Advanced Placement (AP) is a program started by the College Board. Created in 1952, AP classes are designed to be more rigorous, and to prepare students for college better, than regular high school courses. The culmination of AP coursework is costly exams administered by the College Board. Positive test scores can help facilitate entrance into the students’ universities of choice, and possibly even allow AP classes to count as college credit. Additionally, the ability to offer AP lends prestige to high schools, and roughly 60% house the program.

With all the benefits and successes of AP, why then are boarding schools ditching the program? The answers are pertinent to your child’s future, whether you are considering boarding school or not.

AP Classes Can Stunt Independent Thinking

How is it that a program that reputedly grants opportunities to high school students across the nation –irrespective of background, income, attendance at inner city public or suburban private schools– actually stunts independent thinking and creativity? As with any other industry, education is prone to advertising and marketing that promise the world but do not always deliver. In the case of Advanced Placement, it’s advertising is embodied within a well-established, prestigious name. Yet the grandiose perception of the program as a leader in innovation in the field of education has realities that are often the opposite.

In my experience, AP can be the best alternative in most public high schools, but not when compared to some of the creative, rigorous options that independent schools provide. I was working in admissions at Westtown School when Westtown dropped AP’s about a decade ago. Westtown has historical archives on campus, and the U.S. History teacher was able to give students a two-week archive project in which this non-AP class worked with original artifacts –a very similar experience to what you would find in graduate school. This type of creativity and in-depth research is what one expects from the AP legacy, but anything of the sort is virtually impossible, due to the sheer volume of information that has to be covered at a  breakneck pace in order to prepare AP students for the amount of information  on the AP exam.

Sadly, instructors who have a particular level of expertise or passion cannot do any more than touch the surface of their knowledge because of time constraints. AP has breadth, not depth. Teachers must teach to the test, which is not always consistent with developing the critical thinking skills needed in university, and later, in life.

When the private school Ethical Culture Fieldston School in NYC dropped AP exams in 2001, their decision had a lot to do with the fact that they felt students were studying for the purpose of doing well on the AP exams, as opposed to loving to learn for the sake of learning and of understanding the world around them.

Instead of fostering the love of learning, AP can multiply student and teacher stress and create an imbalance. Many students who enroll in AP end up taking more than one AP course, get caught up in the frenzy of trying to digest a ton of information in order to pass their AP exams, meanwhile suffering arrested development in other areas of their lives.

Good Schools Don’t Really Need AP

That’s right: many independent high schools do not need AP classes in order to gear their kids towards acceptance into selective colleges. Discerning colleges have long track records of working with quality high schools, and are well-aware just whose curricula prepare students to excel at university. True excellence in education is what the top university admissions offices in the nation care about: whether the students whose applications cross their desks have been well-prepared for college, not whether or not there is AP credit on the transcripts.

The Positives of the AP Program

That said, advantages to the AP program do, of course, exist:

  • Student-to-student learning. In AP classes, students find themselves surrounded by the best of their peers. A lot of student-to-student learning occurs, and a rising tide can lift all boats.
  • AP courses add accountability for teachers and more structure to the class. Teachers are often evaluated based on how well students do on the AP exams.
  • Testing out. If your child is one of the fortunate ones, he or she might pass the AP exam with the qualifying score that allows a student to test out of a college class that is similar to the AP course taken. This puts the student ahead, allowing them to enter into a higher level of college coursework in that particular subject, quicker.
  • Finishing on time, or early. AP college credit may also increase a student’s chances of graduating in four years. There may even be some financial savings for students who graduate early because of the AP program.
  • AP exams are seen like SAT. Many colleges value AP exams because they are impartial arbiters, like the SAT and the ACT. Outside testing is important, as there is a lot of grade inflation in high school. At the same time, there is research that indicates students who take AP classes do better on the SAT and ACT exams.

There are also some compelling reasons why selective schools, those that have great reputations and offer plenty of rigor and creativity, decide to offer their own advanced level of classes.

The Sweetness of Success?

