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

Photo Credit: Nolan Martin

An array of prep books for AP American Government and Macroeconomics

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.