Few of the Advanced Placement teachers I know are familiar with the history of the College Board program. So it is perhaps not surprising that the current approach to these courses has strayed so far off track.
The original concept of the Advanced Placement curriculum grew from a mid-20th century initiative spearheaded by educators from some of the nation’s top private colleges and secondary schools—Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. They were trying to invigorate liberal education in America at a time when they presumed it was languishing because of a pronounced disconnect between secondary and higher education. In the words of John M. Kemper, then the headmaster of Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass., “It appears obvious that school and college programs, especially during the important years from the 11th through the 14th grade, have not been planned as coherent wholes.”
When the target audiences of a school’s Advanced Placement program become college-admissions offices and external markets such as prospective students and their families, it is clear that, as Yeats writes, “the center cannot hold.”
The result of these educators’ work was a document called “General Education in School and College: A Committee Report,” which advocated a coordinated seven-year, liberal studies approach to education as being in students’ best interest. In the appendix of the report, the authors mentioned “an experiment in advanced placement” in which examinations were to be used “not for admission to college, but for placement after admission.”
How far we have come from that original vision.
The trouble with too many AP courses in independent secondary schools, where I have taught for the last decade, is that the holy grail of a seven-year liberal education system addressing a student’s schooling as a “coherent whole” has been usurped by an AP program that has become little more than a 21st-century battering ram deployed at the gates of the college-admissions process. Too often the essential tenets of liberal education depreciate to the point of nonexistence in AP courses. Content becomes king, and the test is an end in itself, rather than a tool to bridge the worlds of secondary and higher education.
Savvy students (and their parents, who pay the schools’ increasingly steep annual tuition) are aware that taking AP courses aids their prospects of college admission. As a result, the demand for these courses has increased to the point where the number offered is a crucial marketing statistic for many secondary school admissions offices. Meaningful, mission-oriented education often is secondary to a commercial testing organization (not to mention an out-of-control college-admissions process) that has clearly lost its founding vision.
Independent school educators have an obligation to address this problem. And to do so they must view it through the lens of their respective missions and what they know to be the best interests of their students. When the target audiences of a school’s Advanced Placement program become college-admissions offices and external markets such as prospective students and their families, it is clear that, as Yeats writes, “the center cannot hold.”
While I am not so naive as to ignore the importance of being sensitive to the whims of college-admissions offices and these external markets, I believe we—the educators in the classroom—must always be mission-driven and student-centered. As a former AP teacher at an independent school that dropped the AP designations, I have seen this work.
In their new accelerated or honors courses, former AP teachers have taken the time to make classrooms truly student-centered—places where an inquiry-based approach to subject matter focuses on creative and critical-thinking skills, rather than test-focused content. Students have become more engaged in subject matter because they are now free to pursue electives in their own areas of interest. And, if they opt to do so, they can still take the Advanced Placement examinations.
In short, the students’ educational experience has been markedly improved because teachers were able to create mission-oriented courses relevant to a student’s experience, while still achieving traditional academic objectives.
Dropping the AP designation from accelerated courses at independent schools across the country would allow us to pursue curricula that truly inspire what my own school’s mission statement calls “a love of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge creatively, compassionately, and courageously throughout life.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as Replacing AP