Beyond the AP

The Case for Replacing Advanced Placement Courses at Sidwell Friends

On June 18, Sidwell Friends announced that it has joined with seven other local independent schools to begin the process of replacing Advanced Placement courses with more relevant, challenging, mission-driven offerings that will be designed by its own teaching faculty.

The Upper School at Sidwell Friends has never offered a full slate of AP courses; students can currently select from a modest offering of 10 out of the 38 courses the AP offers (and seven of the 10 AP courses that are offered are in the math and science departments). Our students have a long and successful record of sitting for AP tests in English, US history, and languages, even though our courses in those fields do not bear the AP designation. Nevertheless, an explanation of the process and the rationale that led to the decision to remove AP courses from our curriculum is due.

Process

When Head of School Bryan Garman returned to Sidwell Friends four years ago, the School was already engaged with six local schools in a vigorous conversation about AP courses. Upon his return, Bryan, along with Upper School Principal Mamadou Guèye, impaneled a Committee on Curricular Review to gather faculty opinion and evaluate the role of AP courses in the Upper School curriculum.

Staffed by representatives from each department and the director of college counseling, the Committee on Curricular Review examined

  • how and why national peers have discontinued the AP program,
  • how the AP curriculum relates to teaching and learning at Sidwell Friends,
  • how the AP’s focus on breadth rather than depth of coverage affects students’ and teachers’ experiences, and
  • how high-stakes testing affects students.

The Committee and the College Counseling Office also investigated whether changing our AP course offerings would affect college admissions. A query by Peter Gow, the founder of a like-minded association of schools called the Independent Curriculum Group, framed the central question of this study brilliantly: “Does the AP curriculum offer the best possible learning experience that could be devised at your school?”

After a yearlong study, the Committee presented its recommendations to the Upper School faculty, which endorsed its work and encouraged the School to adopt the following policies and practices:

  1. The AP label will not be used in the Sidwell Friends Curriculum Guide or on the School profile, report cards, or transcripts. This practice will first be implemented in 2023/24 to ensure that the curricular sequence is not interrupted for students who are enrolled in the Upper School in fall 2018 and to enable faculty to continue to plan for the transition.
  1. Students can still take AP exams, but Sidwell Friends will no longer report scores on student transcripts. Just as they currently do with SAT and ACT scores, students who take AP exams will be responsible for reporting their scores to colleges and universities. This provision will take effect with the Class of 2021.

  1. Sidwell Friends will remain an AP test center. Many schools that have removed the AP designation have adopted this approach for the convenience of students who want to take the exams as the school transitions away from the program. These schools have found, however, that interest in taking AP exams declined significantly after they removed the AP designation from the curriculum.

All three recommendations were accepted by the Head of School in late spring 2018.

Rationale

This joint announcement outlines the rationale for eliminating AP courses that all eight schools in the consortium share. Like the other schools, Sidwell Friends also has specific reasons for this decision. It advances the goals of our strategic plan, Lead in the Light: Empowering Students to Let Their Lives Speak, which encourages us to teach students to think critically and adventurously across disciplines, to discover nontraditional solutions to challenges, and to foster creative ways of seeing the world. The AP program, which now serves 2.7 million high school students, has become the de facto college preparatory curriculum in the United States. Because AP courses rely on fact memorization and multiple-choice assessments, they bear little resemblance to college courses, which typically focus on higher-order skills such as critical thinking, synthesis, and creative problem solving. Courses at Sidwell Friends share that focus, offering a rigorous academic experience tailored to the needs of an engaged, inquisitive, and diverse student body.

Since its founding, Sidwell Friends has empowered students to be self-motivated, independent learners who pose creative questions in close dialogue with faculty. We encourage our teachers to draw on their expertise and respond directly to the dynamic needs of students. Our mission calls students to use their knowledge to have a positive impact on the world. Standardized curricula stymie our efforts to meet these goals. The perceived value of the AP designation often prevents students from enrolling in courses that may be more closely aligned with their talents or interests. Moreover, the program impedes the School’s ability to consider new scheduling possibilities that could slow the pace of our hectic school day and lead to the creation of even more engaging classes and teaching methods. Several strategic plan committees have commented on the restrictive nature of our daily schedules and academic calendars. Next fall, Bryan Garman will impanel an all-School committee to explore alternative scheduling options.

