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How to get rid of AP (part 3): what can replace it

December 23, 2010

Previously, in part 1 of this series, I wrote about the need for deeper measures of quality in education, beyond simple shortcuts of test scores, rankings and student-to-teacher ratios. In part 2, I listed my concerns with the AP curriculum’s emphasis on breath over depth, as well as the bureaucratic nature of the college board that prevents it from being a source for educational innovation. My criticism can be nicely summed up in this quote, from a student at the University of Chicago Lab School, before it moved to abandon the AP program:

The overriding goal is to crack the AP test. That means taking a lot of practice tests–week after week, filling in those bubbles in class. It means researching past AP exams to predict what will be on the test. It means answering model AP essay questions for
homework. It means brute memorization. My classmates ask: Will there be more questions on the American Revolution or World War I? What do we really have to know about mercantilism? Their unspoken question is: If I blow the AP test, can I still get into good college? In class, we cannot stray from the AP regimen…

I know not all AP classes are like this, but I do think that the AP curriculum and the collective focus on beating a single 3 hour test can, if left unchecked, lead to this to this approach to learning.

In this third and final post of this series, I want to talk about how teachers and schools can innovate by moving away from the AP curriculum. I’ll start by mentioning a bit about the history of the AP program, taken from the College Board Website:

In May 1951, a group of educators from three elite prep schools — Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville — and three of the country’s most prestigious colleges — Harvard, Princeton, and Yale — met at Andover to discuss the best use of the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. Led by English teacher Alan R. Blackmer of Andover, the committee published a final report, General Education in School and College, through Harvard University Press in 1952. The report urged schools and colleges to work together as part of a continuous process, to see themselves as “two halves of a common enterprise.” It recommended that secondary schools recruit imaginative teachers, that they encourage seniors to engage in independent study and college-level work, and that achievement exams be used to allow students to enter college with advanced standing.

This description of a thoughtful collaboration between college professors and high school teachers about how to make the culmination of the high school experience meaningful represents the very best in educational reform. At the time, collaboration like this was difficult and highly unusual, and so in order to spread this reform throughout the nation, a bureaucracy like the College Board was necessary and even helpful. However, over time, I think this bureaucracy has hindered innovation, and stifled the conversation between colleges and high schools, as the College Board cannot keep up with the changing nature of the college curriculum and research on learning. In addition, the incredible authority of the College Board and AP program often leads high schools and colleges unquestioningly conclude that AP represents the very best in preparation for college. Today, I think we again need to have the conversation about how to best culminate the high school experience for students, and we need to do that with direct conversation between high schools and colleges, unmediated by the College Board. In the age of instant and ubiquitous communication, we should be able to achieve a democratic collaboration that achieves a level of participation not imaginable back in 1950.

Today, none of the three private schools that helped to found the AP program embrace it fully. You’ll find nary a mention of Advanced Placement in course titles at Lawrenceville, and Exeter. In fact, you’ll find the following statement in the Exeter History Department Listing of the catalog:

Statement from Exeter’s History Department in course catalog:

Advanced Placement Exams: the department does not confine itself to teaching in order to prepare students for standardized tests. We believe that such an approach would compromise our commitment to student-centered discussion, close reading of primary and secondary sources, and independent research and writing. Those students wishing to take AP Exams in history are strongly advised to undertake sustained review on their own.

Andover does explicitly designate some courses in science, math and language “AP”, but no courses in the history department carry this designation, and the American History course contains a statement that “Students completing this course who wish to take the College Board Advanced Placement examination should check with their teachers, since extensive review is required.”

These three schools are just a small sample of a ever-growing movement of independent and even public schools that have decided that AP program no longer aligns with their educational mission. One of the first schools to attract national attention for abandoning the AP Program was Fieldston School, in New York City. Later, Fieldston published a detailed description of the four year process they followed to move away from AP in Independent School Magazine.

The dilemma was pointed out with great eloquence by one of our students, Matt Spigelman, class of ’98, who wrote a compelling essay about the Fieldston curriculum. He focused on the dilemma of juniors and seniors, forced to choose between AP History or English (good for the college resume) and such homegrown advanced electives as “The Physics of Sound” or “The Literature of New York City” (more intellectually rewarding). “It is ironic,” he wrote, “that the top students, who will be trying to take the most specialized courses available in college, are taking the most general courses available in high school, largely because the course titles are preceded by the letters ‘ AP.'” If Fieldston’s goal was learning for learning’s sake, he argued, the school should end this artificial hierarchy between the two sets of electives, abolish the AP program, and proclaim confidence in its own advanced courses. Matt’s essay was widely circulated.

