2021 district testing report showcases PHS’s academic culture

November, 2021
Laura LiuJessica ChenJieruei Chang

According to the 2021 district academic testing report presented at the October 26 Board of Education meeting, nearly half of the PHS student population is taking at least one Advanced Placement course. District testing reports, released at the beginning of every year, assess the previous year’s academic achievements at PHS. The results of the report summarized last year’s standardized test scores and compared the statistics of PHS against surrounding schools and on a national scale

PHS offers 32 out of the 38 available AP exams, which include subjects in English, Math and Computer Science, World Languages and Cultures, and Arts. Even in courses that are not officially offered as a class, such as AP 2-D Art and Design and AP Psychology, students are encouraged to take advantage of guided resources and explore the curriculum by themselves. By taking an AP exam, PHS students are able to experience college-level courses and obtain college credits if they pass.

The summary of last year’s AP scores indicates that the 1452 administered exams, 85 percent of the tests received a passing score of three or higher. Among those, 80 students who took the exam received the AP Scholar award, 61 received the AP Scholar with Honor award, and 175 students received the AP Scholar with Distinction award. To qualify for the AP Scholar with Distinction award, students must score an average of at least 3.5 on all AP exams taken and have scores of three or higher on five or more of these exams. In comparison to the state, students scoring a three or above was 50 percent higher than the state average. These high numbers of achievements have been a constant trend over the past few years, demonstrating the demanding academic culture at PHS.

The success that comes with high scores comes with harder workloads and college-level expectations. AP Chemistry teacher Dr. Robert Corell believes that the rigorous AP courses require students to not only develop self-discipline but to also learn how to ask for guidance.

“I teach my students not to be lone wolves,” said Corell. “Most of them have been so smart all throughout their careers, so they have not needed to ask anybody else for help. [But] when you get to the AP level, that difficulty level may be too much for them to do on their own.”

As beneficial as AP classes are  to prepare students for their futures, Principal Frank Chmiel believes that the “AP culture” at PHS sets unrealistic expectations that are more résumé-driven than passion-oriented. Chmiel notes that this culture leads students to take AP classes they aren’t interested in but feel forced to take in order to appeal to the college-admission process.

“The problem is when students aren’t passionate about the subject matter in an AP class ... It makes sense to me when the APs you take dovetail together nicely, almost like a major in college,” said Chmiel. “There’s an argument for being well-rounded, but it doesn’t mean you have to take every type of AP to be successful. When you have these disparate APs ... it gets everyone stressed out.”

In accordance, Corell said that the academic culture at PHS is a combination of peer and parental pressure to get into top universities. Corell notes that the college-focused nature of PHS is apparent when early college admission decisions are released.

“When the early decisions start coming out, [seniors] start talking about what schools they got into and what schools they didn’t get into ... it’s all about who’s doing ‘better,’ but that’s the big mistake in my mind. People are too focused on getting into the ‘right school’, not the right school for them,” Corell said.

Nick Hagedorn ’24 believes that in order to adhere to the pressure of being admitted to a top-tier college, many students feel peer pressured to fit more advanced and accelerated courses into their schedules. Hagedorn mentions that feeling as if others are doing “better” in preparation for applying to college can negatively affect students’ self-confidence.

“If your friends are taking APs, and you’re not taking APs, it [might] make you [believe]: Oh wow, I’m not smart — I’m taking zero APs, but everyone else I know is in [for example], AP United States History,” Hagedorn said.

Theona Hsu ’24 agrees that the PHS’s academic standards can be overbearing, however, she believes the collective pressure can also be motivating. Hsu explains that when she sees the achievements of her peers, she feels inclined to set larger academic goals for herself.

“Personally, [when] I see my friends and everyone at school working, I tell myself that I have to work [just as] hard and it helps me set [higher] standards for myself. But I still think there is definitely a line between healthy motivation and [harmful] pressure,” Hsu said.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons for students to decide against taking AP courses. Hsu, who currently is not taking an AP course, made the decision simply because she did not see herself enjoying any of the AP courses currently available to sophomores.

Corell has seen similar student mindsets during his time at PHS. He mentions that there are many reasons for students to drop or not take an AP including not being academically or emotionally prepared for the course, or out of feeling as if they are not going to achieve an A. He notes how the transition from pandemic learning has affected this year’s student enrollment rate in his AP Chemistry classes.“

I’ve had more kids drop from AP [Chemistry] this year than ever before. And it’s all because of — in my opinion — COVID,” said Corell. “The transition from virtual learning to [in-person learning]... is not like the normal transition from Chemistry I or Chemistry I Accelerated to AP. It’s much harder [now].”

In addition to AP scores, the statistics for SAT and ACT testing were also included in the report. On average, in 2021, PHS students scored 1334 on the SAT, which was 253 points above the state average and 283 points above the national average. For the ACT, PHS students scored a composite of 30.2, which was 5.8 points higher than the state average and 9.6 points higher than the national average. Echoing Corell and Chmiel, Molly Sikma ’22 believes that the pattern of high scores is the result of the overall Princeton community, not just PHS.

“I think especially being in Princeton, in this Ivy League town, all of the students have an innate desire to succeed,” said Sikma. “[Often], it’s the students themselves driving what they get out of a course, which is a big contributor, in my opinion, to our success on the state and national level.”

In addition to the culture at PHS, Sikma also believes the teachers, peers, and resources here bolster student achievement.

“We are a very privileged school district in the sense that most students I know were able to find some form of tutoring for standardized testing ... whether it’s through the Ideas Centers or through Princeton University,” said Sikma. “I think it’s also that older students are really big on helping younger students. My friends and I have given old test books to younger students or we’ve helped them study for an exam in a class we already took.”

However, the district testing report shows significant disparities in test participation and test scores between different ethnicities. Overall, Asian students had the highest percentage of students taking AP exams (53 percent), followed by mixed-race (43 percent), whites (35 percent), Hispanics (27 percent), and African Americans (15 percent). In terms of scores, Asians had the highest average AP score (3.98), followed by whites (3.69), mixed-race (3.58), Hispanics (3.37), and African Americans (3.15). The summer courses at PHS, which currently include Chemistry I Accelerated and various math courses, were created partly to assist traditionally underrepresented students in the AP curriculum.

“We thought we could use the tuition from the courses to recruit students who are underrepresented in the AP curriculum and get them into the summer course to prepare them to take AP [courses] in the fall. Over the five years, we’ve probably had six or seven [underrepresented] students total, but we’ve not achieved our goal of bringing them into the AP curriculum,” Corell said.

Although the PHS community seems to demand academic perfection, Chmiel believes that PHS students should be easier on themselves.

“It’s okay for students to not take themselves so seriously. Students should know that school is a place to have fun,” said Chmiel. “I hope [students] will be able to change [their mindset] to be: ‘I’ll challenge myself in my academics, not to the point where I [don’t like] school, but only as much as I can handle.’