Moving beyond the AP will allow Sidwell Friends to meet two important goals:

First, our teachers will continue to create programs that offer excellence and relevance in the context of our mission. To that end, our curriculum will deepen its ability to support student needs, enable the development of higher-level skills, and provide space to explore individual interests within disciplines. Much like our history, language, and English teachers, who have long offered engaging upper-level seminars independent of the College Board guidelines for AP courses, science teachers are already designing courses that will capture student interest and prepare them for college and university study. In 2018/19, the department is premiering a new offering in molecular neuroscience, an interdisciplinary course emphasizing independent laboratory research. Chemistry teachers want to move beyond the College Board guidelines to explore foundational topics such as molecular orbital theory and modern valence bond theory in their upper-level classes. The science faculty are eager to replace the survey format of the AP environmental science course with a deeper dive into such pressing issues as climate change, an area of study that allows students to connect their academic pursuits to the Quaker mission of stewardship. Physics teachers, mindful of the complement between higher-level mathematics and physics, would like to explore more advanced topics such as relativity and particle physics in advanced courses.

The removal of the AP designation will not have significant impact on the Math Department, where there is a broad consensus, internally and externally, about the skills and topics that should be taught. The department views the AP calculus and statistics curricula as largely worth retaining, as these courses are consistent with what would be found in a typical college-level introductory course. For students who exhaust calculus, the department will continue to offer linear algebra and independent studies on an ad hoc basis.

In languages, Latin IV and Chinese V will benefit from having additional flexibility. As appropriate, they will focus directly on developing cultural competency and historical understanding, as well as assisting students with improving their speaking and writing skills in the target language. These skills can be enhanced when students participate in the “communicative approach,” which is endorsed by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Language (the guidelines we follow at SFS), rather than using their energy to prepare for a reductive multiple-choice test. The removal of the AP designation from the advanced level of studio art will provide flexibility for that department and allow for a more interdisciplinary approach.

Second, the replacement of AP courses seeks to address, in part, growing concern about student stress, which was identified in data we collected for the strategic plan. The pace of AP courses, which require teachers to “cover” a highly specific and defined amount of material, creates inherent stress for students and teachers alike, and often prohibits deeper levels of conversation and inquiry that our students enjoy and from which they benefit. Moreover, AP exams, which are administered during an intensive two-week period in May, interrupt the academic calendar and amplify the high-stakes testing environment. According to Harvard University’s Making Caring Common (MCC) project, AP exams have served as a bulwark for a culture based on “achievement pressure.” Such a test-based culture, they argue, obviates the joy of learning and is derived largely from the desire to gain admission to the highly selective colleges and universities. MCC’s analysis is compelling:

“While in many communities students lack access to key academic resources and opportunities, such as AP courses, in many middle- and upper-income communities especially, students are overloading on AP courses and extracurricular activities and face fierce pressure to attend high-status colleges. These pressures take a large toll. Rates of depression, delinquency, substance abuse, and anxiety, for example, appear to be considerably higher in these communities than in the general population of adolescents. Research suggests that achievement pressure is a prime culprit (Galloway, Conner, and Pope, 2013; Luthar and Becker, 2002). The intense focus on personal achievement can also crowd out concern for others and the common good.”

To address these challenges, MCC established an important initiative entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions (2016). This groundbreaking report, MCC argues, Marks the first time in history that a broad coalition of college admissions offices have joined forces to collectively encourage high school students to focus on meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement.” In short, it urges colleges and high schools to examine the human costs of achievement pressure and its relationship to college admissions. “The goal of our campaign to reduce achievement pressure is not to reduce rigor,” explains MCC, “but to work with a motivated group of high schools to create a healthier balance between challenging students academically and ensuring that students care for themselves and others.” To that end, MCC recommends that schools “place more value on the quality of students’ academic engagement than on the number of branded or test-driven advanced courses … that they take.” Students in especially competitive schools, MCC argues, “feel compelled to take more advanced courses than they can reasonably handle,” and schools “should take steps to reduce the pressure on students” by limiting or “eliminat[ing] AP courses altogether.” Because the goals of MCC overlap with our own, we have joined the Turning the Tide project.

Sidwell Friends’ strategic plan compels us to “embrace the Quaker tenet of simplicity to develop programs, practices, and expectations that support the health and wellness of the community and encourage students, teachers, and staff members to lead thoughtful, centered, and balanced lives.” Replacing AP courses will not achieve this goal alone. But it is a meaningful step that, we hope, will continue parent, student, and School dialogue about how we can reduce student stress to healthy levels.