A week ago, eight elite private high schools in the Washington area announced that they were dropping out of the Advanced Placement program. The schools said that they could design advanced courses that would be better for their students.
The move shocked many in college admissions. After all, it has become conventional wisdom that high school students need to take as many AP courses as possible to impress admissions committees. A statement the schools issued said that AP has become so popular that it is no longer "noteworthy." Further, "we have been assured by admissions officers that this change will have no adverse impact on our students. The real question for colleges is not whether applicants have taken AP courses, but whether they have availed themselves of their high schools’ most demanding classes."
Do admissions experts agree?
Inside Higher Ed reached out to admissions deans and other experts to get their take on the challenges raised by the private schools' statement. Most agreed that the students at Sidwell Friends, St. Albans and the other private schools that make this move don't need to worry. Their schools are so well-known that colleges will assume the new advanced courses being created will have rigor and depth. A lack of AP courses on those students' transcripts probably won't make a difference. But leave the rarefied environment of elite private high schools, they said, and the situation may be different.
Robert J. Massa, senior vice president for enrollment and institutional planning at Drew University, said via email that AP courses are seen by admissions officers as rigorous, "but those courses certainly do not have the monopoly on rigor."
The Washington-area private schools that are dropping AP will be fine without it, Massa said. But high schools that don't have national reputations "will need to take great care in their profile statements to explain their honors curriculum and the depth of content explored in those courses. That would help college admissions officers in their effort to judge the quality of the student’s course choices, and would go a long way to assuring that those students are not disadvantaged in the process."
Stephen Pultz, assistant vice president for enrollment at the University of San Diego, said that his colleagues find AP courses helpful in evaluating candidates. But he said honors and International Baccalaureate courses can be equally helpful. He agreed with Massa that the challenge without AP or IB will be for those students at "unfamiliar schools" where individual courses "will be more difficult to assess."
Seth Allen, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College, said his college and similar institutions "evaluate students in their own context" by looking at "what is available." There is no "national standard such as a certain number of AP classes" that students should take.
While AP "is considered rigorous," so are many non-AP courses, he said. What matters is students taking some of the most rigorous courses offered.
The advantage of AP, he said, is that colleges have a sense of what it means. Schools that want to offer alternatives need to be sure they explain how rigorous the courses are. "AP still works for many schools where it might be hard to know how rigorous the curriculum is without the AP designation," Allen said.
W. Kent Barnds, executive vice president for external relations, advancement, communication and enrollment at Augustana College, in Illinois, said he saw the Washington private schools' move as a reaction to students "accumulating AP courses like they are trophies."
But he stressed that most high schools aren't like those. He said that there were "countless high schools across the country that need to offer AP courses to ensure rigor."
One admissions leader -- not one who is a fan of the College Board or standardized testing -- was in part critical of the private schools for the way they are dropping AP. Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University, said he has heard AP teachers make similar criticisms to those offered by the private schools. So he said he understood the motivation to change, and respected high schools "making decisions that they view as educationally and developmentally sound on behalf of the students they serve."
But he said he was bothered by the private schools saying that they were moving away from AP in part because it has become "less noteworthy" to admissions officers. That attitude, Boeckenstedt said, "seems to reinforce the never-ending quest in competitive high schools to be advantaged against their competitors. It seems oddly out of place when a lot of the discussion focuses on reducing tension and stress among students." (An Inside Higher Ed blogger, Matt Reed, also took note of the elitist perspective in the private schools' announcement.)
Sally Rubenstone, formerly an admissions counselor at Smith College and now the "Ask the Dean" columnist for College Confidential, said via email that she saw the private high schools' move as a positive step, including for those at high schools that aren't famous.
"I’m not a fan of the AP arms race and of the mounting pressure on college-bound students (especially those aiming for the most hypercompetitive institutions) to elect an AP-laden course load, often in lieu of exploring genuine interests like sociology or serigraphy," she said. "So I was pleased to read about the snazzy Washington schools that have bailed out of the AP program, and yet I am not -- perhaps surprisingly -- in favor of all high schools following suit …
"Getting rid of AP in every high school seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sure, there are problems with establishing uniformity in AP classes, and just because a class is labeled AP doesn’t guarantee that it meets the standard that the College Board and college admission officials expect. But, even so, at least aiming for this universally recognized standard can be a plus to students who hail from high schools where elite-college applications aren’t commonplace."
Rubenstone also said that some high schools outside the elite private group can consider changes like those of the eight in Washington. "I feel that any high school with a history of sending applicants to elite colleges doesn’t need the seal of approval that a top AP exam score can provide. Admission officials, especially at the most selective colleges and universities, keep copious records. Regional reps from these colleges familiarize themselves with the schools on their turf and are generally adept at discerning which students are truly standouts."
Matthew J. DeGreeff, dean of college counseling and student enrichment at Middlesex, a private school in Massachusetts, said via email that he has noticed some schools that officially drop out of AP continue to have students take the exams. Some view the exams as easier or more convenient that SAT Subject Tests. Others may be international students who want to use scores to apply to universities outside the U.S.
So he cautioned that AP is not only not disappearing nationally (where its popularity is growing), but may not disappear from the experience of some students at the eight schools.
He said Middlesex students have benefited from AP, but that he also offered praise for the leaders of the schools leaving the program.
"I think the reasons the D.C. schools are dropping the AP curriculum are valid, and I do not want you to think that I am questioning the integrity of their process and the reasons for doing it," he said. "There are many good reasons to tailor the curriculum to the emotional, intellectual and cultural well-being of the students in your school."