One of the nation's leading private K-12 schools, the Univer-sity of Chicago Laboratory Schools, seems poised to renounce—at least in part—the curriculum most colleges and universities look for on their applicant's transcripts: the Advanced Placement program. The school is a magnet for the children of the university's faculty; the daughters of Michelle and Barack Obama are Lab Schools students. The school believes its students might benefit more from a different history and science curriculum, one that teachers say puts less emphasis on memorization and test preparation.
But college admission officers consider the AP program to be one of the best indicators of whether students are prepared for college-level coursework. The question that high schools debating whether to stay with AP face is how to offer the most engaging experience they can while convincing admissions offices their curriculum is academically rigorous.
The AP program, run by the College Board, offers 37 courses and exams that cover 22 subjects, from environmental science to music theory. (U.S. News uses schools' AP data as part of the America's Best High Schools rankings.) Students who score high enough on the tests can earn college credit. The College Board says it saw 179 private schools join the program last year, including some independent schools that don't have established reputations with college admissions officers. "The burden of proof is on the school to prove to the university that there is incredible rigor in their courses," says Trevor Packer, the vice president of AP exams. But the board acknowledges that some schools have dropped some of their AP offerings. Bruce Hammond, who runs ExcellenceWithoutAP.org, says about 60 schools, most of them small and privately run, have partially or entirely abandoned the AP curriculum.
At the Lab Schools, the debate heated up late last spring when Tom Stanley-Becker, then a junior taking Advanced Placement U.S. history, declared himself an "AP Dropout" in a Los Angeles Times op-ed column. Stanley-Becker opted to pursue independent research while classmates crammed for the history exam. "The problem with the AP program is that we don't have time to really learn U.S. history because we're preparing for the exam," he wrote. (Packer disagrees with this often-cited complaint. "We would never encourage schools to spend time on drills for the exams," he says.)
Stanley-Becker's column elicited passionate responses, including this one from a high school student in California: "For students in a socioeconomically depressed school like mine, AP classes are the leg up we need to get into places like UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Stanford, and Harvard."
Defining success. Ted O'Neill, dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Chicago, says his office doesn't penalize students from schools that offer few or no Advanced Placement courses. "Success in the exam doesn't mean success as a thinker or success as a future student," he says. Debra Shaver, director of admission at Smith College, understands the frustrations of some AP teachers, but she says that "you may be doing students a disservice by dropping the AP program, if you are not a Scarsdale or Exeter," citing two schools known for excellence.
Erin Duffy, who oversees the high school at the Seacrest Country Day School in Naples, Fla., knows the challenges of convincing colleges of the rigor of a non-AP curriculum. Her school teaches a few AP courses in science and mathematics but none in history or literature. Fearing that her students wouldn't get a fair shake, Duffy hand-delivered many of her students' applications so she could explain to the colleges why the school dropped AP.
Stanley-Becker, the AP dropout, says he's not out to make converts. "I know that for some public schools, the AP program is a good thing, that it creates a level playing field for them to compete," he says. "I just think that the best teachers should be given the freedom to teach their own courses, especially at a school like mine."