Part of Fieldston’s process included consulting with over 40 colleges and universities around the nation where its student matriculated to see how this change might affect its students prospects for college admission. The NYT reports that admission offices were very supportive:

‘I applaud Fieldston’s proposed decision to drop the A. P. curriculum,” wrote Robert Kinnally, Stanford’s former dean of admissions. ”Your decision reflects the courage of your convictions about teaching and learning.”

Harvard concurred. ”We look at whether the applicant has taken the high school’s most demanding courses,” said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, its director of admissions. ”But whether the classes are designated as A. P. or not is irrelevant. Abolishing A. P. classes won’t hurt the kids.”

I want to emphasize that the decision to move away from the AP curriculum isn’t limited to elite private schools, either. Scarsdale High School drew its share of national attention in 2006 when it announced it would eliminate the AP program from its curriculum.

Scarsdale has also been very forthcoming in sharing documents regarding is change. You can read a description of the Advanced Topic (AT) courses the school created to replace AP courses (pdf), as well as a survey of teachers’ experiences following the first year of teaching AT courses (pdf) and a 23 page report to the Superintendent of Schools (pdf).

A number of schools who are working to move away from the AP have joined together to form the Independent Curriculum Group, which advocates for “site based, teacher-generated curriculum for advanced courses.” ICG hosts a number of roundtables and conferences around the nation, as well as extensive resources for educators interested in learning more about the move away from AP. The schools involved in the Independent Curriculum Group include The Academy at Charlemont (MA), Beaver Country Day (MA), Berkeley Carroll School (NY), Brimmer and May (MA), Calhoun School (NY), Cambridge School of Weston (MA), Carolina Friends School (NC), Catlin Gabel School (OR), Crossroads School (CA), Fieldston School (NY), Lick-Wilmerding School (CA), The Nueva School (CA), The Park School of Baltimore (MD), Putney School (VT), Redwood Day School (CA), Riverdale Country School (NY), Sandia Prepatory School (NM), Scarsdale High school (NY), Seacrest Country Day (FL), St. Andrew’s-Sewanee (TN), Trevor Day School (NY), The Urban School of San Francisco (CA), Westtown School (PA), and the White Mountain School (NH). I also know of many more schools, both public and private that are moving away from the AP not on this list, so it is far from exhaustive.

A personal account of change

I’d like to outline a generic plan for change by discussing the specific story of how St. Andrew’s in Delaware, a school I used to teach at, made the move away from the AP program. The central point of this story illustrates the need to return to the idea that founded the start of the AP program, collaboration between college professors and high school teachers.

When I arrived at St. Andrew’s in the late 90’s, each department had it’s own view of the AP program. Mathematics, Science and Language embraced it, and our students saw good success on AP tests. At the same time, the History department eschewed the entire AP approach, emphasizing deeper reading of primary sources, research, and a wider view of history offerings beyond American and European History. Shortly before I arrived, the department transformed the 9th grade US history course to emphasize far fewer topics in much greater depth, creating a course based around a series of research challenges designed to expose students to the field of history itself.

St. Andrew’s also had a strong tradition of inviting college professors to campus for feedback and collaboration on our curriculum. I can remember Deborah Hughes Hallett of the calculus textbook fame, coming to campus to spend a day observing classes in the math department and offering suggestions for how we might better prepare our students for college level math. These visits continually sharpened our thinking about courses, and when we heard that many professors were finding little difference in the level of preparation between students who took AP and those who did not when they got to college courses, we began to look even more closely at the rationale for our AP courses.

Over time, I and my colleagues in the science department grew more and more dissatisfied with the AP curriculum, which even as a second year course, forced our biology teachers to race through Campbell at a lightning quick pace, forgo some open ended lab investigations, and opportunities to go out and explore our 2000 acre campus for field studies. In Physics, we discovered the incredible Matter and Interactions curriculum, which reformulates physics from a modern perspective, teaches kids to solve problems using computational models culminates in a beautiful synthesis of mechanics by studying statistical mechanics and entropy, and concludes E&M with an equally wonderful treatment of EM Waves and optics from first principles. Soon, we began to think that the AP C curriculum didn’t fully match up with our goals for a 2nd year physics course.

