This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Silvani Amin spent part of her senior year at Northeast High School visiting the Philadelphia Mills and Neshaminy malls — not to shop or hang with friends, but to fulfill a class assignment. She had designed a survey and was looking for women age 44 and older to get their answers.
Her project? Doing research on what factors play a role in women’s decisions about whether to get routine mammograms.
Amin is one of 14 recent graduates from Northeast High School honored Tuesday by the Philadelphia School District for earning a diploma or certificate in the AP Capstone program, a recent addition to the Advanced Placement repertoire that requires students to complete projects rather than pass paper-and-pencil tests.
Eight of the students were at the ceremony, which was attended by Mayor Kenney, several school board members, and the director of K-12 services for the College Board, which administers AP.
Northeast, which has an enrollment of nearly 3,500 students, is the only school in the city that now has the full AP Capstone program, which consists of two yearlong courses — the first a seminar to learn how to do research and make presentations, and the second to complete a research project. Students who participate, for the most part, are also enrolled in traditional AP courses.
Those who complete the seminar and the research and get high enough scores in four other traditional AP courses graduate with a Capstone diploma. Those who successfully complete the seminar and research without completing four other AP courses with high scores get a certificate.
Carver High School of Engineering & Science offered the seminar this year and will offer the research course next year.
Superintendent William Hite said the students being honored “have chosen to take some of the most rigorous course loads imaginable,” demonstrating curiosity and tenacity while learning skills that will serve them well in college.
The College Board started the AP Capstone program in 2015 and so far, just 6,600 students globally have graduated with diplomas or certificates. That compares to two million who take AP exams, said Dianna Frank, the director of K-12 education for the College Board.
“These students conduct college-level research on topics of the students’ choosing,” said Frank. “They take ownership of their research.”
Even though the courses are known for their rigor, AP has been criticized for providing canned curriculum that focuses too much on rote memorization and paper-and-pencil testing — in contrast to the International Baccalaureate program, which is based on problem-solving and projects. At the same time, AP has been criticized for not being offered in schools that serve mostly disadvantaged students or for very low pass rates at these schools, more evidence of the built-in inequality among schools based on socioeconomic status.
AP has been sold to students as a way to accumulate college credits in high school and therefore save tuition money and a way to give them a competitive edge in applying to more-selective schools. College admissions officers also look for AP course-taking as evidence of student motivation and ability.
Students who score 3 or higher on AP tests (out of 5) can get college credit for the courses. At some colleges, the AP credits fulfill requirements and allow students to graduate early, but at others, they can use AP scores to be placed in higher-level courses, but they still must earn all their credits on campus.
Last month, eight elite private high schools in Washington, D.C., dropped AP, citing “the diminished utility of AP courses and the desirability of developing our own advanced courses that more effectively address our students’ needs and interests. Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty.”
They said they would phase out AP by 2022 and develop their own advanced courses.
The Capstone program is part of the College Board’s effort to address these concerns.
“The AP Capstone was developed out of a need for students to have more research capability and a scholarly skill set before arriving on a college campus,” said Frank.
Although private schools and wealthier public schools may have the resources to develop their own advanced courses, that is harder to do in a financially strapped district like Philadelphia.
Hite served for five years on a superintendents’ advisory board that the College Board set up to look at AP. For him, the issue is access for all students to rigorous academics that will help them develop college-level skills.
He said he was interested in having the College Board develop coursework that didn’t just reward “memory to play back on an assessment,” but that helped students “engage in skills that they would need to solve problems and think critically. That is exactly what the new Capstone program allows us to do.”
Maria Barnett, Northeast’s AP coordinator, was determined to expand the program at the school. Ten years ago, few students took AP courses and just 10 percent scored 3 or higher on the exams. Now, about 400 students — about 17 percent of 10th, 11th and 12th graders — take one or more of the 20 courses available, including four independent studies. The school produced 59 AP scholars this year; 53 percent of students who take them score 3 or higher on the tests.
Sixty other students, Barnett noted, are enrolled in the school’s International Baccalaureate program.
Barnett said she believes the capstone approach “is the future of AP.”
Several students at Tuesday’s ceremony, including Amin, gave moving testimonials about how participating in the Capstone program expanded their academic horizons.
Amin, who will attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, said she is a first-generation college student who knew little about what college prep entailed when she started at Northeast. Participating in the Capstone program “made me more open-minded” and honed her skills in public speaking, she said.
Kolade Adegbaye, a rising senior who completed the seminar and will do the research project in the coming year, said that the course “challenged us to work with different cultures.” He thanked his teachers “for setting expectations so high.”
Most of the students at Northeast are from families classified as low-income. About one in five are English language learners, and the school’s students speak more than 40 languages.
In addition to Amin’s project, other subjects of the students’ capstones included how video games affect short-term memory, the influence of technology on parent-child relationship building, how the representation of LGBT individuals in the media influences the way they view themselves, adolescent understanding of cybersecurity and their online safety, and high school students’ attitudes toward green space in their community.
Katelynn McFadden, who will attend the University of Maine, did a survey on how teenagers define mental health, including ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and mental health in general.
“There is a history in my family, and I wanted to know how people in my age group reacted to that,” she said.
Amin said that she wants to do more research on mammograms. Based on her 33 surveys, she found that women with lower education levels were less likely to get them routinely. But she realizes her sample size was not big enough to draw definite conclusions regarding all her questions, which also included the role that convenience played in their decisions.
Overall, she said, the Capstone program had a huge impact on her life trajectory. “It’s such an honor that they had a ceremony for us,” she said.
This story has been updated to correct the number of AP courses offered.