Students launch petition after administration denies opt-out options for AP Exams

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Earlier this month, Assistant Principal of Organization Ellen Fee emailed a FAQ document to students that addressed concerns about the upcoming AP exams, stating that despite the pandemic, “there is no opting-out of taking the exam.” In response to the statement, seniors Stacey Roy, Riya Nobi, and Kyrah Gomes drafted a petition calling on administrators to give students the choice to opt-out of AP exams this year, arguing that “student health, both physical and mental, is jeopardized by the decision to refuse an opt-out option.” 

At the time of publication, the petition has 148 signatures and continues to garner support. The petition prompted the administration to host a senior meeting earlier today to address students’ concerns about the exams and explain their stance, which, as of Friday, remains unchanged. 

During the meeting, Principal Brian Condon said that students had made a commitment when they requested to take their AP courses, and opting out would not align with “Townsend Harris values.” 

In response, numerous students expressed their opinions in the Zoom chat.

Senior Natalie Villacres wrote, “No student should be made to feel guilty for going against ‘values’ and not wanting to take an exam in such an extreme year.” 

“So you gathered us all here to not only regurgitate points many of us have rebutted but [to] again dismiss concerns that reflect the most recent issues and wants of the senior class,” commented senior Francesca Manabat in the chat.

Senior Eric Han, who intends to take the exams, wrote “I think that while it’s an amazing feat we actually got our APs this year, I think that it would be ideal for us to make our own choice based on the content of the exams.”

The Zoom comments led Ms. Fee and Mr. Condon to address students’ tone. 

“This sort of approach that we’re not listening to you, I think, is just not indicated by the facts of the matter. We just might have a disagreement about this particular issue,” Mr. Condon said during the meeting.

Following the meeting, numerous seniors took to social media to voice their frustrations about the way the administration responded to student concerns, with some writing that they felt “gaslighted” and their concerns “invalidated.”

In an email to The Classic yesterday, Ms. Fee said, There hasn’t been an opt-out option at Townsend Harris ever, except in rare extenuating circumstances. These are the values that we have lived by at Townsend Harris since we began our school.” 

The Classic reached out to Mr. Condon to schedule an interview following the meeting, and will follow up early next week.

Attached to the petition was a detailed letter to the THHS administration where students explained their opposition and requested that they reconsider their decision. The letter argues that students should have a choice to opt-out due to individual circumstances surrounding the ongoing pandemic, concerns about the fairness of the exams themselves, and technical difficulties already experienced in virtual AP exams last spring. “Neither schools nor students can account for sudden changes in a student’s personal or academic life; thus, removing the option to opt out puts students under immense pressure to forgo their physical and mental health in order to take an exam,” the letter read.

Townsend has always encouraged students to think for themselves and ‘to leave our city greater than we found it,’ which is exactly what we’re trying to do,” Riya told The Classic. “The purpose of this petition isn’t to enable ‘lazy seniors’ or encourage people to forgo their studies. Instead, we want to unite the student population and bring awareness to a decision made by the administration that we think can harm more than help.”

The principle of free choice is at the heart of this petition,” Kyrah said. “We believe that students should feel free to voice concerns about their education.”

Many students expressed their support for the petition. Senior Stephanie Chouhan said that, if given the choice, she would opt out of some AP exams. “Being tested on the full course content in a time of online classes and starting the school year late poses many difficulties,” she said. 

Another senior who would opt out of some AP exams said, “It’s important for our administration to tailor their policies to our students and our individual needs… In comparison to everything else going on…are they valuable enough for us to put our social, emotional, and physical health on the line?”

Several underclassmen, however, said they wouldn’t opt-out of any AP exams but would still sign the petition. 

Junior Shaddai Jemmott plans to take her exams but said, “I did sign the petition because I strongly believe that underclassmen should have a choice on whether or not they take these tests considering the abnormal circumstances.”

Junior Angelina Baicu agreed that the choice should be available. “So many students have been impacted by COVID-19 and have had trouble adjusting to online learning and such,” Angelina said. “Everyone’s circumstances are different. It feels wrong to force someone to take an AP when they may not be able to.”

Some AP teachers, on the other hand, felt that students should not be able to opt-out of taking the exams. AP Calculus teacher Magdalena Frankowski said, “[The] main reason why we had to have 90% remote was to keep the AP classes. Also, we had limited space available in those classes and there were some students who couldn’t get the AP class because there was no more space, so it wouldn’t be fair that someone took the spot in the class but didn’t take full advantage of the class.” She also conducted a poll of her third band class to see how many students would choose to opt-out of the AP Calculus AB exam, which found that out of 30 students, 9 would opt-out.

The organizers hope to see the petition gain at least 400 signatures, or approximately one-third of students in each grade. Stacey said she believes it’s important to unite “to keep a critical eye on actions that may not seem right and to always remember that our influence lies greatest in numbers.”

In the future, we hope that underclassmen see this effort as inspiration to any obstacles that may occur in the school after the class of 2021 graduates,” said Riya. “Students must recognize when the administration falls short and band together to enact change. Giving students choices in their academic courses is important, and that’s a message that we think everyone needs to hear.”

This is a developing story. We will be contacting the Department of Education and College Board for further reporting to determine if a school can refuse students an opt-out option.

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