From modest beginnings in 1955, the Advanced Placement Program has grown to be the premier program in this country for promoting academic excellence in high school. Designed to develop rigorous, college-level course curricula and assessments for high school students, the AP Program currently serves to set standards for work in 34 courses, and is active in teacher training and professional development.
The 1950s -- A Pilot Program Is Born
The roots of the AP Program can be found in ideas that emerged in the early 1950s about improving the American education. The Ford Foundation spearheaded efforts to find ways to give young Americans an educational edge. In 1951, the Foundation's Fund for the Advancement of Education sponsored two parallel studies, both of which came to the conclusion that secondary schools and colleges could and should work together to avoid repetition in course work at the high school and college levels and allow motivated students to work at the height of their capabilities and advance as quickly as possible.
In May 1951, a group of educators from three elite prep schools -- Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville -- and three of the country's most prestigious colleges -- Harvard, Princeton, and Yale -- met at Andover to discuss the best use of the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. Led by English teacher Alan R. Blackmer of Andover, the committee published a final report, General Education in School and College, through Harvard University Press in 1952. The report urged schools and colleges to work together as part of a continuous process, to see themselves as "two halve of a common enterprise." It recommended that secondary schools recruit imaginative teachers, that they encourage seniors to engage in independent study and college-level work, and that achievement exams be used to allow students to enter college with advanced standing.
At the same time, the Kenyon Plan was being formulated by a committee of representatives from 12 colleges and 12 secondary schools organized by Kenyon College President Gordon Keith Chalmers. This Committee on Admission with Advanced Standing called for developing college-level curricula and standards that could be instituted at the highschool level. With support from the Fund for the Advancement of Education, the Committee then followed the recommendations of both studies and recruited leaders in every discipline from the ranks of higher education. They took on the challenge of developing high school course descriptions and assessments that the 12 colleges would find rigorous enough to use as a basis for granting credit. In 1952, they launched a pilot program involving 7 schools and introducing advanced courses in 11 initial subjects.
The College Board Runs with the Ball
By the 1955-56 school year, the pilot program was underway in 27 schools and had shown its merit through successful results on the first examinations, which were administered by ETS in 1954. At this point, the College Board was invited to step in and take over administration of the program. Williams College history professor Charles R. Keller took the helm as the first director of what was dubbed the College Board's Advanced Placement Program.
Keller, a passionate advocate, was instrumental in convincing colleges of the program's strengths: he emphasized the soundness of the course descriptions and the stringency of the exams, the majority of which are in essay form. By 1961, Harvard president James B. Conant had also become an advocate of the program, arguing that AP was a sign of real improvement in the United States educational system. The program began receiving resources and support from the Education Commissioner of New York and other states while more and more colleges began giving credit for AP Exam grades of 3 or better and more high schools began adopting the courses. Jack Arbolino continued Keller's good work as director of the AP Program from 1958 until 1965, when Harlan P. Hanson, another Williams College professor, took over the directorship. During Hanson's 25-year tenure, the program grew exponentially.
Invigorating the Profession
During the 1960s, the College Board began a long-term commitment to teacher training by holding workshops for AP faculty consultants and Summer Institutes for teachers. Secondary-school teachers began to feel that AP courses were revitalizing their careers. As AP teacher William Snyder said, "It has rejuvenated my entire teaching career. Anything you've been doing for a while gets stale. AP provides another path, a different avenue filled with adventure. For a teacher, it's like beginning again."
By the 1990s, the College Board began expanding on the goals of the AP Program by introducing Pre-AP programs, including AP Vertical Teams and Building Success workshops for teachers, in an effort to help students gain the necessary learning skills, even before high school, to take on advanced studies. Vertical Teams gather together teachers from different grade levels to develop and implement a sequential curriculum in a given discipline.
As times and academic disciplines have grown and changed, so have AP course offerings, with new courses and exams appearing every few years. The AP Computer Science course was developed as early as 1984; in 1998 Environmental Science made an appearance; and, as of this academic year, the AP Program will offer 34 courses.
Expanding the Scope of the Program
The College Board became aware early on that minorities and less-privileged students were underrepresented in participation in AP, and began outreach efforts to include schools and students within low-income communities. In 1965, the Board held workshops at the Hampton Institute in Virginia to foster AP courses in that region while also developing televised AP courses in American history and calculus for the New York City area. By 2002, minority participation in AP rose to 31 percent. Recent initiatives have included the AP Incentive Program, which provides exam fee subsidies to low-income students and supports state initiatives expanding access to AP; the AP Fellows Program, which funds participation of teachers from minority and/or economically disadvantaged communities in AP Summer Institutes; and a partnership with the New York State United Teachers to increase access to AP courses offered in New York public schools and provide teacher training.
Inspiring Students to Learn
The most important achievement of the AP Program is that it seems to inspire students to learn. Students throughout the United States have found AP courses stimulating, a challenge, and a catalyst. In 1998, the number of AP Exams taken by students worldwide exceeded one million and, in 2002, over 1.58 million exams were taken by 938,000 students. As Anne Shih, who took AP Chemistry, English Language and Literature, Economics: Macro, and Government & Politics: U.S, says "AP classes provided the opportunity for me, and students nationwide, to reach beyond mere requirements and truly receive the best education high school in America has to offer."
The 1988 film Stand and Deliver illustrated the real-life story of the power of one teacher, Jaime Escalante, and a challenging AP curriculum to motivate Latino students at Garfield High in East Los Angeles to excel academically. In 1981, 18 students at Garfield High took and passed the AP Calculus Exam. By 1987, through the encouragement of their teachers, 155 students at Garfield High were taking the exam each year.
AP continues to strive for, and to meet, the goal that got the program started in the 1950s -- excellence in education. A recent assessment by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that AP students who scored 3 or higher on Physics and Calculus AP Exams outperformed other physics and advanced math students from both the United States and abroad. As Eric Rothschild wrote in his history of the AP Program, "...the next commission that comes down the pike will call for a standard of excellence that continues to keep America the greatest nation in the world. It's here; it's AP."