The AP system is geared primarily towards one goal: the AP exam. If after so much work, ups, downs and new friends made, the exam is not passed, the sweet taste of success by hard work can turn into bitter self-doubt. Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling, noted to the Baltimore Sun that the AP program can “lull students into a false sense of security,” and while a good number of students pass their AP courses, the exam comes as a rude awakening that they are not adequately prepared for college work, or at least what the College Board deems to be college-level work.

Motivated kids are drawn into AP classes, and many wear their participation as something to flaunt in front of peers, since their courses are more challenging and require much more work than normal high-school classes. But in Baltimore high schools, nearly half of students with an A or B in their AP course actually failed the test.

It’s very unfortunate: The majority of AP test takers do not pass the exam. The numbers are even lower for those who score in a way that their results  transfer to their college of choice as college credit. For example, the rate of Maryland seniors who passed at least one AP exam was only 31.8 percent in 2014, but according to The Baltimore Sun, in some of the state’s schools like Woodlawn Elementary, failure rates are commonly as high as 75 percent. These numbers do not account for the struggling students who enrolled in AP courses but transferred out to easier classes before test day arrived.

Making Money Off Your Kids

There are more than 35 different AP courses in 22 subject areas. More than 1.5 million students take the AP exam.

This sounds great, until it is considered that only 1 in 8 students sit for the AP test and get a 3 or higher (3 being the minimum passing grade).

The poor passing grade of Advanced Placement doesn’t limit its success. The number of students taking the exam goes up every year as more schools and states emphasize making AP’s a priority. The cost of each exam is $91/student. Although the price is paid by a variety of parties, including federal funding, the College Board grosses over a billion dollars annually with the AP program. With close to a quarter of test takers using a government fee reduction, those fees are adding up on taxpayers, not to mention the inflated cost of putting students through actual AP coursework.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen enrollment in AP courses jump dramatically. Both government subsidies and ratings of schools’ performance encourage high AP enrollment. Maryland could be the poster child for this, with over half their public school students graduating with at least one AP class under their belt. The state has expanded AP to schools with disproportionately high numbers of disadvantaged kids, aiming to provide them with more opportunities to succeed.

This approach seems to have caught on with 41 other states who received a total of $28 million in federal grants last year to subsidize the fees for low-income students to take AP exams. State and federal taxpayers have poured $400 million into AP over the past decade alone. With its massive expansion, AP has become the gold standard for public high school performance and academic rigor, with even many struggling schools now offering at least one AP course.

Academic Rigor, Without AP?

Some schools argue that they can get all of the college prep advantage of AP exams without participating in the AP program. Students who are performing exceedingly well in a regular course are encouraged to take the AP exam. And they do well.

Over the past decade, a growing number of important and influential dissenters have openly rebelled against the College Board. They include the Independent Curriculum Group, which is an alliance of leading college preparatory schools that emphasizes site-based, teacher-generated curricula for advanced courses. The ICG’s primary initiative is to eliminate all Advanced Placement from high school curricula. The group contends that AP forces teachers to conduct superficial and mechanical survey courses. They argue the frantic pace required to cover all the material on an Advanced Placement year-end exam leaves no time for the flexibility and in-depth topic studies conducive to more effective learning.

At the same time, fewer colleges that are accepting AP credit for scores of 3 on the AP exam than once occurred.

Almost a third of the 110 schools who are members of ICG are boarding schools. We’ve highlighted seven of these boarding schools in our documentary series, A Secret World:

I’m not the first one to raise doubts about the efficacy of Advanced Placement, and I wouldn’t be the last to criticize the College Board for making bank on the shattered dreams of floundering AP pupils. As a nonprofit organization, the College Board is the education industry’s equivalent of the National Football League, with a virtual monopoly on not just Advanced Placement curricula and exams, but also the nearly universally accepted SAT, the ultimate test that can determine whether a student goes to Yale or a state university.

But what is troubling about the College Board, for me, is the whole Advanced Placement approach to education. It isn’t just the low pass rates, which one could simply chalk up to extra high academic standards. It’s the exam-driven teaching and the expense. While there are lots of advantages to the AP, there are also plenty of reasons why some of the leading boarding schools in the country are choosing to offer their own advanced courses instead of the College Board’s AP.