Selective College Admissions and the AP Conundrum

Seven prominent DC-area private schools sent shockwaves through academia when they recently announced that they will eliminate their AP class offerings by 2022. As a rationale for their decision, the schools offered numerous critiques of the AP program, citing its diminished utility, its pervasiveness, and its negative influence on authentic classroom engagement. Prior to the announcement, the schools surveyed 150 college admissions officers to ensure that their students would not be penalized in the college admissions process if they no longer had APs on their transcripts. The fact that seven of the top 10 private schools in the DC area are moving together reduces any potential risk the students might face.   

While the change may seem unprecedented, there is some history that should reassure any concerned parents or professionals. In 2007, Scarsdale High School in New York dropped its AP program in favor of its homegrown Advanced Topics curriculum. Initial questions and concerns emerged: how will our kids fare in the admissions game? Will students miss out on college-level skills that AP classes foster? The change from AP to AT has both its fans and detractors, but our experience suggests that the change has not negatively affected Scarsdale students’ chances in the admissions process – at least not in any categorical way. The dozens of Scarsdale students we work with each year continue to gain admission to highly selective colleges around the country.

Still, the recent decision in DC is part of a much bigger national picture. To better understand the impact on students, it’s important to consider the current role that the AP program plays in high school curriculum and college admissions.

The Broader Movement to Reform the American High School Curriculum

The decision to drop a ready-made curriculum, and specifically one provided by the College Board, is part of a broader movement. The Independent Curriculum Group, spearheaded by Bruce Hammond, has been pushing against the dominance of the AP program for years. The ICG has been gaining members each year, holding conferences and providing consulting services to encourage schools to break free from the AP program. Sidwell Friends and Holton Arms are members of the ICG as well as Maret, a DC area school that has not offered AP classes for years, but added its name to the recent announcement by the DC private schools. There are many other schools on that list that do offer AP classes, and we may see more ICG schools following the DC cohort.

Reconsidering the Role of AP Classes

My personal experience with the AP curriculum is quite positive. I attended Pace Academy, a small private high school in Atlanta, where the school’s most celebrated teachers delivered the AP curriculum. After taking a full suite of AP classes at Pace, I found undergraduate coursework at the University of Pennsylvania to be quite easy in comparison. My AP exam scores enabled me to place out of many intro classes and complete a dual-degree in four years.  

Based on this experience, I have a hard time believing the AP curriculum is innately limiting, reductive, or discouraging of authentic engagement. An AP class can be transcendent or terribly mundane. I had transformational educational experiences in my AP World History and AP Comparative Politics classes, but I had an utterly mundane experience in other AP classes. The AP is merely a frame, a structure: the authentic engagement and educational impact of a classroom experience comes from the pedagogical style and strength of the teacher, rather than the curriculum.

The AP Frenzy

It’s important to note that I completed all of my APs by 1994, before the AP frenzy really took off. In the 1993-1994 school year, less than half a million high school students (4% of the national total) took just over 700,000 AP exams. In 2017 2.7 million high school students (17% of the national total) took almost 5 million AP exams. The growth has been staggering.

I took a lot of APs for a Pace student in 1994: 7 AP classes and 8 AP exams. I had what was then considered a high workload, inside and outside the classroom, and found myself sacrificing sleep on a regular basis to get everything done. By the time I got to college, I was pretty exhausted, and I only had 7 APs.

Yet, by today’s standards, my load barely registers as exceptional We work with schools like Stuyvesant in New York City where 24% of the students have 8 or more APs. Some of the highest achieving students we work with have 12 to 14 APs by the time they finish high school. And that’s the rub. When everyone is taking APs and participation rates have skyrocketed, the only way to distinguish oneself in the admission’s arms race is to take more and more APs. But there’s a price to this. It can degrade the whole experience of being a high school student, cut into sleep, increase anxiety and lead to a narrowing of the range of one’s activities.  

Many parents today understand the impact of the AP count and the consequences of being tracked into lower level classes that do not culminate in an AP by senior year. I’ve witnessed public and private school parents, knowing what’s at stake, fight with school administrators to give their kids access to AP classes. And some parents push the curriculum too hard, trying to squeeze in more rigor to keep the more selective colleges in contention, thereby creating problems for their students. By opting out of the AP race, the seven DC private schools will avoid most of these behaviors.

Not everyone needs AP courses to obtain the real goal: a rigorous high school curriculum

Colleges have been placing increasing weight on AP classes, partially to offset the rampant grade inflation in our nation’s high schools. Admissions Officers need to look to academic rigor to differentiate between many applicants with high GPAs. To the extent that grade inflation has diminished the value of the GPA, colleges use the AP count (and similarly the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma) as a measure of academic excellence and rigor.  

The seven DC schools believe they can deliver as rich and robust an educational experience without offering AP classes. And I’m sure they are right, given the quality of their teaching staff. It’s the teachers who create the robust educational experiences, not the curriculum. In the wrong hands, the most brilliantly crafted curriculum will fall flat. There are high schools where legions of students take APs and score 1s and 2s on the AP exams, with very little to show for their efforts. The AP curriculum is not magic. And a great teacher won’t need it.

The seven schools are not worried that their students will suffer in the admissions process, given their academic reputations and their students’ track records of successful outcomes at selective colleges. Having a diploma from one of these schools means something in and of itself. And there are other highly selective private high schools that have been free of APs for years, including Dalton, Calhoun and Spence in NYC.  

But many high schools are not in a similar position. Their students have more varied outcomes when they head off to college, and for these students, strong performance in AP classes will be a clear signal that they are more college ready than their peers. There is ample academic research supporting the value of AP scores to predict college performance and graduation rates. Students demonstrating mastery in an AP curriculum are generally well prepared for success in college; this is why thousands of colleges give college credit for demonstrated mastery in an AP class.  

Taking AP exams without AP classes

One consequence of cutting AP classes is that students who still want to take AP exams for the placement benefits may have to engage in significant preparatory work outside of the classroom. We’ve witnessed this when high schools have dropped particular AP classes, but the students were not ready to give up on the AP exams, anticipating they could score 5s on their own. High schools must decide if they will allow students to take AP exams for classes that are no longer offered: this may vary by subject. Schools like Dalton, who do not offer an AP curriculum, do allow students to take AP exams, and they even provide AP review sessions for certain classes.

There is a good chance that we will see students from these seven schools continue to take AP exams for years to come, just as 47% of Scarsdale students continue to take AP exams more than a decade after their AP classes were eliminated. And there is a compelling reason to take those exams. The College Board responded to the DC announcement and reported that over the last decade, students from this group of schools abandoning AP classes have collectively earned 39,000 credit hours, equivalent to $59 million in college tuition, for their AP scores.  

Closing

This move by the seven DC schools was dramatic, but it will likely not lead to a massive rejection of the AP curriculum across the country. The APs continue to gain popularity and market penetration each year. More students are taking more AP tests. As college costs have skyrocketed, any opportunity for students to gain college credit without spending college tuition will be met with high demand. And as APs serve as a proxy for rigor in the college admissions process, students will continue to take them. The students of the DC-area schools that are dropping the APs will be just fine. They are in good hands, and they’ll continue to receive great educations and gain admission to great colleges. Time will tell if their lives as high school students will be improved in a world without an AP curriculum, and many of them will continue to prepare for and take AP exams each May for many years to come.


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