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Eight elite private high schools in the Washington area this morning announced that they are dropping out of the Advanced Placement program.

In a joint statement, they said that they were responding to "the diminished utility of AP courses and the desirability of developing our own advanced courses that more effectively address our students’ needs and interests. Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty. We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning."

The high schools making the announcement are institutions known for educating the children of the powerful of Washington. The schools are Georgetown Day, Holton-Arms, Landon, Maret, National Cathedral, Potomac, St. Albans and Sidwell Friends.

The joint statement says that the schools will phase out AP courses by 2022.

To be sure, these schools are not the first to criticize the AP program. Essays and studies have done that already. In addition, as more states have pushed for the expansion of AP programs in high schools, some have noted high failure rates in schools with limited resources, and have questioned whether high schools with serious education challenges should be focusing money and attention on AP. If educators at public high schools share the concerns of the Washington private schools, some are likely to note that they lack the resources to create the kinds of advanced courses that private schools can offer. Others at public high schools have said that the AP framework, whatever its flaws, encourages high schools to provide demanding courses for top students.

Despite various criticisms, students at competitive high schools flock to AP courses. A record 1.17 million students in the high school Class of 2017 took at least one AP course.

Does AP Really Work?

The AP program, the Washington private high schools say, was started with the goal of helping students finish college early, and yet few students do so.

Many high school students believe, the statement says, that they must take as many AP courses as possible in high school to be competitive for college admissions. So the high schools did a survey of 150 colleges and found that taking AP courses has become so popular that doing so 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."

Further, the high schools argue that they can -- by creating their own advanced courses -- provide a better education than by relying on AP.

"The perception that colleges demand AP courses leads many students, perhaps reluctantly, to pass up other classes they might find more intellectually transformative and rewarding," the statement says. "Concurrently, because AP tests loom so large, faculty teaching these courses often feel pressed to sacrifice in-depth inquiry in order to cover all the material likely to be included on the test. This runs counter to the fact that college courses demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis. AP courses, by contrast, often stress speed of assimilation and memorization. While we acknowledge the recent attempts to develop more skill-based AP tests, we are convinced that focusing on a timed standardized test does not promote inquiry or higher-level discussion among students. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer a wider variety of courses that are more rigorous and enriching, provide opportunities for authentic engagement with the world, and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests."

A spokesman for the College Board provided this statement on the schools' decision: “Over the past decade, the students at just these D.C.-area independent schools have earned more than 39,000 credit hours at the colleges to which they sent their AP scores. That equates to nearly $59 million in tuition savings at highly selective colleges, not to mention the head start these students received in their majors -- particularly in STEM disciplines. At a time when the placement, credit and admission benefits of AP have never been greater, it’s surprising that these schools would choose to deny their students these advantages.”

Susanna A. Jones, head of school at Holton-Arms, said via email that educators there "have been thinking about the efficacy of APs for almost 10 years."

She said that the college curricula at institutions her graduates attend have changed such that students need "courses that emphasize depth over breadth, critical thinking, research, and interdisciplinary and experiential approaches."

Jones said it was true that one or more of the high schools could have acted independently. But she said that "when we realized that we were all interested in taking this important step because we believe it is what will serve our students best, we immediately recognized the power of collective action. Together, our decision carries more weight as we add our voices to the national discussion of this issue; it also may assuage parental concerns about the impact of the change."

Holton-Arms and the other schools reached out to parents just prior to going public with the plan to drop AP. Jones said that school profiles to be sent to colleges "will include information about our advanced curricula and students’ transcripts will reflect the rigor of their coursework. We conducted our own survey of admissions offices and have been assured that this change will have no adverse impact on our students’ admissions prospects."

While many students have assumed AP is the best college preparation, Jones said that these schools are committed to providing a better educational experience. "As independent schools, we have the freedom to create our own curriculum," she said. "We aim to do much more than get students into college; we want them to thrive in college and find success thereafter."

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