You probably imagine the AP exam program as one of the mysterious primordial forces of the galaxy, along with gravity and taxes. But, in actuality, the AP program is only about 60 years old. From its unabashedly elitist beginnings to its present attempts to democratize advanced high school coursework, read on to discover a brief history of AP classes and exams, some current AP controversies, and some thoughts on the program’s future.
History of the AP Program
The story of the AP program begins in the 1950s. In the midst of the Cold War, American policymakers began to fear that high school was not adequately preparing students for college and post-graduate study--and students with advanced training were viewed as an essential part of the American triumph over the Soviet Union. In response to the need to better integrate secondary and university education, the Ford Foundation created the Fund for the Advancement of Education (FAE) in 1951.
One of FAE’s initial investigations involved examining the records of graduates of elite prep schools--Lawrenceville, Exeter, and Andover--who were seniors at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. They found that most students were taking entry-level coursework in their freshman year at college that merely repeated things they had already learned in high school. The final report suggested that more advanced high school students be allowed “advanced placement” in college coursework based on exam results.
Meanwhile, a parallel FAE project worked on developing universal introductory college-level curricula for implementation in high schools. Both studies together led to a pilot program with 27 schools administering the first AP tests in 1954. After the strong performance of the test-takers as compared to college freshman who had taken introductory university coursework, ten AP exams were rolled out nationally in 1956: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English Composition, Literature, French, German, Spanish, and Latin.
Management of the AP program was passed off to the College Board in 1955. In the early days, no exams were longer than three hours and students could take any number of exams for a $10 fee. From the beginning, students received scores from 1 to 5, as they do today.
The 1960s saw the beginning of an increased focus on teacher training and exam grading standardization to increase overall program consistency. Subsequent decades have seen both a huge expansion in the number of students taking exams and in the number of different exams offered. Many exam and program revisions have also taken place amid concerns that the program is biased towards students of a higher socioeconomic status.
Over the years, the price of each exam has risen dramatically. In 2015, each exam cost $91. Financial aid was available for a $26-28 discount, but this still leaves the cost at over $60 per exam.
There are currently 37 courses, and over 2 million students took over 4 million AP exams in 2014. There are about 16 million high school students (of all grades) in the country, which means that one in eight, or about 12%, took at least one AP exam last year.
For more on the history of the AP, see this in-depth article by history teacher Eric Rothschild.
In the 1960s the AP Program expanded, and Buzz Aldrin prepared to go to the moon.
For all that AP exams have become a key marker in high school coursework rigor and an integral part of the high-school-to-college transition, the history of AP classes is not without its issues and controversies. There are four main issues with the AP program currently under debate in the national discourse on education.
The Program Is Biased Towards the Privileged
In spite of the College Board’s attempts to make the exam fair for all and somewhat standardize curricula, the fact remains that the AP program is most successful at schools with more resources. These schools can afford the best teachers, smaller class sizes, newer textbooks, and better technology, all of which contribute to preparing students for AP exams. This means that students at less well-resourced public schools often do not receive adequate preparation for the exam, even if their schools offer AP courses. In this sense, the AP program does little to address real education inequity and may even perpetuate it. Even the cost of the exam is prohibitive to low-income students--with financial aid, each exam is still over $60.
The Too-Rapid Expansion of the AP Program
A similar concern is that the rapid expansion of the AP program has set many students up to fail on their exams. Some have argued that the College Board pushes APs into low-income schools and promotes opening AP courses to all students (not just honors-level ones) too rapidly. Then, it’s argued, they don’t provide adequate support or resources in making sure schools can actually prepare students for the exams. This just leads to many students wasting money taking exams they are likely to fail.
The Coursework Is Not College-Level
Another common complaint is that AP coursework is not an adequate substitute for introductory college coursework. There are concerns that AP classes skim too much material too quickly, preventing students from developing in-depth knowledge or true understanding of the subject. This leads to students being unprepared for advanced-level coursework when they use their AP coursework to skip introductory classes.
Some Schools Are Dropping the AP Program
Some schools, most notably the University of Chicago Lab School, are dropping AP courses from their offerings amid concerns that the courses prevent teachers and students from truly rewarding, in-depth academic inquiry of subjects. Of course, others have pointed out that it’s really only prestigious high schools that can afford to drop AP classes since, for many schools, AP coursework is the primary marker of academic rigor on student college applications. In that sense, it’s unlikely that there will be a mass exodus away from the AP program anytime soon.
Only fancy schools can drop their AP courses for other advanced coursework.
The Future of the AP Program
There are, in general, two major movements within the AP program to address some of these concerns: revising courses and introducing new courses.
A huge number of AP Courses have been recently revised or are in the process of revision. Of course, each course is different, but there have been some general themes to the changes. One major aim is to reduce the content scope of many of the courses so that students can get more mastery over a narrower span of subject matter. Another major change is to focus more on critical thinking and analysis skills--an example of this change is the focus on analyzing sources on the revised history exams. The hope is that by teaching more skills and less content for rote memorization, students will gain more concrete academic competencies from AP courses that they can carry forward into college.
Introducing New Courses and Programs
Another change has been to introduce some new courses, like AP Computer Science Principles. The most notable addition, however, is the AP Capstone program, which is designed to compete with IB. To get an AP Capstone diploma, students need to take one year of the new AP Seminar course followed by one year of the new AP Research course, in addition to four other AP courses. Students need to score a 3 or better on all exams/courses to get the AP Capstone diploma. AP Seminar and AP Research are designed to much more closely mimic the feel of a small college seminar class, with an interdisciplinary focus and lots of extended individual inquiry. The AP Capstone program aims both to better prepare students for college coursework and to bring more cohesion to the AP program in general.
Will future AP exams be proctored by robots?
Key Points in the History of AP Exams and Courses
The AP Program started as a pilot program in the 50s, amid concerns that students in high school were not being adequately prepared for advanced coursework and college and graduate education. From its small beginnings, the AP Program has become a giant, with over 2 million students taking AP exams in 2014.
However, the program isn’t without its critics. There are concerns that the program perpetuates education inequity, that it has expanded too rapidly to prepare schools or students for the coursework, and that the coursework is not college-level. Some elite high schools have even dropped their AP programs.
In response to some of these issues, the College Board is in the midst of an extensive revision process that has narrowed the content scope of many courses and placed an increased focus on academic skills and critical thinking. They have also introduced the AP Capstone program, an AP diploma program designed to create a more cohesive AP experience.
In spite of its issues, it doesn’t seem like the AP program is going anywhere anytime soon. It continues to be one of the primary markers of rigor on a student’s high school transcript. But it will be interesting to see what the future holds!
Wondering about the new AP Capstone program described in this article? See our guides to AP Seminar, AP Research, the AP Capstone program, and which schools are currently participating the AP Capstone program.
If you’re looking for more information about the AP program, see our articles on whether or not the College Board is mismanaging the AP program and five problems with the AP program.
Curious about the IB program, too? See our introduction to the IB program.
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.