In August, the College Board announced a new website designed to complement Advanced Placement courses. “AP Classroom” offers standardized yearlong curricular sequences, divided into nine units. These sequences create cookie-cutter course structures to prepare students for the paid exams taken to earn college credit.
AP classes will also feature another change this year: Students must buy exams in November instead of March, and there’s a new $40 cancellation fee. These combined changes will raise the stakes for students, increasing already intense pressure, and push teachers to turn their courses — purportedly college equivalents — into glorified test prep.
These changes represent a perversion of the program’s original mission of fostering creative and critical thinking. Although the program has laudably emphasized expanding access to AP courses, it must now devise a method for retaining these gains while returning to this original vision of AP classes. Doing so would empower teachers to make classes more meaningful, enlivening and enhancing the benefits of secondary education.
The AP program initially developed out of concern that an overly rigid high school system wasn’t serving students well, particularly the best and brightest (and most privileged) students.
In October 1951, the Phillips Bulletin reported to Andover alumni that the school’s faculty was engaged in a study designed to examine the relationship between high school and college curricula. The bulletin cited “national emergencies” — most especially the Korean War with its attendant military conscription — as the genesis behind this idea, with a goal of helping “able and ambitious boys to make the best possible use of their brief years of liberal education before military service.”
After an assessment of Andover’s curriculum, Headmaster John Kemper, embodying what the Bulletin described as a belief “that creative, pioneering leadership is part of Andover’s obligation to national education,” appealed to the Ford Foundation for funding to study curricular continuity between three prep schools — Andover, Exeter and Lawrenceville — and three Ivy League Universities — Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
In 1952, regular meetings of six educators, one from each of these schools, resulted in a report titled “General Education in School and College.” This intellectual foundation of the AP program was infused with the spirits of both patriotism and noblesse oblige. A Boston newspaper celebrated the report’s commitment to “breaking American education out of lockstep.”
When Alan Blackmer, the committee chair, retired from Andover in 1968, the school newspaper provided a glimpse inside the committee’s meetings: “The six men met in exhaustive hearings, attempting to find a way to integrate high school and college education on a national basis, without having to standardize it.”
No one knows for sure why this was the goal. It might have had to do with deference to regional differences on issues like race in this moment before civil-rights reforms. Or it might have had to do with rejecting the conformity insisted upon by communism and authoritarianism.
Whatever the reason, this principle ran deep and shaped the final product. Above all else, this foundation meant skepticism toward an external examination system and resistance to imposing dogma on teachers — which one committee member described as “wrong” in a later speech.
According to committee member McGeorge Bundy, future national security adviser to both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the committee was deeply inspired by Alfred North Whitehead’s “Aims of Education,” a book with a blunt take on exams: “A common external examination system is fatal to education.”
A second committee member, Henry Bragdon, expanded on the dangers of external examinations in a 1968 essay on “uses and abuses” of history tests: “External tests … too often dictate method and content. Fearing for their students and for their own reputations, teachers tend to teach for the examinations.” More than 30 years of teaching had convinced Bragdon “that the best way to prepare for external tests is to ignore them.”
These rebukes against forced conformity and edicts handed down from on high were, in part, a byproduct of the era in which these men worked. Fears abounded over totalitarian government and communism. The men were committed to empowering the next generation to move forward democratically, with both individuality and compassion.
The Blackmer committee was not the sole impetus behind the AP program. A year after they started meeting, another group of educators led by Kenyon College President Keith Chalmers and William Cornog, a public school administrator, reached a similar consensus about the need to provide bright students with a more robust and creative education. Unlike the Blackmer committee, this group’s project was national in scope, and so they were better positioned to work with the College Entrance Examination Board and the relatively new Educational Testing Service to facilitate communication between schools and colleges.
Their effort led to a pilot program at an expansive group of innovative, reputable schools. Despite the Blackmer committee’s opposition to testing, it was an element of this pilot program. Cornog was hopeful that exams devised and scored by faculty at the nation’s most prestigious institutions would set high standards and stimulate more expansive thinking.
By 1954, 12 elite private colleges (most of which have since implemented more restrictive policies) had agreed to recognize exam results as “evidence of accomplishment.”
But testing was never intended to be the only metric for providing such evidence: Candidates for advanced standing in history, for example, were initially assessed on the basis of a descriptive form submitted by their school rather than a standardized exam.
And these early exams were something very different from what exists today. The first set of English composition exams, for example, were to be three hourlong essays, with a “marked variety of topic and treatment.” Exemplary topics included “torments and rewards of mathematics, locomotives, lawn mowers, weather, jewels, stars.” Irreverent and broad-minded, the exams were far more reflective of the ideas articulated by the educators who helped develop the program.
Over the following six decades, the program slowly evolved away from the original plans — fitting with broader patterns as education reformers and policymakers have embraced standardized testing — in an attempt to make AP tests fairer and more equitable to all students. During the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the AP U.S. History exam was revised to include a new balance of multiple choice and essay questions after the College Board discovered that boys and girls performed differently on the tasks. The company again recalibrated when it discovered disparities in scores on different question types along racial lines.
Recently, the program has garnered both praise and criticism for extending access to those beyond the elitist class of purportedly gifted students for whom it was originally intended. While expanding access is laudable — more than 40% of last year’s graduating seniors had taken at least one exam — stultifying rigidity cannot and should not be the cost. The program’s original architects understood that the key to providing genuine intellectual exploration and development was creativity and flexibility for teachers — something enjoyed in the college classroom that AP classes aim to mimic. The original committees saw their mission as essential to cultivating an empowered, humane, inventive citizenry, and today’s AP program, with its overemphasis on testing, is fundamentally antithetical to it.
Annie Abrams teaches and writes in New York. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.