At the same time, as our students applied to a wider range of colleges, particularly a number of State Universities that might not be as familiar with our school, admissions offers posed questions about why our applicants didn’t take any AP History courses. This indicated a few schools might be having difficulty understanding the nuances of our curriculum’s offerings.

This began a conversation about whether as a school, we wanted to abandon the AP label on all of our courses. At around this point, I ended up leaving St. Andrew’s to pursue graduate study, but I kept in close contact with a number of teachers and administrators, so I will continue the story to its conclusion. Like Fieldston, St. Andrew’s found that college admissions officers were very receptive to the idea of moving away from AP, so long as the school continue to give some indication of which courses in each discipline are regarded as most challenging. Some colleges were even a bit “been there done that” in their attitude, since at this point, many schools were contemplating this move.

Eventually, the decision was made to abandon the AP designation right around the same time as the AP audit process came into full swing. Faculty who felt that the AP closely matched their goals for their courses (largely math teachers) would continue to teach largely the same as they had before, just no longer with an AP designation on their courses. Students, if they felt sufficiently prepared for a particular AP test, would be able to take the AP test at the school. At the same time, this allowed the faculty to develop innovative new courses for juniors and seniors, including a 2nd year chemistry course in atmospheric and environmental chemistry, an interdisciplinary Global Studies course, History of Social Reform, and Mathematical Economics, as well as allowing for more open ended labs and student centered discussion in classes that no longer had to match every detail of the AP syllabus. Every course was evaluated, and those that were felt to offer rigorous preparation of a level typically found at a college were designated Advanced Study (AS), similar to Scarsdale’s Advanced Topics.

A critical qustion in this conversation was “if we were to abandon the AP label, how would we be able to demonstrate the strength of our curriculum and students?” One tool that the school began to experiment with was the College and Work Readiness Assessment, a truly wonderful standarized test used to help schools “measure how students perform constructed response tasks that require an integrated set of critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication skills.” The CWRA test is a standardized test unlike any you’ve probably seen. The assignments themselves are fascinating real world tasks where students are given a wide range of documents: a picture, a newspaper clipping, graphs and a literature search from Lexis-Nexis, and then asked students to uses these resources construct an argument to answer a series of challenging questions. Here’s what a few students had to say about the CWRA:

The test was better than any other standardized test I have ever taken in my high school career. I felt I could really utilize what I have learned here in this test.

I actually had to think critically, and assess the problems given. I was not guessing anything, but investigating from the reports given to us.

When administered to incoming freshman and graduating seniors, the test gives a very clear picture of the just how a school is doing in teaching critical thinking and reasoning, problem solving and writing skills, which can serve as a great basis for improving assessment and teaching in individual courses.

Close communication with college professors brought about other ways to demonstrate the strength of our curriculum. Physics Education research is filled with a number of good tests that can be used to measure students grasp of physics concepts, like the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), or the Conceptual Survey in Electricity and Magnetism (CSEM). These tests have been administered to college students throughout the nation, and scores are published regularly in an effort to measure the effectiveness of various physics educational reforms, so it is possible to draw some rudimentary comparisons between high school students taking these tests and college students. In addition, the Matter and Interactions instructor resources provide a number of final exams used at NC State and Carnegie Mellon, giving our teachers the opportunity to test our students against real final exams in college level courses.

This process took about a year, and by the time the Headmaster sent a letter to every family outlining these changes, the response was anti-climactic. Many parents wrote in to express their support for the move, and few if any expressed any concerns about the change. Since this change was made a few years ago, St. Andrew’s has seen no change in college admissions, while at the same seeing improvement in its ability create courses that center around student-led discussion, inquiry and in-depth study.

A plan for change

To me, one of the best features of our education system is the idea of local control. While I see the value of the Department of Education, and National Standards and Common Core Curriculums, and very much appreciate the discussion these initiatives begin, I believe that those closest to the students—schools, teachers and parents—are in the best position to make decisions about what curriculum students study. I believe in this so much that I teach in a private school, where I have the greatest possible latitude to decide my syllabus and approach to teaching.

