The Intro Class Dilemma

Stuyvesant should implement exams that allow students to test out of introductory courses.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Naomi Lai

Scheduling at Stuyvesant is a nightmare. It makes sense; in a school with thousands of students and hundreds of classes, it’s impossible to make everything run smoothly. As soon as schedules are released, Talos becomes sluggish and exasperating. Once the website gets back on its feet, many students discover that their schedules have decidedly unusual characteristics. Maybe they lack a core math class, or maybe they’ve been scheduled to take health again. But regardless of the complications they face, all students must amend their schedules through the same process: program changes. Days pass with no sign of progress. They absently reload Talos, awaiting the satisfying green that denotes approval. For many, it never comes. 

The problem with scheduling runs deeper than technical issues and lack of efficiency. The fundamental schedule requirements at Stuyvesant are confusing and arbitrary, and they often detract from education instead of adding to it. I experienced this firsthand a few weeks before the school year began when I received an email from my Math Team teacher, Mr. Sterr. He informed me that the program office had scheduled me for Music Appreciation during the fall semester, so I would not have space for Math Team on my schedule. I was quite upset. Math Team has taught me an incredible amount, and it’s one of my favorite classes. Moreover, I play two instruments and have studied music since I was five. It seemed ridiculous that I would lose a valuable class for Music Appreciation, which would arguably teach me nothing. This is not a unique problem: other similar introductory classes that are required for graduation hurt more than they help. 

That’s not to say that introductory classes aren’t important. On the contrary, they can enrich education when implemented appropriately. Classes like Music Appreciation introduce people who have never taken music lessons to interesting concepts. They provide exposure to entirely new fields and can be an exciting opportunity for people who have never thought about the subject in question. Art Appreciation was a good class for me because I had never drawn before, and it introduced me to new concepts and techniques. Similarly, I am thrilled that I was required to take Intro to Computer Science last year. As a result of taking the course, I realized how much I enjoy coding. Later, I signed up for other computer science classes that I would never have considered otherwise. The philosophy behind intro classes centers around exposure, and it is completely valid.

But by definition, this philosophy only applies to people who have never been exposed to the subject. I loved Intro to Computer Science, but I also know that students who have been coding for years had different opinions. Naturally, they found the class redundant. Why force-feed basic HTML syntax to a student who has built multiple professional websites? Why make a Python expert stoop to NetLogo? Moving on to Music Appreciation, why should people who have played music all their lives waste time reviewing the definition of staccato? Requiring intro classes is only logical as long as the members of those classes have little to no background knowledge. The current system does not make sense, and there are two possible solutions. 

First, Stuyvesant could offer a way to earn credits by testing out of intro classes. Then people who have never been exposed to the subject would learn about it, while people who already know the material would not have needless scheduling problems. This is not a novel concept—we use a swim test to let people abstain from swim gym. It makes sense to provide similar exams for other classes.

Alternatively, the school could offer placement exams. If the administration is committed to having everyone take classes on a specific subject, then there should be multiple levels tailored to background knowledge. That way, everyone is exposed to the subject, but no one is bored out of their mind. This system would be more difficult to implement because in some cases, it would require the creation of classes of varying difficulty. However, it wouldn’t be impossible, especially when higher-level classes such as AP Studio Art, AP Music Theory, and AP Computer Science A already exist; they just don't provide the credits for Art Appreciation, Music Appreciation, or Intro to Computer Science. We currently use this structure in the language department—freshmen who have already taken Spanish I can move straight to Spanish II. It makes sense to apply it to subjects like Computer Science as well. 

Computer Science, Music Appreciation, and Art Appreciation are three intro classes that I’ve emphasized so far. It is important to note that while Computer Science is a Stuyvesant requirement, Music and Art Appreciation are DOE requirements. In other words, it would be more difficult for Stuyvesant to independently create alternatives to Music and Art Appreciation. That initiative would have to come from more influential members of the DOE, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.

School has two main academic purposes: to help children learn and to expose them to new concepts. The current intro class system attempts to accomplish the second, but it comes at the cost of the first. Some people are exposed to new concepts, but others spend time pointlessly reabsorbing information they already know. We should attempt to reconcile these two goals instead of choosing one over the other. 

Allowing students to test out of introductory classes would lend their schedules more flexibility. It would bring us all one step closer to guaranteeing everyone the education they need. So let’s implement a Music Appreciation exam, ideally before I’m a senior. I got out of it this year, but that won’t last!