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
The conversation to reconsider Advanced Placement courses has come up in discussions over the past 5-10 years. After researching other schools that had successfully moved beyond AP, the school decided to explore it further. Instead of teaching to a test, teachers can anticipate more flexibility to incorporate field experiences and travel with students, in addition to giving students access to further experiential learning and collaborative projects.
In spring 2018, a research group was formed with teaching faculty and led by John David Bennett, dean of curricular innovation. The group spoke with faculty from 31 independent schools who have either moved beyond or continue to use the AP designation, in addition to college admission officers and college counselors, teaching faculty, and admission officers at Mercersburg.
The goal was not to come up with a recommendation but to gather information.
That information was compiled and presented to the faculty and a poll was taken which showed overwhelming support for moving beyond AP. It was then presented to the department heads and the Academic Policy Committee for a vote.
Bennett and Julie Maurer, associate head of school for school life, presented their information to the Board of Regents and a probable plan to the Alumni Council and White Key Executive Council.
With the overwhelming interest in moving beyond the AP curriculum, in spring 2019, an academic task force was charged with identifying which courses are ripe for innovation and which courses should remain largely unchanged.
The academic team recommended moving beyond the AP designation with initial curricular changes taking effect in the 2020-2021 academic year.
Yes. Advanced classes will be named “Advanced Studies in…”
While Mercersburg is moving beyond AP curriculum, we will still offer AP exams on campus. Students who are successful in “Advanced Studies in…” classes will be prepared for the AP test should they choose to take it.
Students should expect less test prep and more opportunities for experiential learning. In the case of a class that is significantly different from AP, the academic dean’s office will clearly communicate what to expect in each class as students plan their course schedules.
It is abundantly clear through consultations with college admission officers that moving away from the AP designation will not put our students at a disadvantage in the application process.
Based on the interviews that the research group conducted with other schools that have moved beyond the AP designation, no school reported that students had a harder time being accepted into prospective colleges or universities. In most instances, it was the opposite. College-admission personnel have consistently affirmed the value of the dynamic learning that takes place in non-AP courses.
By moving beyond the AP, our students will stand out as individuals based on the quality and originality of the work they’ve done. College counselors will be better positioned to advise and advocate for students on the basis of the substantive, original, and/or independent work that moving beyond the AP allows.
Yes, and in many cases, they will be more prepared for college course work than if a student had taken AP courses.
Faculty members are familiar with the AP curriculum and will ensure that courses meet or exceed AP content and skill development. Mercersburg also receives regular feedback from alumni, who share with them information about their transition to college and the coursework and expectations that they’re encountering in college. The mechanism for this feedback will become formalized so that we can ensure that our courses are of the highest possible quality, as we continually work to improve our academic program across the board.
In a survey of recent graduates, only a handful of students said that they would be able to graduate early because they took AP classes while in high school. Our research tells us that most students are staying in college for the full four years. The number of colleges that give students credit (where they don’t have to go through the college’s entire core curriculum) is decreasing and shifting.
While some colleges use exams for placement, but not credit, to help place students into higher-level classes, it is also becoming increasingly common that colleges actually require students to take the introductory-level classes or core curriculum classes that they offer.
Students will still be able to sit for the AP exam and will be prepared for the exam if they are successful in our “Advanced Studies in...” curriculum. Earning college credit based on AP scores will still be an option, depending on the course and the policies of the college.
Mercersburg will accommodate students who need to take AP exams and plan ahead so they can sit for the exams.
Mercersburg will continue to challenge our students in the classroom, and consider ways to make process a larger component of our courses. Instead of spending time memorizing content and practicing multiple-choice questions for an exam, Mercersburg will define rigor by helping students develop the capacity to engage with complex, ambiguous, and challenging material. By reimagining a more deliberate pacing of the school year, Mercersburg will encourage purposeful iterative work and design class days where instruction, collaboration, and independent learning are woven together to build student efficacy.
New courses will be vetted by department heads and other members of the academic team on a yearly basis.
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.”