Trend Lines: Revisiting the Advanced Placement Debate

Spring 2019

By James Paterson

When eight Washington DC-area independent schools released a joint announcement about their decision to drop Advanced Placement (AP) courses last summer, a trend that’s been quietly simmering for many years landed back in the spotlight.
These eight schools join nearly 50 independent schools that have moved away from AP courses over the years. And as that number continues to grow, so, too, does the number of independent schools that offer AP courses and tests. Last spring, 2.8 million students took 5 million AP exams in 38 different subjects, according to Maria Eugenia Alcón-Heraux, director of media relations for the College Board, which administers the AP program. She notes that while the number of schools in the country offering AP courses has grown by 14 percent in the past five years, the number of independent schools offering them has risen even faster—by 33 percent over that same period, to 5,179, including 37 additional independent schools offering AP coursework this year.
The conversation around the value of AP may not be new among independent schools, but it’s heating up again at a pivotal time and becoming particularly relevant to many more schools as they assess their value proposition in a rapidly changing, broader education landscape.

The Questions

The last time the debate about AP offerings started to bubble up like this was in 2012 when John Tierney, a government and politics teacher, critiqued the structure in the provocative Atlantic article “AP Classes Are a Scam”—a headline he now says he regrets, as well as his own statement in the article that the classes are “a great fraud.” But he contends today that points he made are valid: that AP courses aren’t equivalent to college-level courses, that too often students don’t get credit for them, that too many students have been driven to them unnecessarily (but not enough underserved students), and they are too rigid.
The rationale for many of the schools that have dropped AP—or are considering making such a move—is rooted in the desire to drive curriculum and create their own version of depth and rigor that is custom-designed for their school and students. Such schools believe that AP is too rigid for students and teachers and wedges them into a curriculum and assessment process that doesn’t give them enough freedom—especially when a more individualized approach to teaching and learning is taking root in schools. And increasingly, some schools are looking at the AP issue through the lens of student health and well-being, concerned about the stress levels among teens.
In their joint statement, the DC-area schools explain, “Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty. We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning.” The schools said they wanted the freedom to develop a “more dynamic curriculum” and move away from standardized assessments.
“By their very nature, AP courses often compel faculty to teach to the test, condensing a significant amount of content into a short period of time,” says Shelley Dutton, director of communications at the Potomac School (VA), one of the eight schools. “In-depth exploration of issues and thoughtful discussion may be sacrificed to get through all the material expected to be on the test.”
The College Board, on the other hand, which administers both the SAT college-entry exams and the AP program, says AP offers students a strong, carefully reviewed and updated curriculum, and provides a good measure of their understanding and talent, as well as a potential cost-cutting benefit if they can start college with key credits already in place.

Making the Choice

“Eschewing curriculum mandated by a third party has allowed our students to learn and research topics more significantly,” says Adam Exline, co-director of college counseling at Trevor Day School (NY), which dropped AP in 2015. “Developing curriculum to suit our students’ interests and faculty strengths is at the top of the list for us.” He notes, for instance, that the school developed an advanced biology neuroscience class in partnership with New York University and a digital humanities program, neither of which might have taken shape if the school was wed to Advanced Placement.
Dominic Randolph, head of school at Riverdale Country School (NY), which stopped offering AP in 2008, says AP courses had a “magnetic” effect on their students, who too strenuously believed the courses were critical to being accepted to college and could always give them a leg up with credits. “Other rigorous courses in our curriculum could not attract students even though there was interest in taking them,” he says. Without AP, the school’s offerings became “richer,” he continues, noting that students benefited because they had more individualized learning activities, and transcripts better reflected their specific interests and strengths.
Tierney, who taught at an independent school, says schools sometimes feel compelled to offer a wide array of AP courses to show they have rigorous offerings. “As I wrote in my piece, in my experience at an independent school, regular honors courses were typically more challenging and demanding than AP courses because they went into topics in more depth and usually entailed a formidable writing component,” he says. “The rush-through demands of AP courses made that much harder.”

College and the Middle Ground

One major point in the debate about AP courses is the concern they won’t provide college credit. While some institutions are likely to accept all of a student’s AP credits if they have reasonable scores, others such as Dartmouth College make it a policy not to accept any; other colleges and universities carefully select which credits to accept, based on the rigor of the class compared to their own and the student’s performance and score.
Some schools use the AP courses for placement, such as Princeton University and Brown University, and have been doing so for a while. “Our policy dates back some 30 years. Brown shifted its policy toward considering AP credits only for placement purposes, to enroll in higher-level courses or to satisfy concentration requirements, and for requests for advanced standing,” says Brian Clark, a Brown spokesperson and director of news and editorial. “So though AP scores are not eligible for course credit, they can still be useful for a student who seeks to graduate in fewer semesters than is typical.”
Aside from the issue of whether the credits will be accepted, another portion of the debate is around the notion that dropping AP hurts students’ chances of being accepted at the college they choose. But leaders at independent schools that don’t offer AP say this has not been the case, noting that it sets up students for greater success. “Our college admission results have only improved,” Randolph says. “I think our students present as more distinctive, and our curriculum is more reflective of our school community.” He says the school’s offerings better prepare students for college, and admission officers understand that.
Jed Applerouth, an educational consultant in Atlanta who has written about the value of the AP offerings and who attended an independent school, understands the concerns and believes that the courses might be of greater value at large public high schools, where “students have more varied outcomes when they head off to college,” and for whom “strong performance in AP classes will be a clear signal that they are more
college-ready than their peers.” Even students who don’t test well, he says, can prove they can handle advanced material by performing well in an AP class.
“I don’t think the AP program is broken,” Applerouth says. “Schools that want to provide more nuanced courses can use the AP structure and enhance it—and still give their students the opportunity to have the benefits of a nationally recognized course.”

Readings and Resources

James Paterson

James Paterson is an education writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, District Administration, Principal magazine, School Counselor, Teaching Tolerance, Education World, TeachHub, and several other education association magazines.