In an era when the quality and nature of American secondary school education are subjects of vigorous debate, it is time to rethink our curricula. Together, we lead eight Washington-area independent schools, and we have been meeting regularly over the past several years to discuss research and compare experiences.
While each of us offers a unique academic program grounded in our historical missions and educational philosophies, we have jointly come to recognize the diminished utility of Advanced Placement courses. Consequently, collectively we agree that we will better equip our students for further study and for life beyond the classroom by eliminating AP courses from our curriculums entirely by 2022.
When introduced in the early 1950s, the rationale for the AP program was to offer particularly ambitious students an opportunity to pursue and receive credit for college-level work, allowing them to graduate from college early. Yet today, few college students graduate in less than four years. At the same time, almost 40 percent of high school students enroll in AP courses, meaning it is no longer true that only a few, exceptional students take them.
As a result, AP courses on high school transcripts are of diminished significance to college admissions officers. Further, we’ve conducted our own survey of almost 150 college and university admissions officers and have been assured that the absence of the AP designation will have no adverse impact on our students. The real question for colleges is whether an applicant has taken a high school’s most demanding courses; the AP designation itself is irrelevant.
Naturally, colleges and universities want the most capable and hard-working students. Therefore, in the belief that failing to take an AP course may hurt their college prospects, students reluctantly pass up more interesting, more engaging and potentially more intellectually transformative and rewarding courses. Because these tests loom so large for students, faculty often feel pressed to sacrifice in-depth inquiries to cover all of the material likely to be included on the test.
But the truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests.
Theories of education have changed a lot over the past 50 years, and the ways we teach and test must reflect these changes. Rote memorization is giving way to learning that is more collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary — with an increased focus on problem-solving. We also integrate and connect coursework to real-world issues and provide students with more opportunities to engage in original research and deep analysis.
Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented more in these directions will not only better prepare our students for their futures but also will result in programs that are more engaging both for students and faculty. Moreover, this approach will encourage student motivation driven by their innate curiosity and love of learning.
This change does not signify any effort to diminish the academic rigor for which our schools are known. To the contrary, we believe that by capitalizing on the talents of our superb teachers and resources, students will be offered more stimulating courses that explore subjects in greater depth, enhancing the strength of our programs.
We are far from the first independent schools to eliminate the AP designation. Many excellent boarding and day schools around the country have embraced this change and seen students thrive and teachers flourish without any negative impact on college placement. What is unusual about our decision is that we came to this conclusion together and are announcing it jointly. We hope that by adding our collective voice to the conversation, we will make it easier for other schools considering a similar change to follow the same path.
As schools devoted to nurturing students’ potential, fostering their talents and preparing them to lead productive lives, we believe the flexibility we will gain from developing our own courses will better prepare our students for college and their professional futures. In this time of unprecedented challenges, we owe our students and the world they will enter nothing less.
Russell Shaw, head of Georgetown Day School
Susanna Jones, head of Holton-Arms School
Jim Neill, headmaster of Landon School
Marjo Talbott, head of Maret School
Kathleen Jamieson, head of National Cathedral School
John Kowalik, head of Potomac School
Vance Wilson, headmaster of St. Albans School
Bryan Garman, head of Sidwell Friends School