Of course, local control can get out of control, as we saw with the Kitzmiller vs Dover decision, and certainly there are huge inequities in our educational system that local control can do little to fix. Still, few things can do as much to change the life of a child as a teacher who knows the child well, knows what the student needs to do in order to thrive and has the resources to help make it happen.

If you are thinking about moving away from the AP, I would suggest you start by deciding what you want your students to be able to do when they complete your course or graduate high school.

You might consider looking at OpenCourseWare makes a vast array of course materials from a wide range of colleges covering almost every subject imaginable. Similarly, you can now find on itunesU complete recordings of course lectures from every discipline and campus you can think of. Take a look at the offerings if your discipline, you might find they look quite different from the courses you studied in college (or very much the same). What would it take for a student to be well prepared for the tests, discussions, and assignments you see? You can also start a conversation with college professors in your field, asking them what skills and habits of mind are most useful for incoming students. Two conversations that helped shape my thinging were an conversation with a local professor at Georgia Tech who felt that high school physics (including AP) left students poorly prepared to understand the vector nature of engineering level physics, and a even more powerful email from Bruce Sherwood (author of Matter and interactions) that the two most important skills students develop in high school physics is being able to 1. follow long chains of reasoning, and 2. being able to ascribe meanings to symbols (this email is definitely worth a read).

You may find that the AP curriculum perfectly prepares students for your stated goals, and that your students are able to master the curriculum without memorization and regurgitation and minimal stress. If so, that’s fantastic, you can probably stop reading here.

But, if you find your aims and the AP don’t agree, it’s time to consider parting ways. You’ll probably find yourself following a process outlined above, or in this extensive description prepared by the Crossroads School (pdf). Critical to the process is finding some way to measure the success of your curriculum in at least a semi-quantifiable way. As long as increasing application numbers continues to be a metric for judging the quality of colleges, harried admissions officers are going to want quick heuristics for judging the quality of a student’s curriculum, rather than read a student’s incredible 10 page history paper.

Of course, all this is nice for the teachers with the resources and time to make these connections, but what about the rest of the teachers out there who are struggling with classrooms of 35 students, no planning periods and barely any time to prep for the next class, much less have a substantial discussion with a college professor about what would be best for his or her students?

This is where I think the internet can help us. Already there are incredible resources for developing excellent education online, available for free all over the internet. As I mentioned about OpenCourseWare and itunesU are just a starting point. What if high schools and teachers who were developing innovative curriculum on their own started to share their work over the internet. Already, you can find Exeter’s entire problem based math curriculum (from Algebra to Multivariable Calculus), available for free. With effort, you can find thousands of teachers in nearly every subject blogging about what they are doing with more detail than you’ll ever find in the Acorn Book. What if we found a way to organize and share all these resources? Now that’s something I’d pay for the College Board to do.

I was struck by the comment made by gassstationwithoutpumps in my previous post:

I think that you are asking for a level of curriculum design and instruction that 95% of the high schools in the country are incapable of delivering, and that even few colleges manage in their freshman courses. Throwing out AP will not lead to a sudden increase in quality in high school instruction, but to an even lower level that the admittedly low standards of AP. How do you propose to improve high school education (without invoking the magic of teachers suddenly becoming demigods of curriculum design)?

Is the answer I’ve proposed above a sufficient response to meet this very real challenge? I doubt it. But I think it is a step in the right direction to get back to encouraging more conversation between high school teachers and college professors.

Final thoughts and questions

If you’ve been kind enough to read all the way through the 10,000 words of my last three posts, I’d like to offer a tremendous thanks. I don’t think I ever really intended for these thoughts to reach such a large audience, but I’m honored by for all the feedback I’ve gotten from teachers, parents and college professors, and hope that the conversation will continue, in the same spirit that launched the AP program to begin with—high school teachers and college professors working together to make the culmination of the high school experience meaningful.

In the end, I hope that we can work together, both supporters and detractors of the AP, to both improve the quality and engagement of high school students in junior and senior years, while at the same time, reducing stress and increasing joy in learning.

I’ll close with a few questions:

  • If you are a teacher, what are your goals for your students? How do these align or not align with the AP program?
  • If you are a college professor, what are the skills/knowledge/habits of mind that are essential prerequisites for the courses you teach? Are there any external measures of these things that you find impressive?

