Beyond Advanced Placement


Fieldston, a New York private school that sends its graduates to the nation’s most selective colleges, recently caused quite a stir among parents—including me—when it announced the abolition of all Advanced Placement courses. What did this mean? Would our kids’ chances at Harvard or Haverford be sabotaged? Would they still be able to take the AP exams? Most of all, why? I decided to find out.

In taking what looks like an extreme step out of line, Fieldston is, in fact, joining such elite schools as Brearley and Phillips Exeter, which offer no AP courses, and others like Trinity and Spence, which offer few. Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid, Robert Kinnally, has recently fielded at least five queries from schools considering scrapping their AP programs. “Five years ago, nobody was asking this question,” he says.

This small countertrend is taking shape just as the Advanced Placement curriculum and exams are booming as never before. This is partly a result of public education’s quest to improve quality. For the rest, look to the College Board‘s drive to jack up a thriving enterprise even as their SAT exams are losing ground to state-sponsored graduation tests and public universities’ entrance tests.

As of 1999, the number of AP exams taken jumped to 1.25 million, with double-digit percentage growth every year for the last four years. In that time, there was also a 4 percent increase in the number of schools offering the AP curriculum, which is developed jointly by high school and college teachers under the auspices of the College Board.

Because APs are rigorous, states are seizing on them as a tool for improving public education. Federal funding to support AP courses and to pay for exam fees for low-income students has skyrocketed, with $10 million budgeted for this year and $20 million requested by the president for fiscal 2000. In addition, nearly all states provide some support for the program: 42 states for exam fees and 16 states for complete professional development for AP teachers.

For some observers, AP exams are the way to measure secondary-school quality. In March, Newsweek ranked the top 100 U.S. public schools based on the number of AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) exams its students take. (The International Baccalaureate, a demanding, European-style two-year program of study, is also on the rise here. Participation has increased 13 percent a year for the last 10 years, with 310 U.S. schools now offering it.)

So why are institutions like Fieldston, Brearley, and Exeter headed in what looks like the opposite direction? Talk to them, and they’ll tell you the direction—toward enriched education—is the same, only they’re going further down that road.

“The notion that the APs are sacred is wrong,” asserts Rachel Stettler, Fieldston’s principal. “They emphasize breadth over depth, and they’re content-driven rather than focusing on developing skills like critical inquiry, discourse, ways of approaching text.”

“Admissions people are asking, ‘Why didn’t Fieldston do this years ago?’ ” says Lynn Livingston, the school’s history chair. “Why? We’re all caught up in this moneymaking venture of [the College Board].

“We dropped AP European History last year,” adds Livingston, “and the kids who took it as juniors and this year took ‘European Intellectual History’ said the difference was like night and day. AP European was like the Bataan Death March, slogging through the material. If you dared stop to deal with something in depth, you might not cover what you needed for the exam. It was the death knell of intellectual excellence.”

The intellectual history seminar covered the idea of reform, 1500 to 1930, through contemporary readings—from Machiavelli, Luther, and Voltaire to Marx, Stalin, and Hitler. Livingston concedes the course is not the optimum way to study for the AP exam, but that’s the point: “We’re not teaching toward that.”

Students will still be able to take the AP exams, but if they don’t, school officials really don’t care. Stettler predicts fewer students will want to, because the purpose of the exams has changed. Very few students use their AP credits to graduate early—current financial-aid packages make early graduation unnecessary for economic reasons—and their advanced electives will serve to place students out of introductory college courses.

At Exeter, which has been AP-less for some time, according to Academy spokesperson Julie Quinn, students who are interested in genetics do not have to content themselves with the AP Biology course. “We have three upper-level courses in genetics,” she notes, “so our students enter college almost prepared for the premed course.”

“When Fieldston asked me about doing this,” says Stanford’s Kinnally, “I said, ‘Go for it!’ If you are a teacher and know about female espionage in the Civil War, for example, and you get students excited, that’s great. Nothing’s better than seeing the students’ eyes light up because of the passion of their teacher.”

Kinnally insists that eliminating APs at these schools will have absolutely no impact on Stanford’s admissions. Harvard feels the same. “It doesn’t hurt the applicant not to have AP,” says Deborah Foster, assistant dean for undergraduate education.

The real benefit of the AP program, says Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, is that it provides a rigorous curriculum, which is a better indicator of who will finish college than high grades or test scores. “But other rigorous courses will do as well or better,” he says. “There are many valid approaches.”

Adelman also notes that while taking AP in high school is important in predicting who will get a B.A., continuous enrollment in college is a better predictor. “Lots of smart kids take AP,” he says, “and decide to drop out after one year.” Adelman’s stats show that the odds are against these students returning.

From students who take the non-AP supercourses, the reviews are mixed. The classes are definitely better, they say, but studying for the AP exams—which many still want to take—is harder. Jaclyn Kessler, a senior at the Trinity School in New York, is headed for Yale next year. Trinity offered a few AP courses but none in English or history. The European history class she took was more traditional and gave her more “context” for the AP exam than her American history class, which focused on primary sources, and she scored better on the European. On the other hand, she raves about her English electives—a seminar in the complete works of Jane Austen and “Man/Woman,” a study of gender relationships in literature and contemporary society. “If I had to take AP English,” she says, “I wouldn’t have been able to take these, and I much prefer these.”

“The AP is so much a part of our [education] culture, it’s good to hear someone say, ‘We’ll do something different,’ ” says Stanford’s Kinnally. Still, he acknowledges, the tests do make evaluations easier, especially when he doesn’t know a school well. “I like APs,” he says. “The good thing about them is they’re standard.”

And the downside? “They’re standard.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 11, 2000

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