I often receive phone calls from frustrated New York City private school parents who are concerned that even when their children are studious and diligent, there is not enough time in the day to handle standardized test preparation as well as a demanding course load, sports activities, and community service requirements -- a challenge that can, indeed, quickly become overwhelming. They bitterly complain that their children's expensive high school, whose advanced curriculum is teacher-centric, is, unfairly, not teaching to the content-based AP and SAT Subject Tests. In particular, parents of children attending the six or eight top-tier private schools in the city always feel that their institution is giving students the short end of the stick. For example, many Dalton parents believe that their school's history courses do not prepare its students for the U.S. History or World History SAT Subject Tests. Compounding their frustration, they assume that students from, say, Horace Mann learn history material geared specifically toward the SAT Subject or AP Tests -- providing a comparative advantage by "killing two birds with one stone."
In reality, there are quirks to each top private school's curriculum. Some are more progressive than others, but none are written in the service of standardized college entrance exams. Instead, these high schools rely on their own highly qualified departments to craft curriculum designed to pique student intellectual curiosity and to illuminate a particular academic field's significance in the modern world.
The disconnect between course and standardized test content is the product of a power struggle between private high schools (and many public schools as well) and the College Board, which writes most college admissions related standardized tests, including the SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams. Understandably, private high school department heads--many of whom hold doctorates and are leading authorities in their fields of study--do not want to teach to an exam designed by a faceless, sprawling organization hundreds or even thousands of miles away. However, without a compromise on course material, the end result is that students are burdened with two huge and minimally intersecting workloads.
It's hard to imagine that parents are upset over expertly and independently constructed course content, but maybe their gripe is justifiable. While the precise course content at top high schools makes little difference to undergraduate admission officers -- for example, a grade of A in Trinity High School's advanced chemistry course will be hugely impressive regardless of the specific material taught and assessed during the year -- parents want teachers to cover SAT Subject content to help students who are required to have two or three SAT Subject Scores for most schools on their college application list. And, like it or not, most families paying nearly $40,000 a year for high school do so to give their children the best possible opportunities to gain acceptance into elite colleges and universities.