Mercersburg Academy Announces Plan to Move Beyond Advanced Placement 

Mercersburg Academy is taking steps to move beyond the Advanced Placement (AP) designation. This decision, which has been vetted and researched by faculty and administrators over the past two years, has been carefully calibrated to encourage innovation, rigor, and additional time in the school’s academic schedule to explore creativity and depth of topics both in and out of the classroom. 

The academic team has recommended that Mercersburg move beyond the designation in 2020-2021 to allow innovation within courses across the curriculum. Not all classes will be radically different, and many faculty members may choose to keep their same course structure, but will have more liberties in their courses by not teaching specifically for an exam. 

Mercersburg will replace current AP course titles with a new designation: “Advanced Studies in…” For example, a course formerly titled “AP Chemistry” will become "Advanced Studies in Chemistry," designating it as the highest level of that subject offered at Mercersburg Academy. AP exams will still be offered, and students who are successful in “Advanced Studies in…” classes will be prepared for the AP test should they choose to take it.

“This decision provides our talented faculty with maximum flexibility to build new and innovative courses that will better serve current and future Mercersburg students,” said Head of School Katie Titus. “While in some cases, courses will look similar to the current AP classes, this is about more than just reimaging today’s curriculum — it's about reimagining education to ensure we are preparing our students for a complex, changing world."

According to John David Bennett, dean of curricular innovation, the move away from AP will create the room and flexibility for innovation in the classroom. 

“We want to innovate, and moving away from Advanced Placement isn’t an innovation in and of itself,” says Bennett. “In order to match the demands of the 21st century, we have to adapt so the students will benefit from having a curriculum that prioritizes creativity, curiosity, and the audacity to become emergent leaders.” 

“Students can expect more opportunities for experiential learning, including travel—to be incorporated into the classes, such as getting off campus for field experiences that are otherwise hard to find time to do,” says Jennifer Miller Smith ’97, the school’s dean of academics and a member of the science faculty. “With less time devoted to specific preparation for a year-end exam.”

Introduced in the 1950s, AP classes offer motivated high-school students a chance to take college-level classes to receive college credit, sometimes allowing students to complete their undergraduate degrees early. But many colleges and universities require students to take the course again, even if they’ve taken the AP course and scored well on the AP exam. 

“Students may feel obligated to enroll in AP courses for the sake of their transcript, sacrificing time that could be spent exploring other areas of interest that are just as compelling to prospective colleges,” says Julia Stojak Maurer ’90, associate head of school for school life at Mercersburg.

Mercersburg is not the first college-prep school to make this switch. In recent years, schools across the country have opted to move beyond AP in their advanced courses for the sake of freeing up students to spend focused time on experiential projects, explore new content areas, and conduct field studies to prepare them for college. 

Ultimately, college admission offices want to know that students are challenging themselves at the highest level during their high-school careers.

Mike Conklin, director of college counseling at Mercersburg, says that colleges evaluate a student’s transcript, and the rigor of their curriculum, within the context of the school they attend.

“Through our various conversations with faculty and administrators at secondary schools that have already moved beyond the AP, none reported an adverse impact on college admission,” Conklin says. “In fact, college-admission personnel have consistently affirmed the value of the dynamic learning that takes place in non-AP courses.”

“The question isn’t whether applicants have taken AP courses, but rather if they have taken advantage of their high school’s most challenging courses offered,” Maurer says. “Every college we’ve talked to has indicated that they want to know that students have challenged themselves while they’ve been at Mercersburg.”

Mercersburg Academy is excited about what this will mean for the community as it looks forward to more depth and creativity in the curriculum.

“Moving forward, we can now empower our talented faculty to build new and innovative courses that will better serve current and future Mercersburg students.”

— Head of School Katie Titus

Frequently Asked Questions

John David Bennett

Dean of Curricular Innovation and Director of Springboard

"The school that I’m describing is a sort of playground of ideas that cultivates deep, resilient, useful learning—a school where the proof of a student’s knowledge and mastery isn’t just a test score."

— John David Bennett

A Hopeful, Practical Look at the AP Decision 

Last October, I had a phone call with the director of college counseling at a respected independent school that had dissolved its affiliation with Advanced Placement (AP). Near the end of the call, after the college counselor had gushed for half-an-hour about her school’s decision to move “beyond AP,” I asked her to sum up, in just a few words, the impact of the move. 

“Our kids are happier,” she said, “and the colleges are more impressed by what they’re doing.”

A few months prior to that call, Mercersburg Academy convened an “Advanced Placement Research Group” made up of faculty members from various disciplines, offices, and perspectives. By the end of our research, we’d spoken with 31 schools that had either intentionally kept or removed the AP designation from their curricula.

The information we’d gathered provided a clear conclusion: we could continue with AP or move on without it. Either way, we can still attract students and prepare them well for college admission. 

However, there was a noticeable difference in the conversations I had with the schools that had dropped the AP designation: they were often twice as long because the academic deans and college counselors I spoke with wanted to tell stories about the new richness in their programming and the efficacy that their schools had reclaimed.

Thirteen years ago, Mercersburg hired me to teach AP English Language and Composition. I was thrilled and eager to offer everything I knew about teaching an English course that would also generate high scores; but I soon saw what the kids could learn and experience if we didn’t have to spend almost 40 percent of the waning weeks of the winter term and half of our classes in the spring preparing for the exam. 

Then, in May, when the two weeks of AP exams began, my classes were essentially derailed. At their best, they became a compressed denouement with inconsistent attendance due to students taking other AP exams. In short, to accommodate AP exams, we were losing the bulk of the last month of school.

It’s important to note that I’m not anti-AP. Before I came to Mercersburg, I was an Advanced Placement Lead English Teacher for the Dallas Independent School District; I taught at a public magnet school that has been honored by Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report for its extraordinary dedication to AP success; and I still work with the National Math and Science Initiative, training AP teachers and students in public schools across the country. But I’ve come to understand, especially after our research, that Mercersburg Academy is poised to make a transition, one that appreciates our decades-long relationship with AP but realizes the dynamic future that our faculty and students have the wherewithal to envision and build. 

By moving beyond AP—we’ll have new flexibility and enhanced agility. We can more intentionally prepare our kids for happiness and fulfillment in a world that will continually ask them to be more flexible and agile. And with a clear understanding of our place in the global educational landscape, our work can contribute to the growing knowledge of effective pedagogy and curriculum. 

In the immediate future, some of our highest-level courses won’t change that much, but many will, and when I think of what our students are already producing in MAPS and Springboard, I get giddy imagining what students will create, when the way they learn chemistry, statistics, and the craft of writing directly prepares them for the iterative work in our capstone programs—not for standardized tests. The potential power surge in complex-problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity will boost their resourcefulness, curiosity, and inventiveness so that our kids will immerse themselves in joyful rigor—the sort that inspires them to find the right book, reach out to knowledgable alumni, and get into the lab or out in the field.

The school that I’m describing is a sort of playground of ideas that cultivates deep, resilient, useful learning—a school where the proof of a student’s knowledge and mastery isn’t just a test score. Instead, the proof is in their tangible creations like robots, works of long-form fiction, organized film festivals, beautifully engineered solutions, and enhanced emotional intelligence. We already see these things at Mercersburg. Imagine, then, what we can become with our new flexibility and enhanced agility. Imagine a place where our kids are even “happier and colleges are more impressed by what they’re doing.”