AT English: The Black Sheep of the Advanced Topics Program
by Ella Spungen and Sophie Germain
It is the omnipresent topic in the lives of juniors and seniors, the one repeated over and over in college information sessions, and the aspect of the application that college admissions officers emphasize most of all: the importance of the transcript. “We want to see that you have challenged yourself within your school’s curriculum and have taken the most rigorous course of study possible,” is a statement familiar to any student within the college process. The classes that students take during their four years of high school are evidently weighed most heavily in this process.
While at many other schools, students try to load up on Advanced Placement (AP) classes to demonstrate to colleges their academic prowess, Packer students instead choose from a selection of Advanced Topics (AT) classes. The AT program replaced the school’s AP program in 2014 in an effort to allow teachers more curricular freedom.
Though Packer offers an extensive array of specialized courses and electives that appeal to a wide range of interests, many students are often so heavily influenced by the overwhelming pressure from colleges, counselors, parents, and peers to take rigorous classes that they end up choosing their courses mostly from the very limited selection of ATs—interests aside.
This is especially apparent within one of Packer’s most limited programs: the AT English program, which offers only two courses that are taken by 70+ upperclassmen.
While many students do choose to take AT English for its challenging curriculum, there is no doubt that college also plays a role. Many students view AT English as less difficult than other ATs—even if it is not—and may be motivated to take the courses by a desire to gain an “easy” AT designation on their transcript.
One senior, when asked why she opted to enroll in AT English courses in 11th and 12th grade, answered: “I think the AT was the main draw for those two classes. To be completely honest, I was trying to design a challenging curriculum for myself. I definitely chose to take an AT English because colleges are going to see my transcript.” The student went on to say that had the AT designation not been a factor, she would likely have chosen to take an elective instead, echoing the sentiments of many other AT English students.
This is likely due to a lack of variety in the AT courses, as reflected by Ms. Cara Hill, who teaches AT English: “I think, ideally, we would have more offerings in Advanced Topics to serve student interest,” she said.
Furthermore, students who have taken both elective and AT English classes struggle to see how their AT classes are more rigorous than electives.
“I think, unique to English, there’s no benefit to having a year-long AT class in comparison to an elective class. The AT doesn’t do anything. I get in math and science and maybe even history, you’re dealing with significantly harder material,” said a senior who has taken both ATs and elective English courses. “You’re not reading harder material in AT [English] classes than you are in elective classes.”
AT English is rooted in the idea that students will demonstrate a higher caliber of analytical thinking, while ATs in other courses have more to do with applying pre-existing skills to harder material. For this reason, it is difficult to determine why one English class deserves the title of AT while another does not.
The English department’s methods of differentiating between ATs and electives are very different than most Packer students might think. According to English Department Chair Elissa Krebs, AT classes must “reflect the highest academic rigor—which [doesn’t] necessarily translate to more work, we want to be very clear about that, that it [isn’t] more time, or more reading; that [isn’t] rigor. It [is] cognitive rigor, and intellectual rigor.” However, students often feel that workload and difficulty of grading dictates how challenging the course is, and for that reason, there is a widespread attitude that English ATs are not as rigorous as many of the electives.
“In my experience, my ATs have been significantly easier than my English electives. Sometimes I feel like the ‘AT’ status is slapped onto classes, and teachers have to create some kind of curriculum around that,” said an anonymous senior.
On the other hand, Angelica Sang (‘20), who is currently in AT English, expressed that the class is as difficult as she expected. “Last year, we had perhaps more assignments, but the expectations were lower. This year, the expectations are very nuanced,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was diving in the deep end after not swimming at all, but I did feel like it was a jump.”
Students are not the only ones who feel ambivalence surrounding the program. Since its inception, the English department has felt torn between their desire to provide higher-level work for adept English students, and their aversion to tracking—restricting certain classes to students who meet a minimum grade requirement.
“It feels a little dirty to us,” said Ms. Krebs. “But at the end of the day, from the Board down, we have to have an AT program. It is not in our hands to decide.”
While there is a general consensus that the AT classes do provide advanced students with the rigor that they seek when enrolling in these courses, many argue that the elective program already allows students an opportunity to do work that is just as challenging. This begs the larger question of whether or not there is an actual need for an AT English program.
“I do think that goal [of providing challenging coursework] is being met; I also think it can be met in a course that doesn’t have an AT on it,” said Ms. Teresa Genaro, who teaches two AT English classes.
Nonetheless, due to pressures from the college process, at least for now, eradicating English ATs altogether is impossible.
“We can’t step away from the AT program, which in an ideal world, we would like to do. And we are hopeful that the year will come when we will no longer have to offer ATs. Where colleges and universities will hold our program in such high regard; I think we are not so far from that,” said Ms. Krebs.
In an effort to fix some of the outstanding issues with the program, however, the English department is currently crafting a new set of criteria and considering expanding the classes labeled as ATs to increase choice for students. “This is just an ever-evolving discussion topic,” said Ms. Krebs. “We’re trying to do the best we can to serve our students and run our program with integrity.”