And with that, I’ll get back to grading my exams…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2010 3:04 pm

    I think that your point “Critical to the process is finding some way to measure the success of your curriculum in at least a semi-quantifiable way” is indeed the crux of the matter. AP has gotten its near-monopoly position by providing that quantifiable measure, even though it is not measuring exactly the right thing. The main other test series (CLEP) has a reputation for being even worse for the things you want to measure than AP.

    I’m a college professor, but I’ve not taught freshmen since 2002: my classes have recently all been with seniors and grad students. The deficiencies I see in my students are mainly faults of their college education, though some of the more fundamental problems should have been addressed in high school and middle school. There is no excuse for seniors in college not being able to write grammatical sentences, structure paragraphs correctly, put together coherent arguments, and cite sources.

    I want students who can write coherently and fluently both in English and in a programming language, who can debug problems (in software, hardware, or their own theories of how things work), and who can handle modest levels of mathematical reasoning (about the level of freshman calculus).

  2. December 30, 2010 1:47 pm

    I’m puzzled that you say that St. Andrews has not had problems with students getting admitted to good colleges. Mark Hammond recently posted an anguished note to the M&I list about big problems he’s seen with this. Because he goes for depth rather than mindless breadth in his first- and second-year physics courses, his very strong students score in the 600s instead of the 700s on the SAT2 physics test, simply due to lack of coverage, and as a consequence they get rejected from many good colleges. He is now being required to offer SAT2 extensive cram sessions so that students can get admitted to good colleges. Can you comment on this?

    • December 30, 2010 2:55 pm

      This is a good question. I left SAS in 2006, so my information may be dated, but I think my major point, that dropping AP designation on courses has not affected college admissions still stands (in fact, I checked that with the director of college counseling there from 2005-2009, and he agreed). The SAT II issue Mark raises was also an issue when I was there, and I gather it’s become more important in the past few years. As I recall, this was mainly an issue at a handful of engineering schools that tended to place particular emphasis on the SAT II. I’m planning on writing up a few more thoughts on the SAT II (borrowing heavily from Mark’s post) soon.

  3. Charlie permalink
    December 30, 2014 6:09 pm


    As a high school junior currently enrolled in AP classes, I must thank you for pointing out the flaws in the curriculum. I am currently enrolled in English Language and Biology AP courses. I also completed AP European History and scored a 5 on the exam. Earlier this year I was also enrolled in AP United States History, but dropped just for the reasons you have pointed out in your posts.

    In preparing for AP classes, I have always thoroughly researched the curriculum for each course and, in doing so, grown excited to take the class in the upcoming year. The problem begins when you begin the class in the fall and realize you won’t be reading primary source documents, but simply practicing DBQs throughout the entire year (for AP history courses). The problem begins when your AP Biology teacher hands you the lab manual to read through, but never actually complete the “investigations” found within. Worst of all, the problem begins when you do rhetorical analysis after rhetorical analysis in AP English only to wonder when a future employer might ask you to rhetorically analyze your pink slip (in the event you failed to learn how to actually write in your AP English course). As a top student in my high school, I find it almost insulting that the “most difficult” courses available in my high school are seemingly mock-Kaplan test-prep sessions.

    I have seen the issues you have addressed in your posts first-hand throughout my short few years of high school. It is a shame to know that some of my brightest peers who are just trying to get into good colleges must succumb to teachers who teach only to enable their students to get a high score on their AP exams and, in turn, produce a high passing rate (3+) for their classes. What is really sad is that most of the best and brightest students in not only my high school, but all across the United States (and internationally), are conditioned to think that learning should be based around a comprehensive exam. The common attitude seems to be if it is not on the exam, it must not be important to know. Since when is it not important to know how to format a business letter, compile a resume, or simply compose an appropriate email to your boss? None of these things are part of the AP English Language curriculum. Instead, we will continue to train our brightest high school students to rhetorically analyze obscure speeches and compose arguments that will wow an AP reader. But we will leave them to find their own way in getting jobs, marketing themselves and building a knowledge base outside of the 138 page syllabus for AP United States History.

    I can only hope that things will change in time for the next generation to enjoy a better education. For now, I feel we are a lost generation in terms of intellect.


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