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Several well-known private schools in the D.C. area are scrapping Advanced Placement classes

Sidwell Friends School as seen in this 2012 file photo in Washington. (Mary F. Calvert/for The Washington Post)

Seven prominent private schools in the D.C. area plan to eliminate Advanced Placement classes over the next four years, asserting in an unusual joint statement Monday that the program has “diminished utility,” is not necessary for college-bound students and puts too much emphasis on speedy absorption of course material and memorization.

With their move, the schools drew attention to a quiet pushback against AP in certain quarters of the education world even as the program has gained enormous influence in American high schools. It is a nationally recognized credential for motivated students and a stepping-stone to college. But critics decry what they perceive as the regimentation of the AP schedule and course content, with classes pointed toward high-stakes tests in May.

“Too much minutiae. Too much emphasis on test preparation,” said Patty Carver, a veteran teacher at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Md., one of the seven that is dropping AP. Carver said she is excited about retooling the AP Environmental Science course that she had taught for nine years. She will rename it Advanced Global Applications in Environmental Science.

Freed from the burden of preparing for the AP test, Carver said, she can incorporate more current events, real-world examples and special projects into her teaching. Students might track for several months the water quality in a creek that runs through the campus, she said, or compare the seismic safety of buildings in San Francisco to those in Haiti. “I want them to analyze what’s going on globally right now,” she said.

The other schools dropping AP are Sidwell Friends, Georgetown Day, National Cathedral and St. Albans in the District of Columbia, as well as Landon in Bethesda and Potomac in McLean, Va. Maret School in the District, which has never offered AP classes, joined in the anti-AP statement. All eight serve largely affluent families who can afford pricey tuition. Students will still be able to take AP tests after the private schools phase out their affiliation with the brand.

“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,” the schools said. “We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation and fuel their love of learning.”

The statement represented a notable rebuke of a program that in recent decades has revolutionized the curriculum of American high schools. From 2007 to 2017, the number of public high school graduates who took at least one AP test rose 70 percent, to nearly 1.2 million. The program has spread from roughly 16,500 schools in the 2006-2007 school year to more than 22,000 in the last year.

Thomas Toch, director of the think tank FutureEd at Georgetown University, said AP serves an important role as a “catalyst for raising the level of rigor in the nation’s high schools — especially for low-income students, students of color and those traditionally underserved in American public education.” Private schools, Toch said, want to maximize their independence. A growing number have been moving away from AP for awhile. “They want to do their own thing,” he said. “Not surprisingly, they don’t feel beholden to any strategy or specialized curriculum.”

Begun in the 1950s, AP aims to provide high school students with experience in college-level coursework. There are 38 AP courses in subjects from art history to world history, including four in physics. The AP test scale of 1 to 5 is known to students across America. Those who score a 3 or better often qualify for college credit and advanced standing in a given subject when they go to college. Those credits can prove valuable if they enable students to graduate early or help them graduate on time. Some colleges restrict credits to those who score 4 or 5, and some don’t award credits.

The scores are instantly recognizable among college counselors and admission officers. Many colleges depend on the AP designation on a transcript to help them evaluate how hard students push themselves. If a school offers several AP classes, colleges typically take note of how many of them applicants choose to take. That is a sign of the rigor of their schedules.

The University of Maryland, for instance, says its “most competitive applicants” will have taken “several honors and/or Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and additional academic electives.” International Baccalaureate is another program that aims for college-level work.

The College Board, a nonprofit organization that oversees AP, said critics of the program were overlooking its benefits. In the past decade, the College Board said, students from the D.C.-area private schools that announced they’re dropping AP earned more than 39,000 credit hours at colleges to which they had sent AP scores.

“That equates to nearly $59 million in tuition savings at highly selective colleges, not to mention the head start these students received in their majors,” particularly in science, technology, engineering and math, the College Board said. “At a time when the placement, credit and admission benefits of AP have never been greater, it’s surprising that these schools would choose to deny their students these advantages.”

The College Board cited researchers who have found evidence that students who took AP in high school earn higher grades in college and are more likely to earn a college degree within four years. Public schools in the Washington area are known for their high level of AP participation. Among the leaders are Poolesville High in Montgomery County, Md.; H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington, Va.; and School Without Walls in the District. There is no sign that the trend at these public schools will reverse. AP, said Henry Johnson, chief of staff to the Montgomery schools superintendent, “provides an opportunity for our students to be competitive with other students across the country.”

Exactly how much AP helps college-bound students is a matter of debate. Students can list AP scores on college applications if they take the tests before their senior year. The AP designation also shows up on their transcripts.

The D.C.-area private schools said in their statement that over the years, many of their students had felt “compelled to take AP courses in the mistaken belief that failing to do so may hurt their college prospects.”

But they said the proliferation of AP has made the transcript designation “less noteworthy” to college admissions officers. Before dropping AP, the schools surveyed nearly 150 colleges and universities about the potential impact. They said admission officers assured them the change would not hurt the chances of their students.

“Are they right?” said Christopher Gruber, dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College, in an interview Monday. “Yeah, they are. It’s not going to hurt their kids.”

Gruber and others said colleges evaluate whether students take advantage of the toughest courses available at a school. Douglas L.  Christiansen, dean of admissions and financial aid at Vanderbilt University, said his team is “agnostic” about whether those courses are called AP, IB, “advanced” or some other label. “It wouldn’t hurt the student in the admissions process as long as we understand the student is in rigorous courses,” he said. Christiansen is chairman of the board of trustees of the College Board.

The AP program has deep roots in private schools. Among those that participated in the first AP testing in May 1956 were venerable New England preparatory schools Phillips Academy, Phillips Exeter Academy, Groton School and Deerfield Academy, according to a 1988 book on AP by Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

St. Albans, National Cathedral and Sidwell Friends — famed for educating children of the powerful in Washington — began offering AP classes in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

At Georgetown Day, AP classes have been offered since 1983. About 280 of its students took at least one AP course in the last school year. Russell Shaw, head of school, said Monday that Georgetown Day listed 13 AP courses in subjects including biology, physics, calculus, statistics and psychology. He said the school will phase out those courses over the next four years to avoid causing disruption for families who had enrolled with the expectation that AP would be available. In their place will come more in-depth offerings, he said, such as a neuroscience course taught jointly by science and history teachers.

Shaw said “many elements” of the AP curriculum are excellent. But he said Georgetown Day has found that the program constrains the school schedule and inhibits the development of interdisciplinary courses. Shaw noted that students will remain free to take AP tests regardless of whether they take AP courses. He cited English classes as an example. “We do not offer an AP English course here,” he said, “and many of our students have taken the AP English test and done well.”

Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.