Mercersburg Academy Announces Plan to Move Beyond AP

Monday, October 21, 2019

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.  Academic departments will decide which “Advanced Studies” courses will align with the AP curriculum, and students will have the opportunity to sit for the corresponding AP exams. But moving beyond the AP designation will allow us to create advanced courses that the College Board does not offer. Examples could be Advanced Studies in Robotics or Advanced Studies in Western Philosophy, which colleges would regard as high level courses, equivalent to the AP.

“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 reimagining 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.

Read more about this announcement, including a document with frequently asked questions about the announcement and a piece from Bennett.