s ideology of merging students of different backgrounds into one type of class would create an environment for which all students learn and go beyond the curriculum is faulty. Firstly, MA is not utopia , the only place where this plan would actually work. The MA student body is divided and by this i am not referring to racial divisions, but academic ones. Some of MA’s students are very serious about their academic agendas and futures, while others are not. The students who are serious about their school work tend to take more rigorous classes and continuously challenge themselves, while others do the minimum (which is absolutely fine). I think this plan is unfair to those students who have taken AP history classes in the past two years. These students have gone through hardships to achieve success in these classes and appreciate the contents of the course. Placing them in an average class, where they would not achieve their maximum potentials is insulting. These classes are not “remedial” , however AP History students have a much more greater potential in Social Studies classes and they would like to increase their knowledge. Secondly, i would like to point out that this type of plan is all ready in place in regular US HIstory. Last year, there were 3 different kinds of history classes. World Studies III, Western Civ and AP Euro. However this year, there are two: Regular US History and AP US History. The more passionate history students are in AP US history while the rest of the entire junior grade is in regular US History. I don’t think that many students in US history call tell me that the more diverse make-up (more academically concentrated and less academically concentrated) has created a rich learning environment. Without any disrespect, many people in these classes have referred to them as “jokes” or “easy-As”. The same thing happens in freshman classes. In these classes, the teacher is mostly concentrated on getting the less-academically concentrated kids to participated while failing to improve upon on his/her more serious students. The same thing happens in Freshman classes. I am sure we can all recall those memories. Although, I would like to believe that more diverse classes would create a better learning environment, they absolutely do not. I think we can all agree that we learn WAY more in the first week of the AP class than we do all year in a regular class. So i hope that the SDMSC will not change the current standards on testing out. Not changing these standards will allow passionate students to take part in classes where they could enjoy.

  6. amacfarlane on October 13th, 2012 11:24 pm

    I do truly think it is a shame that so many students are opting to test out of M-A’s Government and Economics courses, for there certainly is value to mixing students of all abilities and backgrounds in classes that discuss current events and policies. Nevertheless, as a student who tested out of both classes, I believe it is right to give students this choice. As an incoming senior, I faced a dilemma; it was my last year of high school, and there were so many classes that looked fascinating, challenging, and inspiring. I still in some ways wish I could have another year of high school just to explore some of the classes I have not had time to take, but I am hoping college will provide many exciting opportunities to pursue a wide variety of courses.
    Thus I ultimately decided that I would learn Government and Economics my junior year, and would use my senior year slot to add an elective history and literature course that I would not otherwise have been able to take. There are many wonderful classes at M-A that I will graduate without having taken, and sadly Government and Economics will be among them. However I believe that the ability to study independently on a pair of interesting topics is an invaluable skill for a high school student to develop. There will of course be students that seek to “get out of” taking the courses senior year, and that is very sad. But for the students that really like the idea of pursuing a topic independently, and have an exciting plan for how they will use the space in their senior year, I think it would be tragic to discontinue the program.
    I have noticed that many of the above comments that support testing out speak against the standards change proposed by the SDMSC, and this slightly puzzles me. I think the opportunity to test out of these classes is a wonderful opportunity, and that we as students owe it to our teachers, and to ourselves, to actually focus on learning the material in these subjects. Thus I think it is very reasonable to raise the standards to at least a 4 on both exams, if not a 5. This is an optional pursuit, and should be approached as a chance to actually learn new and interesting things about United States government and politics, and macroeconomic policy.
    So I hope that M-A will continue to offer the option to test out, and we as students should take this up only if we are truly willing to take the necessary time to master the material.

  7. Jake on October 18th, 2012 9:10 pm

    Unfortunately, the school doesn’t want to Mr. Weiss to teach AP Economics, which I would love to take. Another issue is the ignorance of the majority of the Social Studies department, who think that a 6-8 page is “not a problem” for students who tested out of government. Not that we as seniors have anything important to do in our spare time during the first semester………

    For an institution that is supposed to promote learning at a higher level and always talks about preparing us for college (to us and especially the parents), it has funny way of showing that point. Having students take a class in which it brings the high track with the low track is not a bad idea in theory. However, this does not teach students to strive for higher aspirations, but rather stress that a politically correct school is better than one with more informed students. This infringement on our lives, making it more difficult for us to test out is a travesty and the majority of teachers in the social studies department should be ashamed of themselves. How can you call yourself a teacher when you don’t want to promote higher education. I suggests a 6-8 page self reflection on the topic for each social studies teacher, with the exception of a few.

    To summarize this controversy.


SDMSC Discusses “Challenging” Students Testing Out of American Government and Economics